A rather Zilli fish tale

ZILLI FISH; 36-40 Brewer Street, London W1R 3FD. Tel: 0171 734 8649. Open Monday to Saturday 12.30pm to midnight. Average price pounds 30 per person. Major credit cards accepted
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Aldo Zilli must be pretty rezillient now to eponymous puns; proof then of my childish nature that I can't resist cracking more of the startlingly obvious. Well, honestly, how could anyone be expected to review a restaurant called Zilli Fish without making at least one or two zilli jokes? Cod alone knows, this has to be the plaice for puerile humour. I dare say Aldo can hake it.

As it happens, Zignor Zilli must be laughing all the way to the bank. With this, his third Soho venture, he's netted himself an impressive haul of customers and the place is as tightly packed as a tin of sardines. It's heartening to see such an appetite for fish, but then this is media- land central, and virtually every table is taken by young(ish), affluent- looking golden boys and girls. Fish is obviously where it's at. Perfect lunch food for the work-conscious, health-conscious Nineties.

I arrived early enough to grab one of the three outdoor "balcony" tables that snuggle together intimately, raised from the street by all of six inches. It was one of those rare, gloriously sunny days and, traffic fumes notwithstanding, I wanted my full share of it. Sitting with my back to the pavement proved rather like sitting at the underwater viewing window of an aquarium, with sleek waiters weaving their way smoothly through the shoaling customers. The aquamarine walls undulate subtly with white lines, like the reflections of light through water, here and there broken with a lobster-tail light-fitting. A silver ceiling gleams overhead. On the far wall, a great black Japanese wave is breaking in the shadows, while the bar shelters an aquarium filled with corals and the only live fish to be found in the place.

Our elbow-brushing proximity to the occupants of the two other balcony tables, proved less irksome than I'd expected. I could barely hear my pal Richard above the constant vrooming of motorbikes and cars, let alone eavesdrop on our neighbours, though we did have poolside views of what they were tucking into: plump chargrilled scallops skewered on sprigs of rosemary which looked rather promising.

So promising, in fact, that Richard had to have some for himself. Nicely cooked to remain juicy, tender and sweet, all they needed was a more generous hand with the seasoning. They proved to be a neat example of the pleasant, unambitious style of the menu and its food. Zilli does not cook Modern British, nor indeed Modern London Italian. He takes his main ingredients and treats them in a sympathetically unfussy Italian manner, chucking in the odd fashionable token once in a while. Since the stars of this show are impressively fresh fish and shellfish, simplicity is a commendable approach. This is not great cooking, to be sure, but it is competent and appealing, and frankly rather a relief after the fol-de-rols of grander chefs.

The leaves that had been stripped from the scallops' rosemary twig "skewers", got their moment of glory with the deep-fried baby squid that were congregating on my plate. This is the second time of late that I've been disappointed by the promise of baby squid. The first time they had been decidedly adolescent in size; these ones, on the other hand, had once been about as small as baby squid should be, but had been diminished by slicing into rings, before being deep-fried in an over- weighty jackets of crisp batter. So generously muffled were they, that I could hardly taste the squid. A pity, since the rosemary and chilli dressing would have blessed that natural squidy sweetness. As it was, though, it lacked the sharpness to deal adequately with the dominant batter coating.

Floundering on to the main courses, Richard hooked a truly fine succulent slab of cod fillet, its milky white flesh pan-fried to absolutely the right degree. A little on the mean side, he complained, but size isn't everything. It was supported on four feet of grilled artichoke, and sauced with a "vine tomato coulis", the weakest point of the composition, literally. Just because a tomato is sold still clinging to its stalk is no guarantee of flavour - they'd probably have turned out a better sauce with a tin of chopped tomatoes from the corner shop.

My seared swordfish came perched jauntily on a cushion of Caeser-ish salad, heavy with shavings of Parmesan. I'm not sure that Caesar Cardini would have recognised his creation, but in Zilli's Italianate version it worked rather well against the thin slice of warm fish, cooked long enough to escape the raw chicken flesh texture of fashionably underdone swordfish but not long enough to render it dry and stringy. No mean feat with such a slight depth of flesh to work on.

For some reason neither of us expected a fish restaurant to be particularly hot on puddings - not their brief, after all. In fact the kitchen here can churn out a stonking ice-cream. The pistachio ice that nestled among my strawberries soaked in limoncello liquer was as good a one as I've tasted in a long time. Its pure nutty taste spoke of real pistachio nuts and real cream, which is relatively rare, in my experience. Richard's pretty plate of papaya, blackberries, and other fruits was similarly gilded with a scoop of first-rate coconut ice-cream with all the exotic magic of a Bounty bar, but none of its cloying texture.

The menu spelling is varied and idiosyncratic, with rocket, rucola and roquet all to be found within the cast list, mozzarella and mozzerella, too, not to mention "sanfire" and "mussells". Having had time to mullet over, I'd like to give the man a round of applause. His new joint may not be absolutely brill, but it's nice to find somewhere that treats good fish with respect. Middle of the range fish restaurants have never been particularly successful, but here maybe is someone who can make it work. Hurray for Zilli Fish ... and with that, I shall clam up.

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