Angela Hartnett exudes common sense and her down-to-earth approach has made her a much-liked TV-and-radio performer as well as popular with fellow chefs.
It’s only in her restaurants that this unaffected style has tended to get lost.
At Angela Hartnett at the Connaught in 2004, I remember a snooty maitre d’ from the Basil Fawlty school of hospitality. The food, while excellent, was as posh as the surroundings. Every night was the comedy character’s “Gourmet Night,” with no riff-raff.
When Murano opened in 2008 under the aegis of her mentor, chef Gordon Ramsay, the ambience was hotel-meets-corporate more than Hartnett as such.
The new Cafe Murano is the kind of place one always hoped she would open. It’s informal and friendly, yet with attentive and professional service. The welcome is warm without being effusive. The food is simple without being plain.
The prices are as friendly as she is.
The room is long and narrow. It’s a difficult space that has undergone several incarnations as a restaurant. It was once home to Petrus, where Hartnett worked with chef Marcus Wareing. More recently, it was Brasserie St. Jacques.
This time round, it’s looking good following a makeover by Russell Sage Studio, whose designs include Grain Store, Social Eating House, Dishoom and the Savoy Grill. On the left, there is a bar, and that’s my favorite place to eat.
The set lunch is 18 pounds ($30) for two courses or 22 pounds for three -- reasonable for food of this quality in this location. You might start with beautiful mozzarella with lentil vinaigrette and move on to white onion risotto, or pig cheeks with fennel salad and anchovy, followed by a lemon tart.
Going a la carte, begin with snacks such as truffle arancini (rice balls) for 3 pounds. Among the antipasti, even an old chum such as vitello tonnato (9 pounds) has a freshness and texture where familiarity breeds content.
Spaghetti carbonara (11 pounds or 16 pounds) is a rich yellow with a salty richness that kicks its creamy cousins for six. Or you can go for the full flavor bomb: osso buco with risotto Milanese. Warm bavette steak salad with red onions and pine nuts (20 pounds) is another strong dish: It’s pretty, with a beautiful dressing.
My favorite is the chicken Milanese, the meat beaten thin and coated with breadcrumbs and served with rocket salad. Contemporary cooking can be brilliant, but sometimes you don’t want your dinner deconstructed or given a modern twist.
The desserts punch their weight. The Amarena cherry & ricotta cheesecake lightly trips between sweetness and acidity.
There’s a good selection of mostly Italian wines by the glass and plenty of choice of bottles below 30 pounds.
It’s interesting how different British chefs approach Italian cuisine. Jamie Oliver has made a killing with Jamie’s Italian. Ramsay is having a crack at it with Union Street Cafe. Hartnett, who learnt to cook with her Italian grandmother, may come out top for quality.
Cafe Murano may open in other locations. The dishes are good enough for it to be a success, though the challenge will be consistency. On St. James’s Street, the head chef is Sam Williams and the front-of-house is headed by Zoe Charlton-Brown, a familiar face from venues such as Boundary and Jugged Hare.
It won’t be easy to replicate such a strong team.
Cafe Murano, 33 Saint James’s Street, Mayfair, London, SW1A 1HD. Information: http://www.cafemurano.co.uk/ or +44-20-3371-5559. Rating: 8/10.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)