Café Murano, described as the “brassier, naughtier younger sister” of the Michelin-starred Murano, is the creation of the ever-inspiring force that is Angela Hartnett. Having enjoyed excellent meals at her other ventures, including The Merchant’s Tavern and the recently revamped restaurant in Hampshire’s Limewood Hotel, I had high expectations of this “café”. And it did not disappoint. Although the site on Picadilly’s St. James’ Street has been through a few incarnations – home to chefs including Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Waering in the late 1990s when it was trading as Pétrus – Café Murano certainly has staying power in this smart part of town. It feels like it has been here for years.
Whilst a more relaxed and informal affair than its counterpart, and certainly more accessible in terms of its prices, the word “café” in the title is a misnomer. The level of attention to detail is astonishing. The interior is decadent – a pristine room festooned with an all marble-trimmed bar and butter-soft leather banquettes – and yet simultaneously makes you feel at ease. With its confident but approachable bustle, the atmosphere exudes excellence. The staff are generally confident, engaging, and attentive.
Whilst we perused the menu, we enjoyed a couple of cocktails: a Café Murano Spritz (£8.50), which was essentially an Aperol Spritz with the added fun of some Maraschino, and a lemony Sulla Luna (£9) (very refreshing).
The menu, comprised of Hartnett’s trademark Italian specialties from the northern region of the country, features hearty pastas, red meat and fowl, truffles, and funghi. On this theme, my companion and I couldn’t resist ordering a few cicchetti to start. A tempting trio of Truffle arancini (£4) came first: each so simple yet perfectly formed, a deep-fried ball of deliciousness. The Parmesan flavour was salty, the risotto inside comforting, and the outside crispy and golden. We also shared the Buffalo mozzarella, lentils and marjoram (£7.50). This dish could have done with a little more life; the herby flavour was lacking and some heritage tomatoes would have been welcome to lift the other ingredients and lend a certain freshness to the assemblage.
We were also given two airy puffs of rosemary foccacia from Balthazar bakery, served with Planeta olive oil which was of the highest quality. With its grassy, nutty, and refined flavour, I could happily have drunk it by the spoonful.
The meal proper started with a Gorgonzola, pear, walnut and chicory salad (£9) for me, and a Wild mushroom, parsley and parmesan tagliatelle (£12) for my companion. My salad was perfectly balanced – the gorgonzola was not over-powering as blue cheeses so often are, and the chicory was not bitter but complemented the sweet pears well. The dish was a well-judged marriage of flavours and probably the highlight of the evening for me, reflecting the deceptively simple nature of the food here.
The ingredients of the pasta, meanwhile, spoke for themselves: the seasonal wild mushrooms had a woody, earthy flavour, the delicate fresh egg pasta was silky smooth, and with a grating of parmesan, the dish was everything my companion was hoping for: perfect simplicity.
For mains, I chose the Globe artichoke, chard and fontina gnocchi (£16.50) whilst my companion opted for the special of White truffle risotto. Little parcels of ethereally light gnocchi, served with a simple but flavoursome butter sauce, these charred morsels of deliciousness were melt-in-the-mouth. Fresh and springy yet indulgent and rich, this was a rare combination and a beautiful dish.
My companion’s risotto, meanwhile, was indulgent, classy autumnal food, and was topped with a generous scattering of white truffle shavings. We also enjoyed sides of Cavolo nero, chill and garlic (£3.75) and Cauliflower with almonds (£3.75). The greens complemented my gnocchi well, whilst the cauliflower – a vegetable which is enjoying a renaissance of late – was well-roasted and given textural contrast through the crunch of the flaked nuts.
Desert came next. Whilst my companion chose the Flourless chocolate and almond cake with vanilla ice cream (£7), I opted for the Pistachio cake with mascarpone (£7). The chocolate cake was surprisingly light, whilst the pistachio cake was vividly green and stunningly uniform. The flavour was not too sweet and the nutty pistachio flavour sung through.
The entirely Italian wine list was also impressive and had around 100 options from around the country, including an excellent choice by the glass. We enjoyed a crisp and fragrant Gavi de Gavi, a stunning 2011 Chardonnay Edi Kante, which had an incredibly long finish, and a fruity 2012 Montesecondo Chianti Classico, a beautiful example of this very drinkable red. The wine list carefully juxtaposed unusual styles and grapes with excellent examples of the more familiar.
Café Murano would suit a variety of diners. The long, slim room has plenty of nooks for romantic evenings, whilst those looking for a more casual experience may sit at the bar. The restaurant also opens early and closes late to accommodate theatregoers, with amazing value set lunch and pre-theatre menus of two courses for £18 or three for £22. If I’m not back here soon, I will certainly be found sampling the delights at Murano, although I find it hard to see how Café Murano could be improved upon, and in my view it is exactly what an Italian restaurant should be.
Café Murano, 33 St James’s Street, London, SW1A 1HD