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The clock on the back bar in Café Murano, opened by chef Angela Hartnett and restaurateur Chris Yates at 33 St James’s Street two months ago, had just turned 2.30pm, marking another phase in every restaurant’s working day.
Right on cue, the front door opened and a wine delivery was taken in by the receptionist. The door opened again seconds later to reveal a young female cook at the start of her evening shift. She walked past the tables, said hello to a couple of the waiters and then headed down to the basement kitchen run by head chef Samantha Williams.
A few minutes later, Yates walked in. He greeted his receptionist, spoke to a couple of tables and then stopped by our table to inquire whether we had enjoyed our lunch of minestrone, osso buco with risotto Milanese and ox cheeks with polenta. Yates and I then embarked on a discussion as to which of us could more clearly remember the names of all the various restaurants that have occupied this site over the past 20 years. Café Murano is the sixth incarnation in two decades and I was interested to know why the earlier ones had not prospered.
In the mid-1990s, the building was an art gallery whose then owner decided that he wanted to be a restaurateur. It was converted and named 33 St James’s but did not survive long despite producing good food. It lacked a restaurateur’s touch.
It was in 1999, when it became the first home for the restaurant Pétrus, that the building entered its most prestigious era. Chef Marcus Wareing thrived here with his formal French food, then very much à la mode. But when he was made an offer he could not refuse by the Savoy Group, the restaurant was whisked off to an even more glamorous location within the Berkeley Hotel.
Pétrus was replaced by Fleur, an undistinguished brasserie that was out of place in this rather posh location. When it closed, in stepped canny restaurateur Claudio Pulze. He appreciated the building’s potential but despite transforming it into two different restaurants – Fiore, with a talented chef imported from Italy, and then Brasserie St Jacques in partnership with chef Pierre Koffmann– he never managed to replicate the success that he has achieved over a longer period with Al Duca restaurant on Duke Street.
Over the years, Pulze has told me, he probably just about broke even. He didn’t believe it was a jinxed site but when the lease reverted to the Crown Estate, as the freeholder, he chose to bow out. Enter Hartnett and Yates, who had worked together before, in what has the hallmarks of a mutually beneficial arrangement. The Crown Estate has the association with a well-known female chef, while Hartnett has the opportunity to establish a lower-priced and more relaxed sibling to her Murano restaurant only a short walk away to the north of Piccadilly.
In establishing the appropriate setting for such a restaurant, Hartnett, Yates and their designer Russell Sage have done a first-class job. The most obvious physical change is the removal of the wine cellar at the far end of the room. In its place Sage has created two levels for dining tables and, in front of the bar, he has installed a large counter, much like at Le Caprice and Cecconi’s nearby, where the full menu is now served. As is standard today, there is an absence of tablecloths and the waiting staff are clad in smart jeans, shirts, ties and aprons.
The effect of all these changes is that for the first time in its history, this dining room can now seat between 75 and 80, and has an air of jollity about it. Café Murano, finally, has the potential to please – something its predecessors, even the formal Pétrus, never did.
But to tempt me back, Hartnett and Williams need to up their game. The delight of Italian dishes such as vitello tonnato, wild boar fettuccine, linguine with cockles and risotto Milanese is that they transmit their flavours so directly. But I never felt this during my two meals here, and desserts – tiramisu, prune and almond cake and panna cotta with oranges – lacked conviction. A Café Murano of stronger flavours would have all the prerequisites to flourish.
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33 St James’s Street, London SW1 1HD, 020 3371 5559; www.cafemurano.co.uk
£60 per head with wine. Closed Sunday.