La dolce Victoria: A brilliant chef's new Italian has lit up this dowdy corner of London
Cardinal Place, 2 Sir Simon Milton Square, London, haicenato.co.uk
The exterior was modest enough, a half-dozen bright blue planters and a couple of olive trees sat in front of a large window, discreetly veiled in pristine white curtains. Its name, Mimmo D’Ischia, inscribed across the awning in an elegantly scrawling hand. So far, so ordinary. Cross that threshold, though and you entered the world of Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Mattera, possibly the greatest restaurateur London never knew.
In the day, the place was flooded with light and a tree grew, rather incongruously, through the centre of the upper room. The walls were lined, in that delectable Seventies fashion, with photographs of Mimmo with his arms around the stars. They were all there, from Michael Caine and Roger Moore, through Frank Sinatra, Liz Taylor and Barbra Streisand to Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In each picture, Mimmo wore the same broad grin, his gold medallion gleaming out from a luxuriously hirsute chest. Better still, you could usually gape at them in the flesh, breaking grissini at a corner table, nibbling on avocado prawn (the menu was decidedly English Italian), digging into great bowls of spaghetti puttanesca and plates of his magnificently sticky ribs. Those ribs. God, I would do anything for that recipe.
Hai Cenato has pounding music and open kitchen, a bustling upstairs bar, expensive blood red leather banquettes and shiny marble floors
Agnolotti (left); rib-eye steak (right)
Veal osso bucco with risotto à la Milanese (left); Bream and confit potato (right)
But it wasn’t just about the food, in huge portions with huge prices too. Mimmo was its roguishly winking heart, and we spent many a happy lunch under that A-list glossy glaze. My grandfather had first met him on the island of Ischia, where Mimmo had taken a shine to his daughters, my mother and aunt. And had decided, one night, to shin the drainpipe of their hotel, drop onto their balcony and whisper sweet nothings into their ears. Sadly, the wannabe Romeo never got near casting off those vestal robes, as my grandfather got wind of his amorous plan. And beat him off with a furled umbrella. How very English.
Anyway, after this not so auspicious start, they became firm friends. And when he opened Mimmo’s in the Sixties, my family pretty much moved in. It shut its doors just under a decade back, just like another great Pimlico Italian, La Fontana, which felt like sitting within a velvet-lined womb. But that white truffle risotto. Mio Dio. I miss them both.
So news that Jason Atherton has opened a new Italian place, less than a mile away in unlovely Victoria, brought those memories flooding back.
Hai Cenato is a very different beast, with pounding music and open kitchen, a bustling upstairs bar, expensive blood red leather banquettes and shiny marble floors. The name sounds more like a Japanese war cry than a modern Italian restaurant (It means ‘Have you had dinner?’), but it’s the only bum note of the entire lunch. Atherton is a brilliant chef and an equally inspired restaurateur. He now has more restaurants than his mentor, Gordon Ramsay, which must be sweet, as they’re not exactly the closest of friends.
His long time executive chef, Paul Hood, is the boss here, and another master. Part of Atherton’s success lies in surrounding himself with pros, both behind, and in front of, the kitchen door. Well drilled staff race around, ever smiling. And rather than Mimmo’s celebrity snaps, caricatures of great chefs cover the walls. I spot Heston, and Raymond, Tom Kerridge, Angela Hartnett and a very angry-looking Gordon Ramsay. Probably peeved at his protégé’s roaring success. The menu wanders all over Italy, but is not religiously constrained to Italian ingredients. The mozzarella comes from London (pretty good it is too) and the pizza dough is made with British flour.
Grilled octopus £13
Corzetti pasta £14
Campanelle pasta £15
Taleggio pizza bianca £10
Sea bass crudo £10
We eat soft octopus with gloriously caramelised edges, sitting on soft lentils with a verdant whack of fresh pesto. Comfort and class, a dish where winter slides into spring. Sea bass crudo is well cut and splendidly fresh, chunks of blood orange adding sharp sweet allure. It’s a light, lithe dish, beautifully made. Campenelle pasta, shaped liked chanterelle mushrooms, is studded with fat cockles and clams. There’s a very Sicilian crunch from fried breadcrumbs, and a bracing jolt of lemon. Deeply satisfying.
Better still are disks of corzetti pasta, topped with a magnificently rich and mellow beef ragu. Berkswell cheese adds its salty, sheepy tang. Again, a British ingredient that would shock the purists, but makes perfect culinary sense. Then a whole deboned bream, stuffed with lemon and fennel confit potatoes, simple but blessed with true Italian depth. And a crisp pizza bianca, lavished with oozing taleggio, caramelised onion and chanterelles. Just like every other dish, it’s made to please and delight, rather than wow and impress.
This is a taste of Atherton’s Italy, at prices that don’t require a Vatican bank account. Mimmo’s may be long gone. But dowdy old Victoria has a brand new star.
Lunch for two: £60
What Tom ate this week
Still in Chengdu, China, and another day in thrall to texture and explosive tastes. More mapo tofu with pig’s brain in the markets, plus variants on water-cooked beef and divine smoked Sichuan ham. Plus, I get to see some pandas too. In a bamboo bush, not on a plate.
Back to London via Shanghai. Dinner at the airport Ramada hotel is surprisingly good. Shanghai river prawns, braised pig trotter and stir-fried greens.
Home on British Airways. Wonderful service, woeful food. Ready for a break from Sichuan so hot-and-sour prawn curry, a fierce mackerel curry and sticky rice from Thai 101 on King Street in west London.
Roast chicken, roast potatoes, peas and gravy. Not a Sichuan pepper or chilli to be seen. Variety is the spice of life and all that.