Café Murano St James
Immediately you walk in to Café Murano St James, it feels you’ve arrived somewhere you’re going to like. It’s the sunlight filtering through the windows, the high ceilings, wine-bottle-lined glass cases, and leather banquettes. There’s a quiet, informal elegance. Chef patron is Angela Hartnett, former protégée of Gordon Ramsay, and formerly of the Connaught. She also oversees the Michelin-starred Murano St James and Murano Covent Garden and the Merchant’s Tavern in Shoreditch.
Chef Hartnett's Italian grandmother was a major influence in Hartnett’s passion for cooking. Café Murano St James, a more laidback offshoot of Murano, have only recently started doing Sunday lunch, where the menu features some of the restaurant’s favourite dishes. Despite being pegged as ‘Northern Italian’, the menu wanders all over Italy, from Milan to Puglia.
The be-jeaned, be-shirted waiters are all disarmingly young and serious, and the welcoming Irish manager will charm your socks off. They’re solemnly enthusiastic and encyclopaedic about the dishes, their sources, the ingredients, the method. This is a place where the food really matters. In which sense it’s a properly Italian restaurant. It’s not so much about presentation, and more about the ingredients.
Among the starters, one of the must-try dishes are the arancini with truffles, the kind of idea that, when I told him, made my father-in-law (from Southern Italy) snort with disgust at the audacity at combining truffles and the fried-rice-ball concept. In reality they are fantastic. The aroma hits you before you taste them, and they’re truly memorable, with a light, crisp, bite-size crunch, impossible not to hoover up from the plate. We also try the signature sandwich with cut ham and Fontana cheese fried in butter, which is delicious, but almost feels too decadent to eat as a starter. We manage, however.
Other standout smaller plates are the duck slices with peach slices. This is a perfect marriage of salt and sweet, with rocket to add some delicate bitterness and hazelnut giving a crunch. This is as near to perfection as it’s possible on a Sunday afternoon. Likewise spectacular is the tuna carpaccio with peeled orange slices and samphire, which adds a saltiness to the delicate dish. It’s the kind of thing you could continue eating, dreamily, forever.
Primi feature fresh pasta handmade that day. We tried the Tuscan sausage ragù, scented with fennel, accompanying an eggy golden tagliatelle that is wonderfully light (as far as sausage pasta can be, I assure you, it was). But, if pressed, I would plump for the lobster spaghetti every time, with very fresh and tangy tasting cherry tomatoes giving a tangy-sweet flavour to the tangle of fresh-pasta noodles. One of the favourite secondi in the restaurant is chicken Milanese, which is apparently one of their most-requested dishes, a perfect light fried slice of bread-crumbed chicken.
It almost caused divorce proceedings when I returned from the bathroom to discover my husband had ordered us a single dessert to share, a wobbly butterscotch-caramel pannacotta. But marital harmony was restored when I was able to obtain the tiramisu (‘pick me up’ in Italian), and was as good as that made by my in laws, with no fancy, unnecessary twists, just feather-light whipped up marscapone and egg yolk, coffee, marsala wine, and biscuit, as it should be.
There’s an excellent array of unusual amari (bitter herbal liqueurs) and whiskeys if you’re looking for a digestif, but unfortunately this would have been a step too far on this particular Sunday afternoon. Maybe next time.
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