Cafe Murano

There seems to be little in the way of fluff or spin about Angela Hartnett. This is a good thing. So an announcement in October that she would be opening a restaurant in Mayfair “offering dishes at an accessible price point, in a relaxed and informal atmosphere – the kind of restaurant I would enjoy eating in every day” was one I thought worth remembering. “Mayfair”, “accessible” and “everyday” are odd bedfellows. But it makes sense Hartnett would want to create such a place in the space she spent much of her career (and no doubt many, many hours) – the former site of Petrus and Aubergine. Cafe Murano opened last week. It appears to do exactly as Hartnett intended.

A single page savoury menu is divided into four: cicheti at the top nod to the Venetian heritage of ‘Murano’; then antipasti, primi and secondi follow. Sweets are saved for a separate sheet.

We shared a couple of antipasti and also truffle arancini cicheti between three. ‘Truffle’ so often means a stinky drowning of overbearingly nasal white truffle oil, but these deep fried risotto balls were nicely seasoned rather than dominated by the flavour. Warm octopus with chickpeas and pesto was a standout dish – it was, at once, comforting and refreshing, soft and yielding (the octopus), yet textured (through the nicely al dente chickpeas). A tomatoey sauce and pesto provided all sorts of sweet and sour tangs. I enjoyed the plate of warm, pink strips of veal dressed in a salsa verde and named vitello tonnato. Others thought it ought to have been more along the lines of a classic fridge cold version, cut through more aggressively by a heavier load of anchovy  and capers than it had (or tuna, no?), and with less (or none) of the herbage.

All five of the primi options appeared strong – and the fact each of them could be taken as a secondi is arguably one of Cafe Murano’s main strengths. I don’t mean to suggest that that super-size option is a novel one (as it’s not). But it is fairly novel to be able to sit down in Mayfair and have a top level bowl of pasta or risotto and a glass of house wine and get out for close to £20. Don’t think of the Tesco value 2 for £5 ravioli offers and scoff. This really is good value.

We had our bowls in smaller primi form though, as part of a less frugal meal (I do these things for you). Of them, risotto Milanese and osso buco stole the show. As with the truffle seasoning for the arancini, saffron had been dealt with a light hand (thank goodness), flavouring and colouring the oozing rice to exactly the right level. Sinking into this were two glazed discs of veal shin, which yielded easily to the fork. The shining jus summarily woke up any hitherto sleeping tastebuds. Swiss chard, spinach and ricotta tortelli with impeccable: a firm, rich pasta and a filling that balanced sharp and earthy flavours. My choice felt like the weakest – a nest of linguini (sic) hid flakes of red mullet, garlic and chilli. The pasta itself was faultless, but those flakes didn’t want to mix through or bind. It felt a bit disparate and not the sum of its parts.

Secondi offered the opportunity to check out prime cuts of meat and fish, presumably served with relatively carb-light accompaniments. Stone bass, brown shrimps and grilled baby gem; lamb rump with coco beans and salsa verde, for example. I say presumably because we opted for the comfort food alternatives: the sauce of a sausage stew was too sweet, but did contain superb rough-ground pink ‘Tuscan’ sausages (made in house?); my breast and braised thigh of guinea fowl was perfect, and accompanied nicely by chestnuts and a more-ish slick of wet polenta; and wild boar fettuccine, which had been pimped to secondi from the primi section, was on the money.

Confirmation of the restaurant’s completeness and of our gluttony came by way of a cracking tiramisu, pecorino with honey (I told you cheese and honey was a thang), and an apple pie that I’m sure was faultless (I ate most of it), but don’t recall much about now. It’s also worth mentioning that service struck a very fine note – a quality dining experience provided by naturally affable, unstuffy but highly competent staff. Well selected wines included a very drinkable, crisp white verdicchio and a Guttarolo Primitivo, which had the kind of interesting but not too funky character I’ll probably seek out again.

It’s not much of a café, Cafe Murano – I bet I couldn’t sit there and eek out 4 hours of wifi in return for one flat white. Rather, with antipasti courses hovering around £9, primi £10/11 and secondi mostly £15/16, it joins Zucca and Trullo as Italian restaurants in the category of “not quite dirt cheap but very strong food and extremely good value for the quality“. One to head to when you want to eat no nonsense, unfussy, full of flavour food, be served by people who know exactly what they’re doing, and stretch but not break the bank. In short, it’s another good new restaurant. Appropriately straightforward, really.

Cafe Murano in 3 words

Italian. Not pizza.

The Bill

£55-75 pp if you eat more than you need and sink a few bottles. But you could also treat it as a one plate, one glass lunch place and be out for £20 a head. I think it’s great value for what you get. – 33 St James’s St, SW1A 1HD – 020 3371 5559