John Underwood feels unexpectedly at home in this atypical Piccadilly Italian.
Walking southwest from Green Park station, it can be tempting to assume that the quieter, park-facing end of Piccadilly was at some point designated as a hidey-hole for all those things London couldn’t ever give up but can’t quite find a place for. The Kennel Club. The Japanese embassy. The Hard Rock Cafe.
It’s a long time since Lord Peter Wimsey spent what now seems like an intemperate amount of time completing crosswords in the bath at the storied (and, alas, fictional) 110A Piccadilly, and even longer since Lord Palmerston lived at what later became known as the old In and Out Club and now appears to be abandoned, presumably awaiting renovation. It’s an odd bit of town.
I ventured into this curious nether zone to visit Mercante, the new Italian restaurant tucked into the elaborately titled Sheraton Grand London Park Lane. My initial impression was of space and quiet – arriving at half past seven we appeared to be the only diners. Happily, that meant being on the receiving end of a full restaurant’s worth of charm and expertise from Antonio, who came to take drink orders and cheerfully scolded me for preferring a Negroni sbagliato to the classic. Failing to find a barman, Antonio made my drink himself (it was lovely) and bustled back to explain the menu.
Billed as a ‘small plates’ restaurant along the lines of Russell Norman’s enormously successful Polpo, Mercante has a menu split into pleasantly essentialist categories – Spuntini (snacks), Fritti & Forno (‘fried and roasted’), Salumi & Formaggio (cured meat and cheese), Carne & Pesce (meat and fish), Grano & Pasta (wheat, and… well, you work it out) and Contorni (sides). Each dish can be ordered in a variety of sizes, so you can organise your meal along starter-main lines if you’re especially hungry or tired of the sharing craze.
Antonio suggested a board of meat and cheese to start, which is a habit I plan to maintain at every meal from now on. 24-month aged prosciutto was carved at the bar and presented, blessedly unchilled, in a gleaming heap. A spectacularly gamey coppa tasted almost like wild boar, and the roughly cut Parmesan was studded with calcium lactate crystals, very much the methamphetamine of the dairy world. I would gladly visit again for the salumi & formaggio alone.
Our hot dishes arrived together and in the sizes recommended by the ever-present Antonio (a huge relief if, like mine, your forays into communal eating habitually proceed along the feast-or-famine lines). Moscardini in umido, a dish I’ve only previously seen in Italy, was perfect: Chunks of musky octopus, as full of salty promise as if they’d just been hauled from the Bay of Naples, bobbed in a dark red stew with slices of baby potato. I was almost put off by the thought of eating stew in July – then again, the Italians cope and I have it on good authority that their Julys can be even warmer than London’s.
A dish of broth, borlotti beans, and maltagliati (‘badly cut’ pasta, typically scraps left over from making other varieties) was hearty peasant fare – the sort of thing to fire you up if you’ve got a Coliseum to build – and intensely tasty to boot. In fact, the highlight of the meal was another dish with defiantly uncultured roots: ox tongue, slowly cooked in stock and served with a sprinkling of pine nuts. Tongue is the one meat I’m incapable of ignoring on a menu, and I can honestly say I’ve never had it better prepared than at Mercante. Twenty hours in a low oven left the meat easily soft enough to cut with a spoon, and took the usual savouriness of ox tongue to new heights without it becoming too brash. Think umami kick, but delivered by Bruce Lee, who’s wearing velvet shoes for your comfort.
I made a spirited effort to order tiramisù, but was frankly told that I’d prefer the torta caprese. At this point in the proceedings I didn’t feel inclined to argue, and I’m glad I didn’t. The dense chocolate and almond cake was a fudgy delight, as was the zingily astringent homemade limoncello that followed. ‘It had better be good,’ said Stefania the maître d' in passing. ‘I peeled three hundred lemons.’ By the time we left just before ten, every table was full.
It’s very easy for a hotel restaurant to become something stilted and unlovely, existing only because hotels are expected to contain food as well as beds. Mercante, however, couldn’t feel less forced – against the odds, this unassuming restaurant manages to bring an authentic Italian neighbourhood feel to the edge of Green Park. There is now, officially, no reason for anyone to go to the Hard Rock Cafe ever again.