Monday, 9 February 2015
Restaurant review: Café Murano, St. James’s
Well, this week I have to say that I have been royally treated. After a delightful mid-week trip to Clapham and The Manor (see last blog post) I was fully prepared to never eat again, and allow those lingering flavours to ember on my taste buds. But the weekend marked five wonderful years with my dear Katie, and as always our idea of celebration is a proper meal out. Traditionally this would be at Hawksmoor at Spitalfields, a stone’s throw away from our very first date. This is always an enjoyable if not reliable way to spend an evening, but I was excited that this year we would be ringing the changes. Also, I should say that an ‘accidental’ wing rib at the excellent Hill and Szrok the night before solved our steak fix. A few weeks ago I wrote of my inspiration from discovering Café Murano, and with all of the scurrying around in between our booking crept up fast. I adore and champion eating at the wonderful small and humble restaurants local to me, but there is also something joyous about getting dressed up and making your way into town for something a little grander. It’s such a rare pleasure, but always gives a celebration like an anniversary a sense of occasion. When we slipped through the heavy curtain and got our first glimse of the restaurant, with long, lamp-lit marble bar, beautiful wine racks and bustling tables I knew we’d made the right decision. Some places feel the need to fill a dining room with music and create an atmosphere, here there was just the comfortable sound of chatter, wine glasses and cutlery. Other reviews will run through a history of the other famous restaurants to inhabit this space, but upon my entrance on Saturday night this didn’t matter a jot.
What was constant during our visit, from the very first interaction to the last, was that we witnessed a total masterclass in service. Nice, friendly service is all well and good, and thankfully common in the vast majority of my dining experiences. But this blew everything else out of the water. Some restaurants just don’t quite get it, particularly the stuffier places. Places where you are immediately mobbed by highly-polite yet clinical robots and left cold and out of place. Good training is one thing, but having the right people is another and Café Murano really nailed it. Everyone was confident, chatty and engaging. There was never that awkward pause and back-straighten as soon as a member of the waiting staff approached. Even little things like how every time one of us left the table, our napkin had been folded for our return. The service was so seamless that it took a couple of times before we even noticed that this was happening. We were truly made to feel special throughout our evening.
Big nights out are always made better started with a cocktail, and the tangy and dangerously drinkable Frank 75 got things off grandly. Such a boozy beginning also loosened us up whilst browsing the menu. I was flattered when our waiter apologised for the lack of osso buco that had inspired me for my last recipe on this blog. Katie scoffed that everything I ordered seemed to include her nemesis the black truffle. With cicheti, antipasti, primi and secondi decided we certainly weren’t going anywhere for a while. Lovely slices of uniquely flakey focaccia appeared quickly with soft, fruity oil poured from a height. As if we needed something to keep us going. But those moments before the food arrived were not wasted, it was great to gaze across tables and open the window to other people’s evenings; a smart early date, some theatre goers, a celebration like ours and a couple of old, leathery men who looked like part of the furniture. The room too was also full of little details. The circular lighting set at just the right brightness. Those wonderfully designed wine cabinets. The cookbooks on the square block shelving. Enough to be visually drunk.
For snacks we picked on delicately fried fritto misto and well-handled truffle arancini, such things often so criminally bastardised were a perfect start here. My small plate of slithered raw beef with tiny white beans and a less-tiny heap of black truffle was the thing I looked forward to most and it really didn’t disappoint. With such a dish it is easy to misjudge the simplicity, but the meat was well seasoned and coated with more of that oil, with the subtlety of the truffle and texture of the pulse. Katie swooned at her creamy burrata and smokey grilled aubergine. With courses this good so early in the meal it made for excited anticipation for the roll of courses still to come.
More truffle tried to conceal beautiful dainty little duck tortelli sitting in gooey rich meaty sauce. Where it was all about subtlety in the antipasti, our pasta punched with flavour. I was inspired by photos of the osso bucco before, but now I was inspired by the taste of this. That pasta was something a future recipe will certainly be revisiting. The venison ragu in front of Katie was equally comforting, with tomato adding a welcome acidity to meltingly tender game.
Although there had been no ‘winner’ in previous courses, Katie was adamant that I had achieved this with my cod main. The fist-thick loin itself was cooked to soft perfection inside a golden, crunchy crust, and sat atop a sea of buttery lentils spiked with strands of prosciutto. It was the sort of food that given a chance you could eat every night through the winter. Katie’s lamb wasn’t too far behind though, also rustically perched on a bean stew flecked with vibrant salsa verde. These dishes were just the food that reached to my core. Fantastic ingredients cooked simply to achieve the deepest flavour and satisfaction. They were presented well and looked smart on the clean plates but that wasn’t the point. The glory was in the eating.
We were allowed a short break after this onslaught of food. I was full to the point where I worried that my eyes would pop out to meet the insides of my glasses. Well-written dessert menus are deviant things, there to tempt and lure even the most overcome. And how can you refuse when you are given a piece of paper promising Amalfi lemon tart, baked pear, ricotta and amaretti or chocolate and almond cake. And those staff were so nice. And it was such a nice room to spend an evening. Oh sod it, we’ll share. We were practically immobilised yet had gone and ordered yet another something. But wow. I’ve made and eaten a lot of lemon tarts, and this one was right up there. You felt like if you wobbled it for long enough it must surely burst. When we dreaded eating more it was light and perfect.
Then we got given more. The insightful front of house had already congratulated our anniversary, but this was made concrete in those eleven letters miraculously being piped in chocolate surrounding three perfect balls of ice cream. When we were in dire need of something sharp, the mango, pear and blackberry scoops came to the rescue. We also ordered some short, reviving coffees when the sommelier approached with a mischievous grin on his face. Cradling a lethal bottle of grappa, he poured us a glass to send us on our way.
It’s often the little things that you remember of a meal, but those two acts of kindness and surprise were part of something much bigger. We had been totally looked after and were humbled, both in service and in food. I think we might have set a new anniversary trend, but I will be returning long before that. When everyone is so obsessed with new openings or food trends, they need to remember what brilliant places we already have.