Mennula aims to represent Sicilian cuisine among London's fine-dining Italian restaurants. Does it do the island justice? Tom Vaughan reports.
With Sicily's rich hotpot of food cultures - settling Greeks, Romans, Moors, Spaniards and Italians have all left their mark on Sicilian cooking over the last 2,000 years - it's amazing that London, with a diverse food culture all of its own, has taken this long to properly showcase the island's national cuisine.
However, when former Zafferano and Number Twelve chef Santino Busciglio caught wind through his suppliers that Passione in London's Charlotte Street was closing down, that all changed. Teaming up with business partner Joe Martorana, the pair set about filling the Sicilian-shaped hole in the capital's dining scene with a bijou 44-seat restaurant, which they called Mennula (Sicilian for almond).
"A lot of chefs in London play around with Sicilian food, but don't do it full justice," says Busciglio.
"I've always wanted to cook my own food, and what I love is Sicilian."
Born in Sicily and brought up in Lancashire, Busciglio returned to the country of his birth to learn Sicilian cooking from his baker grandmother. The result is, in cases, a real dedication to authenticity.
"In the past we've put on a split fava bean soup that is as old as Sicily itself, and Sicilians have been in to say they struggle to find such cooking at home," says Busciglio.
"It's a bit like a Brit putting a steak and kidney pudding on the menu - sometimes they shy away from it."
Overall, Mennula's menu is a mix of the traditional and the modern. Arancini, a very Sicilian form of deep-fried rice croquettes, arrives as a canapé, and might be followed by the very simple dried broad bean soup with fennel, rosemary oil and crostino (£6.50). However, both sit next to the much more demanding grilled squid in a salty potato sauce, with capers, a spaghetti of roasted peppers, and olive pâté (£8.50) - one of the only dishes to survive a new year menu overhaul, as Busciglio, in his own words, "flexed his muscles" and showed there's much more to come from the restaurant.
At times the menu sways towards dishes from more pan-Italian osterias - wild boar ravioli with white truffle butter (£14.50), for example - at others, such as with the Sicilian aubergine salad with buffalo mozzarella, it is clearly under heavy influence from Sicily. And throughout, there is the gentle undertone of the island's finest produce - the olives; green, peppery olive oil; blood oranges; and almonds. Imported, as you might expect, from Sicily, the nuts run through countless dishes. Gnocchi comes with an almond, tomato and basil pesto (£8.50), while seared diver-caught scallops are served with lentils, baby spinach, chilli and almonds (£11.50), and roasted rump of lamb is accompanied by almond and mint pesto (£19).
Busciglio has tapped into the capital's Giorgio Locatelli-inspired taste for a sort of homogenised Italian cuisine, while still playing true to Siciliy's culinary heritage. The lamb dish, which showcases the same clean, produce-centred characteristics that mark all of Busciglio's cooking, is perfectly suited to a slightly unadventurous top-end diner, yet the almond pesto gives it a personality of its own. And beside it on the menu is rabbit wrapped in pancetta with aubergine sauce, spaghetti of carrots, pine nuts, sultanas and black cabbage; a dish that captures Sicily and its love of vegetables, rabbit and the little exotic touches - like nuts and sultanas - that 2,000 years of foreign settlers have brought to the national cuisine.
Desserts also mix the inoffensive with the authentic. There's a fine-dining take on tiramisu (£6.50), next to semifreddo (almond flavour, of course) and a superb cassata (£6.50) - a Sicilian dessert of layered sponge with marzipan, pistachio, chocolate, ricotta and candied fruits (£6.50).
However, the dedication to Sicily in many of the dishes is only half the story. In its superb and knowledgeable Sicilian front-of-house team, its honouring of the country through much of the wine list and its real sense of identity, the restaurant lets Busciglio achieve exactly what he set out to do - "show off for Sicily".
Mennula, 10 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 2LT
Tel: 020 7636 2833
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Carpaccio of smoked duck breast with blood orange salad, £10.50
- Baby artichokes, rocket and fonduta di Ragusano, £8.50
- Seared salt crust tuna with sweet and sour red onions, £9.50
- Cream of lobster soup with soured mascarpone and almonds, £9.50
- Warm salad of poached wild sea bass, samphire, artichokes and sun-blushed cherry tomates with vino cotto, £19.50
- Grilled swordfish, celery, green olives, capers and cherry tomatoes with mashed potatoes, £17.50
- Traditional Sicilian cannoli filled with sweet ewe's ricotta, £6.50
- Cinnamon cream-filled sfinci with honey, toasted sesame seeds and almond ice-cream, £6.50
- Mixed cheese platter, £13