Lady Barbara Judge discovers sophisticated Italian cuisine and a warm welcome at Covent Garden’s new Café Murano
It was Friday evening, and I had organised to meet a friend for dinner at the new Café Murano in Covent Garden. I was actually already outside the restaurant when my phone rang. My friend was cancelling as she and her husband had been baby sitting their young grandson who was sick. Of course I understood and sympathised as much as I could – but that still left me all alone to try the restaurant.
In fact it turned out to be a very good thing that I did. I was greeted by an attractive young woman, Kelly Willett, who turned out to be the General Manager. When I explained my situation to her, she guided me to a nice private table in the front of this rather long, narrow restaurant, with a large room filled with tables upstairs as well.
I then asked to see the kitchen, which was downstairs, and sparkling with a charming and very accomplished chef who had been cooking with Angela Hartnett for years. I have been a frequent client of Angela’s since she opened her upmarket restaurant, Murano in Mayfair, and am always delighted to see a woman be a star in a man’s world. Angela has staked out her own territory with lovely, sophisticated, Italian cuisine – and, for this genre, Café Murano is another winner.
After chatting to the chef downstairs and watching him prepare agnolotti filled with guinea fowl and apricots, and braised lamb with Tuscan beans and celery, I returned to my private table determined to try both dishes. I also ordered a selection of the cicchetti – which were all laid out on a table in the middle of the restaurant, tempting all passers-by into certainly more than one. I tried broad beans and rosemary arancini and caponata, aubergine and green olives prepared in the typical Sicilian style and then octopus with cucumber and Romano peppers. All were lovely, light and traditional – but the octopus was the standout because you don’t often see it on a menu these days.
This amazing array of pre-starters was followed by antipasti – I had two. The vitello tonnato with capers and parsley, which was beautiful slices of pink veal sitting serenely on a bed of tuna sauce, was particularly pleasant, because usually the sauce in this traditional dish is poured on top and drowns out the delicate veal so much that you hardly know it’s there.
The second antipasti I ordered was even better: Portland crab shredded with scorched onions. This simple preparation was perfect – three little piles of white crab meat without too much sauce so that it tasted flavourful and not fattening, mixed with lovely onions – that I always like. If I were to come back for lunch, I would eat the crab and the octopus and think I had discovered the perfect diet delight.
Next came the aforementioned agnolotti and the braised lamb that I had watched being prepared downstairs. Because I liked the chef and how lovingly he explained the ingredients, I suspected they would be a treat – and they were. These two dishes were traditional but certainly not boring. It truly felt like a small family restaurant in Tuscany where the recipe might have been handed down for generations.
Lastly, two delicious desserts arrived – chocolate caprese, which was a good version of flourless chocolate cake, which I happen to think is one of the best ways to eat chocolate. This was followed by something even nicer – muscovado tart with crème fraiche. This was a dish that even I, a true dessert hound, had never tasted. This tart was made of muscovado brown sugar boiled into a thick, creamy filling, sitting in a chocolate pastry case. This sugar tart was sweet, but not too sweet, and it was light but still had substance – it is too difficult to describe it in a way that does it justice, so you will have to go yourself.
Lady Barbara Judge is currently the chairman of the Pension Protection Fund in the UK, and has held many posts across the corporate and charitable sector, including commissioner of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, and chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Lady Barbara has always had an abiding love for food, and her frequent international business travels have enabled her to indulge this passion in many top restaurants across the globe. (Lady Barbara Judge pays all of her own expenses.