Mayfair memories

Thursday 24th May 2001 00:00

During its heyday in the 70s and 80s, Cecconi's Italian restaurant in Mayfair boasted a celebrity following and new owner Hani Farsi, who also owns the Che Restaurant and Bar in nearby St James's Street, hopes he can win it back.

Farsi opened the new-look 86-seat Cecconi's in Burlington Gardens at the beginning of the year, with a smart new David Collins interior and top Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli as consultant. Locatelli, late of Zafferano, brought the kitchen brigade of 14 together, headed by his ex-sous chef of five years, Nick Bell. Bell and Locatelli devise the monthly-changing menus together and include dishes that pay homage to the days of the restaurant's former owner, Enzo Cecconi.

For instance, a dish of gratinated spinach pasta with cheese and ham (£8/£13) is a throwback to the 70s. "And it's still a popular dish now," says Bell, who first met Locatelli while working at the Savoy many years ago, and who has also done stints with Michael Caines, Marco Pierre White and Phillip Britten.

The cannelloni (£9/£12) is another trip down memory lane. Bell and Locatelli's summer version (veal shoulder is used during the colder months) is stuffed with shrimp and halibut, and bound together by a Marie Rose sauce made from former Cecconi kitchen staples béchamel and tomato sauces. "There were always four sauces used at Cecconi's," says Bell. "As well as béchamel and tomato, the kitchen used Worcester sauce and a dried wild mushroom sauce." Bell adds a dash of Worcester sauce to the fennel vinaigrette served with the best-selling grilled, line-caught, wild sea bass and punterella (chicory spear salad) (£18.50).

Other popular dishes include a twist on trattoria staple tuna and beans - wind-dried tuna with borlotti and yellow beans (£9), and the beef carpaccio with a mustard and caper dressing from Sardinia (£8.50). And best-selling mains include the grilled swordfish (£18.50), which comes on a tomato coulis and is served with rocket and sautéd potatoes, and a remarkably light ravioli all'ossobuco (£9/£12).

Keeping things light is a key issue with Bell and Locatelli. In the minestrone, they replace potatoes with a purée of cannellini beans, wild garlic leaves and stinging nettles as a base for the soup, with vegetables piled on top (£6).

Average spend is around £40. "The prices might seem a bit steep, but we cut the fish big," says Bell, "and many usually don't make it as far as dessert." For those who do have space, Locatelli's tiramisu is a best seller, followed by the lemon and ricotta tart and the peach melba (all £6.50).

When the restaurant is heaving (which Bell says is most days, with average daily covers topping 150), diners can order off the restaurant menu in the 29-seater bar, where award-winning Che barman Nick Strangeway turns out a mean fig Bellini, at £9.50 a pop. "We're making a feature of fresh fruit Bellinis," says Strangeway, who prepares the fruit himself. A current favourite is the plums-stewed-in-red-wine-Bellini, and a version with pomegranate.

Cecconi's, 5a Burlington Gardens, London W1X 1LE. Tel: 020 7434 1500.


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