Emporio Armani in Knightsbridge is, to paraphrase the famous 80s advertising slogan for its near neighbour the V&A, an ace caff with quite a nice boutique attached. Located in the quiet mid-section of the Brompton Road, past the scrums around Harrods but not as far West as chi-chi Brompton Cross, the grand UK flagship of Giorgio Armani's younger, edgier label attracts a fashionable mix of well-heeled, well-dressed locals and wealthy foreign visitors. Thanks to the chic first floor Caffe, should hunger strike after a shopping spree or they require sustenance before one, they need not set foot outside the exquisitely polished door.
Readers of my recent write-up of Racine may recall that my best-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world Andrew works at Emporio Armani and it was at his suggestion that we booked ourselves in for lunch last week. Although aware of it, I'd never eaten at the Caffe (only the original, at Armani's Milan megastore) and might never have done had Andrew not heard good things which found their way to my ears. It had to be lunch - the Caffe is only open during normal store hours - and a day off work presented an ideal opportunity.
As you'd expect from the master of sleek, pared-down luxury, the design of Mr Armani's cafe is in perfect keeping with the philosophy of the label. The decor of the long room - it runs the full width of the front of the store - combines high-gloss black marble, vast mirrors reflecting the natural light which pours in through an immense picture window, elegant beige seating and accents of Armani's favourite lipstick red. Like the clothes themselves, it's entirely classic while at the same time resolutely modern.
The menu reads as it should in a high-end Italian brasserie; there's a good range of antipasti and pasta, salads in starter and main course sizes and various fish and grills, as well as desserts and a lengthy drinks list for those fancying just a sugar or liquor high before dropping £600 on a blazer. As befits the demographic of the area - broadly, high-net-worth ladies who lunch and the men who walk them around town - the cooking style of chef-manager Djamel Benchikh is light and health-conscious without stripping away all signs of fun and indulgence, so while the majority of dishes are steamed, grilled and low-carb there's still some frittura going on.
Andrew started with calamari fritti while I ordered Parma ham with figs. The calamari were excellent, oil-less, crisp batter yielding to chewable rather than chewy squid. A slightly spicy, rich tomato dip served with it added colour and punch. My prosciutto - served in a portion large enough to serve as a light main course - was wonderful, a gorgeous mound of silky, salty ham and super-ripe figs complemented nicely by chunks of Galia melon and shavings of Parmesan.
Main courses were equally simple and just as good; Andrew's test of any Italian restaurant (he and I have eaten our way around Tuscany) is their pasta e pomodoro and Armani's passed with flying colours, the thick, chunky tomato sauce having been slow-cooked to bring out an intensity of flavour not common in such a simple dish. My fillet of sea bass, adeptly seasoned, grilled to just-golden and presented on a soothing bed of palourde clams and broad beans was completely brilliant, the best fish dish I've had this year by a nautical mile.
Throughout the meal, warm tomato foccacia and olive bread, delicious on their own and even better dipped in the wonderful olive oil and balsamic provided, were regularly replenished. A couple of glasses of a crisp, floral Gavi di Gavi were the ideal accompaniment to the light but distinctive flavours of the food and tap water was happily brought and topped up (I mention this as reassurance to anyone who, nervous of asking the prices in a designer boutique, might be afraid to ask for anything less than Acqua Panna in a designer cafe). Service, from a brace of model-pretty staff, was as smart as the Armani suits they were wearing.
A couple of minor details, though far from criticisms, are worth noting. One is the aforementioned opening hours, or rather lack of them; the Caffe is only open when the store is open, currently 10-6 or at the latest 7. This is a shame, as I could see this being a really smart dinner destination if only the architects had thought to include a separate entrance. The other is that, unsurprisingly I suppose, the food is almost as expensive as the clothes; our two-course lunch with two glasses of wine, a Coke and 12.5% service came to £73. But like the collections for sale in the store around us, the price was borne out by superlative quality, expert manufacture and high style.
Both this ace caff(e), and the rather nice boutique attached to it, are well worth a visit.
Emporio Armani Caffe, 191 Brompton Road, London SW3 1NE Tel: 020 7584 4549 http://www.emporioarmani.com