Salt Whisky Bar & Dining Room 82 Seymour Street, London W2

It doesn't serve the best Italian food in Britain, but with its 'simpatico' staff, 'hygge' menu and 'gemütlich' atmosphere, Salt is the flavour of the month
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Most cultures have a word for it. It's a sort of warmth, a friendliness, a slow melting of the inner, icy core. The Danes call it hygge (pronounced hooga, sort of) and describe it as a sense of wellbeing - even the sex shops in Copenhagen have hygge. The Germans call it gemütlich. In Italian, the word simpatico best describes an ambience ultimately sympathetic to the human spirit.

Most cultures have a word for it. It's a sort of warmth, a friendliness, a slow melting of the inner, icy core. The Danes call it hygge (pronounced hooga, sort of) and describe it as a sense of wellbeing - even the sex shops in Copenhagen have hygge. The Germans call it gemütlich. In Italian, the word simpatico best describes an ambience ultimately sympathetic to the human spirit.

The best I can come up with in English, and it's a poor best indeed, is the feel-good factor. When you spend most of your waking and part of your sleeping life in restaurants, you become preternaturally alert to the atmosphere around you, picking up clues as to its petty tensions and small charms. Every now and then you find yourself feeling good - about the place, the food, the people, the sense of value, the whole darn thing. You can't buy the feel-good factor because it comes from - what? Everything, really.

Having Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King on the floor and über-designer David Collins on the payroll is no guarantee of anyone but them feeling good. In fact, increasingly, the big-budget restaurants of London are becoming palaces of nervous tension.

So here I am at Salt, an unlikely combination of downstairs whisky bar and upstairs Italian restaurant at the start of the Edgware Road, where I have no reason to expect a particularly high feel-good factor - without consuming large amounts of whisky first.

But there is a greeting at the door, a sweeping up the stairs, a whisking-off of coats and a small but comfortable table in a white wedding-cake wedge of a corner-room.

It is the kind of modern Italian dining-room you could come across in Milan or Rome, where style comes more from what isn't here than what is. It's bare and spare, the solid wenge-wood tables and polished floorboards warming up the cool white walls and white-shaded windows. No art, no cloths, no carpet, just a mirror that reflects gleaming fishbowl wine glasses and darkly dressed Italian staff moving among the tables carrying dramatically long, horned Paolo Pagani peppermills.

The menu itself is Italian good-mood food, from Roman-born chef Alan Marchetti who previously cooked at Il Duca. Part casalinga, part restaurant refinery, it's a likeable mix that runs from unpretentious offerings such as chickpea, chestnut and rosemary soup and braised lamb shank with porcini mushrooms, to fancier options of swordfish carpaccio with pomegranate and a whole seabass baked in a salt crust.

From a swathe of daily specials, recited with infectious enthusiasm by Mario the waiter, I go for clams and mussels, served in their shells in a homespun, stewy sauce of tomato, white wine and a touch of chilli (£11). It's just the sort of thing you feel like eating on a cold night, with a glass of flinty, honest Sicilian Borgo Seleno Bianco (£4.50) to hand.

More mannered is a tumble of warm, chargrilled courgette, peppers and aubergine (£6) congregating around a ball of buffalo mozzarella. It needs a dressing, and tastes a lot better with the saucer of olive oil and balsamic meant for the bread drizzled over the top.

A succinct, carefully picked Italocentric wine list runs up to a powerful 1997 Cassiano Colombaio Brunello di Montalcino at £95, but for £24, a solid, sound Serego Alighieri Possessioni Rosso 2001 is more hygge/ gemütlich/ simpatico.

Fegato alla Veneziana (£14), again from the daily specials, is a huge platter of trimmed slabs of calves' liver, crusty out and pink within, with some rounds of bland polenta, a good splash of meaty jus and a slab of cheesy fennel gratin. It's not a dish that holds up to much analysis, but it is one to eat and enjoy.

A luxurious dish of linguine all'astice (£17.50) is nicely al dente, sauced with the requisite tomatoey, winey, lobster-shelly juices, studded with cherry tomatoes and loaded down with a half lobster reclining like a tired mermaid. It's rich and homely at the same time, like having a millionaire for a mother.

Pud is fussy, as is so often the case. A cassata Siciliana is done in semi-freddo style (£6.50), a very 1980s platter of triangles of candied fruit and praline parfait that have succeeded in freezing the chocolate sauce underneath, so it is impossible to remove from the plate. A half strawberry loiters with intent to garnish.

After that, you can do some serious Nonino-grappa damage from the trolley, or be talked into a whisky or champagne downstairs.

Salt may not have the best Italian food in London, but it is very sincere and likeable. It doesn't have such cutting-edge design that it cuts into your comfort zone, but lighting, heating and furniture all conspire to make you forget they are there. It doesn't have a wine list worth framing, just worth using. Nor is it going to win any French sommelier/ maitre d' awards, although you are looked after attentively and with a smile, and I am sure, would be recognised on a second visit.

So how do I feel? Good.

14 Salt Whisky Bar & Dining Room, 82 Seymour Street, London W2, tel: 020 7402 1155. Open Monday to Saturday for dinner and, soon, for lunch. Around £95 for two, with wine and service

Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: Other bars with restaurants attached

The Shore Bar & Restaurant, 3 The Shore, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 553 5080 This 18th-century riverside pub and restaurant has long been a popular meeting place in Leith's trendy dockside area. Dine on linen tablecloths in the more formal dining-room or chow down in the bar to live Latin and jazz music. Scottish seafood is the draw, with smoked haddock and leek soup, scallops with cabbage mash and grilled halibut with black pudding.

Rivington Bar & Grill, 28 Rivington Street, London EC2, tel: 020 7729 7053 It's only a baby, but the Riv is already a favoured Shoreditch watering hole and dining option. In the front bar, locals prop on high stools or lounge about on leather sofas, while in the back restaurant, all eyes are on reworked Brit classics from fish fingers and mushy peas to devilled lamb's kidneys and a Barnsley chop.

Lonsdale, 48 Lonsdale Road, London W11, tel: 020 7228 1517 High-gloss, low-lounge and just too gorgeous for words, the Lonsdale leads the new breed of London bar, taking its food as seriously as its drinks. Chef William Cooper, from La Tante Claire, serves up an impressive array of small, bar-friendly dishes such as guinea fowl and foie gras sausage rolls, red mullet brandade and platter of pata negra charcuterie.

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