Eating Out: Going for broke

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The Independent Culture
Isola

145 Knightsbridge, London SW1, 0171 838 1044. Lunch Mon-Sun noon-3pm Dinner Mon-Sat 6-10pm, Sun 6-8.30pm. Three-course dinner about pounds 45 (service not included) All major credit cards accepted

IN ORDER TO remove the suspense from this review, and thus give you a better chance of answering what I think is the crucial question here, I am going to write it backwards.

"Blimey," I said, peeling back the bill and squinting at it. "Guess how much it is?"

"I don't know. Nice place. A hundred quid?"

"Guess again."

"Well, we only had three glasses of wine each, plus two aperitifs and one grappa. Three courses, good food, Knightsbridge, trendy designer - pounds 150?"

"Think darts."

"Jesus. pounds 180, and I'm not even drunk."

And so back through the meal we go, looking at it in that special light that comes with knowing that your food will cost the equivalent of 50 McDonald's Happy Meals or a return flight to Barbados (booked through lastminute.com) with pounds 40 left over.

Upside-down caramelised quince tart was excellent. It is symptomatic of the shortness of our collective memory that, in a survey of "Greatest Fruit of the Millennium", quinces would appear very low in the top 100. Five hundred years ago they would have done much better, possibly pipping the fig for the title of "All-Time Favourite Fruit". Quinces even featured regularly in Renaissance representations of the Madonna and child (as fruit on the table, obviously, rather than in either of the central roles).

Main courses were the weakest part of the deal. Squab pigeon with foie gras involved a very good and perfectly roasted bird accompanied on the plate by a stale crouton belaboured with cheap, dark liver pate. Deep- fried breaded olives were good for the old "can-you-tell-what-it-is-yet?" game, and would have made a fantastic bar snack, but as an accompaniment to game they will take British palates a while to get used to.

Monkfish stew was a "special", but not that special, and came with a grim bit of soggy cheese-on-toast poked into the top of it. These two plates of food came to pounds 54 including service - the price of a decent, complete second-hand set of Dickens.

For 's excellent starters, though, I would willingly forego the works of that ponderous beardie. Their calamari approach that level of loveliness where they start to taste of meat rather than fish, and roast quail with porcini is an interesting change of direction for the little warbler. Boning the bird (ooh, madam) rather compromises its peculiar minimalist aesthetic, but then this is not the sort of place where people come to hunker down on a carcass and relish the dripping of hot juice on to their fingers. It is the sort of place where they want to know exactly how old the Parmesan is that garnishes it (four years, as it happens).

The above dishes are what your friends should have. What you want to order is the four fat ravioli of perfect pasta stuffed with Jerusalem artichoke and piled on to a duck ragout that is rich, piquant and sticky in that way that says "Go on, give us a Michelin star." Thinking about it later you will loll back your head like Homer Simpson contemplating doughnuts, allow your tongue to hang limp, drool horribly and murmur, "Aaarrrhh, quaaaiiiiill".

The waiters were all lovely people, well-dressed and very enthusiastic about the food. When the place has been up and running for a few weeks they will, I am sure, be quite excellent. And the food, from Bruno Loubet (formerly of l'Odeon), may settle into a worthy challenge to Zafferano, Assaggi and the River Cafe.

From outside, and its downstairs brasserie, Osteria d', make an imposing show. A 100ft window shows you both restaurants simultaneously: loafing youth downstairs at unlaid tables; rigid wrinklies atop them in the vast dining room, its vertiginous ceiling supported by six vast pillars of chrome. Hexagonal parquet tiles lap across the floor and stream up one wall to the ceiling, and chrome table-edges encompass linen cloths like Modernist writing desks.

Seating is at little red leather booths arranged at strange angles, so that you are in danger of being put directly in front of two old locals, seated side by side, who will stare at you in silence for hours as if you were the kitchen telly. But you can ignore them, and look out at the queue of Rollers, and the huddled chauffeurs smoking furtive fags and exchanging lewd tales about their employers.

Or you can look at the strange, 30ft photograph of a man in tight jeans and a cowboy hat wrestling with a stallion. What is it for? Is it a Marlboro advert? Why is it here? It's a bit gay for doddery old Knightsbridge, isn't it? I'd love to know what the picture is supposed to connote. The best I can come up with, being an Italian restaurant, is Spaghetti Western.

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

Richard Ehrlich's selection

This list is 16 pages long, and I can't make up my mind. But the restaurant has come up with two intelligent initiatives. One is a 60-strong assembly of wines by the glass, either small "tasters" or a full 175ml. The other, and more unusual, is a quintet of "tasters", sets of five glasses in categories ranging from "Italian Varieties" (pounds 14.60) to "Gourmet" (pounds 46.30). This kind of flexibility should be emulated by more restaurants: three cheers for .

Dolcetto d'Alba 1997 Prunotto pounds 22.50 per bottle, pounds 4.90 per glass

One of the easiest drinking reds in the country, delicious when young. Available in the "Italian Varieties" taster set.

Barbera D'Alba 1997, Aldo Conterno pounds 42 per bottle, pounds 9.90 per glass

Pungent and rich, but more approachable when young than other Italian reds of comparable stature. Available in the "Italian Traditional" taster set.

Poliziano Le Stanze 1995 pounds 51 per bottle, pounds 13 per glass

100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, and therefore classified as Vino da Tavola, from one of the best producers. Available in the "Super Tuscan" taster set.

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