Eating Out: More than a hint of Italy

IBLA: 89 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE. Tel: 0171 224 3799. Open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 11pm. Lunch, pounds 13 for two courses or pounds 16 for three courses. Dinner, pounds 18.50 for two courses, p ounds 21.50 for three courses. Visa, Mastercard and Switch accepted
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The Independent Culture
IBLA. IT SOUNDS like an acronym: International Balsamic Lovers Association ... Instant Bacon & Liver Appreciators ... Independent Buyers Luncheon Alliance ... But no, Ibla is the ancient name for the town of Ragusa in Sicily. Apparently, the old town area is still known as Ibla by the locals, and the brooding Monte Ibla lowers over old and new alike.

Ibla also happens to be the name of the new restaurant that squats in the old premises of Villandry, the stylish and wonderful French delicatessen and eatery that has now moved on to grander things in Great Portland Street. Villandry's much loved dining room, which the expression shabby chic was probably coined for, has disappeared under a coat of striking gloss paint. The erstwhile deli at the front is now a piquant olive green showcase for a handful of very choice Italian products, including the present-perfect Fiat chocolates from Turin. My lunch-date eddied into raptures over these. She liked the walls too, as it happens. Having admired the olive sheen, we moved through to the dining room, now head to foot summer-pudding colour (the juice-sozzled bread exterior rather than the inky interior). Polly liked this colour too, and so did I, I think, though I mourn Villandry's old peeling paint.

I hadn't seen Polly for the best part of a decade, and over lunching- ladies' mineral waters, I discovered that she has metamorphosed into a contributing editor to Elle Decoration and general interior style sort of a person. I guess that if she likes the walls, then that must indicate some kind of seal of approval. On the food front, I had managed to get hold of the idea that Ibla was a Sicilian restaurant, which meant that the short lunch menu came as something of a disappointment. Hints of Italy here and there, but nothing to locate it firmly in any one country which is a shame, since both the owner (from Calabria), chef and the staff, at least those who served us, are all Italian. In fact, the menu might be that of any capable mid-Nineties bistro, with its carrots (sic) and tarragon soup, mimosa asparagus salad, confit of duck, and pineapple tatin.

Being a stubborn sort, I plumped for the most Italian meal that could be mustered - marinated sardines, green beans and potato salad to begin with, followed by lasagne. Polly, who had come without pre-conceptions, began with salmon tartare, which she obviously enjoyed as it had all but disappeared by the time I'd sorted out the absence of sardines in my salad. A very Italian muddle over terminology, as it turns out.

I'd been expecting some sort of silvery sardine fillet, that had been marinating down in the larders in a bath of lemon and olive oil, or at least something along those lines. Instead there were tinned anchovies. In Italy, they said firmly, we use salted sardines and anchovies interchangeably. A pity, since the salad was all the duller for it. A fat strip or two of fresh sardine might have lifted it up a few notches from the mundanely competent.

Things started looking up when my lasagne arrived. Sheer, wicked, bliss. Three or four large squares of pasta, cooked perfectly al dente, tottered prettily one above the other, interspersed with little tiny morsels of fork-tender rabbit meat, all bathed in a sublimely rich velvety sauce, thickened with the melting taleggio cheese. My mouth waters as I remember it, and I'd return for that one plateful of heavenly comfort alone.

Polly meanwhile, was working her way enthusiastically through an ivory- coloured chunk of roast haddock spiced up with a tomato sauce that sang of a marriage of puttanesca (whore's sauce, with olives) and pizzaiola (pizza-maker's, which contains capers). They make a feisty couple.

Polly's pudding of chocolate and banana mousse was a curious, pale affair which reminded her of rather good baby food. She had a point; it took me back to the days when I was weaning my son and the only way to get him to eat anything was to mix it with equal quantities of mashed banana. He ended up with some very bizarre combinations smeared across his face and streaked through his hair, but at least a fair amount did get into his mouth and went in the right direction. This mousse was, of course, a superior version of junior pap, but I wondered why they'd speckled the chocolate weakly through the banana puree, when they might have done better to bathe it wantonly in a warm puddle of dark chocolatey sauce.

The pineapple tatin that I landed was a more successful affair, and one that I rather fancy trying out for myself at home. Hot pineapple, deliciously chewy puff pastry and a dolly-divine childishly rich butterscotch sauce. Eminently presentable, and eminently eatable.

I have to say that I'm not quite sure what to make of Ibla. I know one very successful restaurateur who rates it highly and maybe it is exactly that, a restaurateur's restaurant. The kind of place that those in the business disappear to when off-duty, where they can relax and eat good unpretentious food away from the public glare. It's not overtly glamorous, and it has a rather appealing amateurish quality to it. The garrulous, charming boss is fresh from the retail fashion business and has never run a restaurant before, though he's obviously eaten in enough to know how to make customers welcome and well-disposed towards the place. I'd like to see more of the Italian roots, particularly the southern ones, showing through, but then I've always had a bit of a thing about the wilds of Calabria and Sicily.

Maybe I'm trying too hard to foist a notion on a restaurant which has its heart elsewhere. The bare facts of the matter are that the prices are more than reasonable (pounds 13 for two courses, pounds 16 for three at lunch time), and the cooking ranges from the acceptable and competent to the down-right superb. Check it out, particularly if you want to get away from the incessant search for the ultimate in design and cool that makes so many London restaurants look (and taste) remarkably similar one to another.

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