Thursday, 12 May 2016
Café Murano, St. James
London has never been and most likely will never be the kind of place where you can simply walk into the nearest restaurant and expect to be served an enjoyable and fairly-priced meal. Handled correctly, this city can be a foodie paradise, but it's always going to be lots of other things as well - a tourist hotspot, a center of commerce and finance, home to nine million people of all different preferences and persuasions - and not everyone has the same priorities (or standards) when it comes to eating out. For everywhere selling great food for a reasonable price there are a dozen Frankie & Bennys, Cafe Rouges and Garfunkels waiting to chew up and spit out anyone foolish enough not to have done their restaurant homework. It is easy to eat well in London, but it's not always obvious.
In a town so liberally strewn with potential traps and pitfalls, then, a little knowledge goes a long way, and finding myself in St James of a weekday evening, hungry and slightly out of my comfort zone (St James is out of most people's comfort zone I imagine, unless you happen to be one of the cast of Made in Chelsea and/or a minor royal) I fired up the app to see what was going on. The Ritz - well, possibly if someone paid off my mortgage for me before my next credit card bill arrives but that seemed less than likely; Gymkhana - tempting, but again hardly a budget option and I was planning on taking the parents there next week anyway; and Kitty Fishers - bit of a walk with no guarantee this wildly popular spot would have any room for us anyway once we got there. So, what to do? It was then I realised I was stood fiddling with my iPhone outside Café Murano, which had plenty of room at the bar, and deciding I'd rather spend the rest of the night actually eating rather than deciding where to eat, went inside.
And I'm very glad I did, because what a lovely place this is, comfortable and friendly thanks to an attractive long bar and charming front of house who put us very much in the mood for enjoying ourselves even before the Aperitivo di Maggio (Bobby's gin, Pimm's, grapefruit juice, sage & orange bitters) arrived. And needless to say, once they had arrived we enjoyed ourselves a whole lot more.
House focaccia, pleasantly moist and tacky was the next sign that we were in safe hands. I always appreciate when restaurants go the extra mile to bake their own bread, even when the results are less than brilliant; this was top stuff though, with the perfect texture for soaking up the excellent peppery olive oil it was served with.
A plate of salami also demonstrated some intelligent purchasing decisions. So often in London, Italian food is a poor facsimile of the original, with all the form and colour of the real thing but none of the flavour. You will, I'm sure, have seen a charcuterie board like this in umpteen "Italian" restaurants in town, looking fine until you try some of it and are rewarded with the taste of cold fat and slimy supermarket ham. Not so here - this was top pig product, moist salami and lovely thick curls of marbled (speck? [edit: I'm reliably informed it's coppa]) ham. And the carta di musica (love that name) wasn't just there for texture, being gently seasoned and with a nice flavour.
Asparagus, Parma ham and parmesan is a familiar combination of ingredients, but Italian food is all about familiarity - the trick is in the use of the very best ingredients, and combining them sensitively. In this case, crunchy, glossy asparagus, more excellent ham and generous shavings of good parmesan.
"Spring Minestrone" is about as good as vegan food gets - that is to say, expertly balanced and seasoned, with notes of fresh spring herbs, but just missing that extra depth of flavour you'd get from animal stock. Perhaps criticising minestrone soup for being minestrone soup is a stupid thing to do, but it occurred to me as I was eating it so I'm mentioning it to you now. I still liked it.
I ordered "Tagliolini, sprouting broccoli, lemon & homemade ricotta" with the glorious memory of a recent lunch at Padella in mind, where fresh pasta, lemon and ricotta were combined to knockout effect. I still enjoyed the Tagliolini at Café Murano - the pasta itself was particularly nice, all bouncy and firm and full of life - even if overall the dish didn't have quite as much going for it as the other place. The ricotta was a little sloppy and the seasoning slightly subdued, but there are still worse ways of spending your money than on a plate of nice fresh home made pasta.
Pitch-black squid ink cavatelli, with clams, Datterini tomatoes and samphire was more impressive, a dish that could have been airlifted from Sicily it felt so authentically vibrant. Imported Italian tomatoes were also used in a side salad, flecked with crunchy sea salt and drizzled with Balsamic vinegar. All of it the kind of thing you'd happily order again and again.
As I've said, London may never be the kind of town where you can pick a restaurant at random and be entitled to expect a great meal. But sometimes, when I find myself chancing upon an unassuming Italian bistro in St James (albeit one with a bit of a pedigree) it feels like every day we're getting a step closer to that ideal. There are loads of great places to eat out in London, and despite all the rubbish and tourist traps and ripoff joints there are just enough spots like Café Murano to remind us that, all said and done, we have it pretty good here. Don't you agree?