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A woman's touch gets the better of Italian machismo

Published 1 February 2009
News Review
811th article

Michael and Murano staff stand behind chef Angela Hartnett (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Having spent some time slagging off the dreadful Grant MacPherson, whose "culinary direction" severely dented the pleasure of my being at Sandy Lane last Christmas-New Year, you'll be sorry to hear I'm back to my benign, generous self.

I'm delighted to heap praise on Angela Hartnett, one of my all-time favourite chefs. She used to be at the Connaught but quit when they asked her to provide room service. Quite right. What would a nice girl like Angela be doing frying eggs at 6am for some visiting idiot?

Her newish restaurant is Murano in Mayfair. It's part of the empire (thriving or failing according to who you believe) of Gordon Ramsay, the man so succinct in his summations of MW. He said in an interview, "Michael wants six courses in 25 minutes. So you take away one dish and put another down to stop his head coming up for long enough to slate the decor."

I had a good look at the Murano decor before eating. It's exceptionally pleasant. Tables are spaced well apart so you can hear yourself talk. Rare these days. But it's nothing to do with Murano. No Murano glass that I could see. Just some demented 1950s-type metal chandeliers with strange bulb holders on the end.

Murano's wine waiter, Marc Andrew, cleverly wrote on the still water bottle of Panna the letter G. That means the gentleman is having the still water. He called me a gentleman. This is quite rare. I'm not often called that. Unfortunately another staff member came along during the meal, didn't read this carefully prepared warning, and sloshed Geraldine's fizzy water into my glass. This is not uncommon. It drives me totally bananas.

Early in the proceedings Angela came from the kitchen to greet me. I'd sent her flowers and a good luck message when she opened.

"You didn't thank me for my flowers," I said testily.

"I haven't thanked 10 other people, including my mother and my brother," said Angela.

"All that shows is you're bloody rude," I huffed.

"Busy. I'm busy, not rude," responded Angela. I'm very fond of her, so I let it go at that. The only things not perfect were a rather thin bellini and one of the breads, which was soggy and 'orrible.

The staff were incredible - restaurant manager Jose Garcia, his assistant Paulina Trocha and the reception manager Maddalena Ciocca to name a few. Charming, on the ball, nicely dressed.

I had a carnaroli risotto with two-year-old parmesan. I'm not normally told the age of the parmesan. This is not information I need to know. Then I note I had a truffle risotto. I don't think I could have had both, but who knows?

I did have truffles because the waiter said, "The best truffles are the small red ones because they grow quite close to the tree." They were incredible. The second time I went I also had truffles and the price had nearly doubled. None of this matters because they're not serving truffles again until October. So you've got time to save up.

I ordered roasted Anjou pigeon with pickled beetroot, lyonnais onions and semolina gnocchi.

"I'd like a pigeon that's been eating well prior to coming to me," I said to Paulina, who's Polish.

"A well-feeded one?" she asked.

"Exactly," I replied.

"Any food allergies?" asked Paulina.

"No, I eat anything," I told her.

I finished with apricot souffle, amaretto di saronno ice cream. Geraldine had warm zabaglione with figs infused in red wine.

On another visit I had glazed pork belly, root vegetables and cooking juices; for dessert, chocolate and chestnut semifreddo, popcorn ice cream, dulce de leche. All this could mean anything. Reciting a menu is total twaddle. Just take my word for it, Murano is utterly superb. They also give you lots of bibs and bobs, before after and between. Never mind the credit crunch. Any money spent that gives you pleasure is worth it. That even applies to the parking tickets I got on both occasions, which cost me 60 quid times two. Who cares?

  • Now 'ere's a funny thing. Not hysterical. Won't have you rolling in the aisles. But it's odd that two great Italian restaurants, Murano and the River Cafe, both have women at the helm. At the River Cafe it's Lady Ruth ("call me Ruthie") Rogers and Rose Gray. A lot of people (not me) think the River Cafe is expensive. Until February 27 it certainly isn't. If you lunch Monday through Friday it's got a winter set lunch, £24 for three courses, £18 for two. Even cash-strapped yuppies can afford that.

    PS: A letter this week from J Harris decries, among other things, the awfulness of the sweet and sour pork at Sandy Lane. I checked. The Harrises left before me. I had sweet and sour pork after they did.

    The bizarre chef Grant MacPherson asked, "How was it?"

    "Terrible," I said. Whereupon he turned and walked away. So there'd already been at least one severe complaint about the sweet and sour pork. Yet MacPherson kept dishing it out seemingly unchanged. Some chef.

    Michael's missives

    Three cheers for taking the lid off the cooking pots at Sandy Lane. Our 10 days would have been near perfect except for the culinary department's lack of presentation and imagination. On returning an inedible dish of sweet and sour pork I challenged the waiter to find any pork in the gooey mass of green peppers. No apologies and they still attempted to charge us. Some nights we preferred room service to the dreary buffets at exorbitant prices.
    J Harris, London

    For £93,726, which you paid Sandy Lane, you can stay at our gaff for 21 days. My daughter will play you revolting music, my partner will insult you and I'll serve rubbish food. It would be a hoot and save you air fares. Can't guarantee the weather as we live in Essex. Well, somebody has to.
    Christine Swann, Essex

    I'm concerned about your grief at Sandy Lane. Did you know the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea provides meals on wheels? A review of their food would be enlightening for readers who may be contemplating using the service in these economically challenging times.
    Howard Broadwell, Nottingham

    In Geraldine's photo I noticed your mere presence was sufficient to clear the Sandy Lane beach of guests. I did see one person in the distance. They seemed to be running away.
    Alan Lewis, West Sussex

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners , The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk