Valentine’s Day and I aren’t friends, mainly because I can’t tolerate its fakery. This year, however, I decided to give it another chance in the name of “research”. After a quick brainstorming session, we concluded that we should take a leaf out of the Italians’ book on romance and booked an early dinner at the Covent Garden branch of Angela Hartnett’s Cafe Murano (the original being in St James). Having enjoyed lunch at Michelin-starred Murano in Mayfair last summer, I was keen to see whether its younger sibling had followed the elder’s footsteps. Just one spanner in the works: we’d forgotten about the BAFTAs and so had to take the scenic route around the Royal Opera House. This is where my habit of leaving home early gave us some valuable buffer time!
Ambiance and decor
Our table was on the first floor, and we were shown through the initial seating area, the bar, past a vintage-looking bread and cured meats station and then upstairs to our corner booth. From this cosy vantage point, we admired the dark red leather upholstery, with the bottles and glasses glistening in the dimmed light of the bar, all of which was pretty conducive to a romantic dinner.
Food and drink
It was too soon for red wine after sharing 2 bottles of Sexy Beast over dinner a couple of days before, so I ordered some champagne while Chef Savla stuck to the Italian theme with a glass of Chianti Classico. The menu can be adjusted depending on your appetite, company or mood, i.e. small plates or the usual 2/3-course format. Like Joey in Friends, we don’t share (well, not more than a few bites) and so the latter it was. Proving that good things come in small packages, the arancini were light and creamy, with a hint of truffle throughout. Though not my choice, our second starter of anchovies and garlic baguette was my favourite: tiny, slightly salty fish piled onto crusty bread, and with no aftertaste.
Our mains of gnocchi, pumpkin and chestnut mushrooms and pappardelle, lamb shoulder stew, olives and lemon were pleasing mouthfuls in all respects. My gnocchi came very close to the melt-in-your-mouth dish I’d devoured in Florence last July. Whereas that version was simply served with a thick tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella and basil, the chunky vegetables and velvety stock used here delivered moreish earthiness. Chef Savla similarly praised his lamb pappardelle for the soft yet al dente pasta ribbons, tender meat and rich ragu. The only flaw was that both dishes were a touch underseasoned, after which all of the elements came together nicely.
Italian desserts being some of the best around, we couldn’t leave without trying the tiramisu and chocolate mousse, and both were an absolute delight. The cocoa-dusted marscapone gave way to gentle coffee notes from the soaked biscuit base, which was soft without being spongey. For its part, the mousse was suitably airy and chocolately, with the crushed pistachios sprinkled on top making it more appealing on a visual and textural level.
Despite a couple of hiccups, such as taking a while to acknowledge us on arrival (even though it wasn’t busy then) and not offering to take our coats (the cloakroom is just after the entrance), service was friendly and efficient. Our waitress offered to let us taste a few wines before the second glass, and was attentive during the meal.
We left Cafe Murano with full, happy bellies. Casual dining may be overtaking its formal counterpart these days, but the quality of the food and service hasn’t been lost in the transition here. Side note: anchovies have since been promoted on my food list.
Budget: £45 pp (3 drinks, 2 starters, 2 mains, 2 desserts, 12.5% service).