Having just landed on Park Lane (with Mayfair directly ahead) and not having to pay my grinning children any rent for once, you might be forgiven for thinking I was enjoying a rare moment of success during a game of Monopoly. I can easily dissuade you of that view, of course, with a few simple facts. First, I very rarely play Monopoly, principally because my experience of the game is that it is a long, drawn-out process during which I gradually realise that I am, yet again, going to lose. Secondly, the principal reason I lose is because I never gain ownership of any worthwhile properties, including Park Lane and Mayfair; this means I always have to pay rent, usually to my eldest son, who collects the fee with all the glee of a rabid bailiff. Thirdly, when I have had the occasion to participate in a game, I have never found myself able to turn off Park Lane towards Queen Street, where a table at Angela Hartnett's restaurant Murano awaited me. If this was a feature of the game I might just be a more committed player.
Murano kicked into life sometime in 2008 as a joint Ramsay-Hartnett venture. By 2009 Angela Hartnett had quite sensibly bought out her partner, and was flying solo; that year the establishment picked up a Michelin star, one which has been retained since. I don't mind admitting that I have developed an admiration of Angela's understated style over the years, and so her restaurant was an obvious choice for dinner during a recent visit to London.
The exterior of Murano is unprepossessing, and any chance of peeping in through the window is blighted by the triple whammy of interior curtains, three neatly arranged potted trees and a chained-off 'garden' of gunmetal-black tiles. Inside the decor is restrained art deco, with more than a hint of gilt and mirror, but nothing over facing. The welcome was friendly although uncertain; "May I take your....." asked the maitre d', her question tailing off into silence as she seemed to struggle to find a word to describe the sweater draped polo-club-style around my shoulders (well, this is Mayfair, and I was trying to blend in). I declined and, unabashed, she showed us to our table; white linen, grey leather seats, comfortable and relaxed. We were first in for evening service, and were soon beset with menus and wine lists.
The menu is divided into five sections, four dishes per section. Very loosely, the sections are meat (on my visit Cumbrian beef, Welsh lamb, pork belly or Gressingham duck), fish (monkfish, turbot, red mullet or john dory), vegetable (asparagus, leeks, you get the idea), pasta and a fifth selection which defies an easy sound-bite but included dishes based around tomatoes, scallops, mackerel and sweetbreads. From these five sections you choose at will; so you could choose just two options, which would them come as a small starter and a larger portion as a main course, or you could have three, four or more options. The more courses you have, the smaller the portions, the sizes scaled down appropriately, with five courses taking on a tasting-menu feel, albeit without the customary wine options. While you make your choices there are the obligatory amuses bouches to whet your appetite, and I also enjoyed a complementary platter of continental ham, salami slices and olives, a nice touch I thought.
Being a bit of a traditionalist I opted for two courses to begin, as I had my eye on finishing up with something from the cheese trolley I had just spotted in the distance. Opening with a fish choice, I opted for monkfish which was coated in a very light, clinging batter and served with broccoli puree, crushed almonds and a chicken jus. As you might expect the cooking of the fish was spot on, and the broccoli and almonds added some appealing highlights to the dish, although the chicken jus - admittedly very light in character - didn't really add any lift in my opinion. Brighter and more in keeping with my mood perhaps was a platter of Wye Valley asparagus, served with a parmesan cream and pine nuts. Vibrant, rich in flavour but fresh and showing real bite, this was a real success.
While we waited for our main course choices to arrive, there was a chance to take in the surroundings and also the varied clientele. I have always refrained from commenting on fellow diners during my restaurant reviews, and will have to (somewhat reluctantly, admittedly) maintain that code. Nevertheless, I am surely permitted to note what other tables were drinking though, and this included a bottle or two of vintage Krug (sorry, I couldn't make out the vintage in question) and plenty of grand cru Burgundy, poured with joyous, unrestrained abandon. Our wine choice for the evening, the 2010 Montlouis La Négrette from Le Rocher des Violettes, had already proven its merit alongside the monkfish and asparagus. And it worked just as well with my main course, pork belly with a caramelised onion tart, fennel purée and a pork jus. This was beautifully done, the fat of the pork belly just on the edge of melting, the strips of meat tender and moist. The richness of the fennel purée worked well too, the cooking and reduction intensifying the flavour to a level in keeping with the pork and the caramelised onion. The Cumbrian sirloin was also tip-top, although to nobody's surprise it didn't work as well with the Montlouis.
The cheeses were no disappointment, although I didn't experience the waves of rapturous excitement that came with the rhubarb soufflé with rhubarb compote. A high note of precise flavour intensity intertwined with the soft, melting texture of the soufflé was a fitting end to the meal, as there wasn't a single disappointing dish here. It seems that Angela Hartnett's reputation is well deserved. In fact, the only upset of the evening came when I laid down my notes on the table as payment for our bill; it seems that Monopoly money isn't regarded as legal tender in this particular corner of Mayfair. In the end I paid my bill by credit card, which was accepted more graciously. What Angela doesn't realise is that, come the end of the month, I will probably have to remortgage my railway stations to meet the bill.
Prices: Considering the location, very reasonable to my mind. The two-course option is £50, three courses £65, four courses £75 and five courses £85. The wine options naturally span the range from affordable to astronomical. Our total bill (three courses each, waters and wine) came to £230; this includes a service change of 12.5% which is automatically added to the bill. (3/8/13)