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Seeking Sicily

So it’s out with Gennaro Contaldo, Passione and endless re-telling of how he taught Jamie to make foccacia ….and it’s in with chef/patron Santino Busciglio and a rigorous refurb. The director/owner of Mennula Joe Matorana and Busciglio both come from the same part of Sicily although Busciglio arrived in London via living in Bolton. There is some debate as to whether Mennula is even more expensive than Passione (by the time he moved on Contaldo was biffing it at the cash register a tad) but checking the current prices with those recorded in my 2009 guide book shows that they are almost exactly the same. So at the brand new Mennula you could expect to pay £8.50 - £16 for antipasti; £6.50 - £16 for zuppa, pasta e riso; £17.50 - £20 for mains; £3.50 for sides and £6.50 for desserts. There’s a set lunch and pre-theatre menu weighing in at £17.50 for two courses of £19.50 for three courses. If you wish to melt the plastic there is white truffle that can be shaved over scrambled duck eggs, pasta or carpaccio of beef. Be prepared to pay £5 a gram for this unassuming little extra.
I always have sympathy for any chef that plies his trade as part of a hotel – and it’s particularly sad when the punters have to walk through the hotel reception or corridors to find the dining room – so Santino Busciglio is to be congratulated on breaking free from the Ambassador Hotel Bloomsbury and moving to his new home on Charlotte Street. The room is bright and light, even if the tables are a little tightly packed, the service is friendly.
Dishes are honest, they can be hearty, and the thrust of the menu is to present spankingly fresh ingredients a simply as possible – much as you would hope to find things in Italy or indeed Sicily. Antipasti include “red mullet, oranges, mint and baby spinach”; or “squid, potato sauce, peppers olive pate and capers” – plenty of strong flavours but working well together. A dish of “strozzapreti” teamed the pasta with rabbit, olives and Pachino tomatoes. The Sicilian tomatoes were exceptionally sweet and Busciglio makes the sauce with a wild rabbit stock while using farmed rabbits for the meat component. Whatever the roles and nationality of the various bunnies this dish was commendably fresh tasting with a pleasing lightness.
Main courses are encouragingly simple – halibut, fillet of beef, yellow fin tuna, smoked venison – belly of pork came with polenta, black cabbage, and apple chutney, well cooked and suitable robust. While calves’ liver came with spinach, mash, onion marmalade and speck – nothing wildly Sicilian about that but accurately cooked liver and a dish that was in perfect tune with the season and the foul weather. Struggle onwards towards dessert and there are traditional Sicilian cannoli filled with sweetened ewe’s milk ricotta. Very solid.
There’s something well intentioned about the food at Mennula even if accompanied by hints of over-emphatically reduced sauces; it’s good food but would it be mere whimsy to see echoes of Bolton amongst the Sicilian recipes?

Mennula, 10 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 2LT (020 7636 2833 www.mennula.com) Mon-Fri noon-3pm & 6-11pm Sat 6-11pm

Charles Campion - Monday 29th March 2010

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