Food & Drink: Italian job, French connection

EATING OUT; Oliver Peyton has teamed up with French chef Bruno Loubet at Isola, his latest London restaurant. So are they a dream team?
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The Independent Culture
Despite its dramatic facade, I had driven past Isola several times without actually noticing it. Situated at Scotch Corner in Knightsbridge, it is in hot competition with the tartans of the great and the good, narrowly upstaged by Kookai's in-yer-face billboard of a girl having her bikini-line shaved by a lawnmower. All pounds 4m of refurb and two-and-a-half years of sweat for Oliver Peyton sit discreetly next to the venerable Chinese restaurant Mr Chow.

I am as much a fan of Mr Peyton's approach to feeding the capital as I am of Bruno Loubet's cooking. Together they make, in theory at any rate, a dream team of clear-sighted and unconventional wisdom. Both could be said to enjoy an experiment, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Two years ago Loubet hung up his apron to become executive chef of the group which includes the Atlantic Bar and Grill, Coast and Mash. His presence behind the stove at Isola marks his return to the kitchen. But not without an inbuilt percentage of risk for a Frenchman - it's an Italian one.

Stepping off the street you enter a hall of mirrors kind enough not to distort parts of your body, which seems sensible if the intention is to attract the type of vanity that struts up and down Sloane Street. The outside of Isola suggests a large open space, and I had been looking forward to indulging in a spot of social anthropology: gawping and being gawped at. As it was, we were spirited to the back of the room, which has been divided into a maze of cubicles, and found ourselves, to all intents and purposes, alone with just one other couple.

It was my husband who began muttering darkly about cricket cushions when we sat down on the red leatherette banquettes that demand you practise the Alexander Technique throughout dinner.

"At least they positively encourage smoking," I offered, seeing an ashtray with space for resting five cigarette butts, which seemed more than generous on a table for two, and a rather beautifully designed box of matches. It is a dark and moody restaurant, illuminated by modern chandeliers of pale green atoms; sitting side by side, we set about trying to act as illicitly as the cosiness demanded.

When our waiter arrived it was "buona sera" all round. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Lenin, as did our wine waiter, so much so that I began to wonder whether this was a job requirement here. But on producing a wooden box filled with skinny grissini flavoured with Parmesan or onion, he turned out to be Italian enough, as a healthy banter full of Pinteresque misunderstandings started up.

"Which one's which?" I enquired.

"Take as many as you want," he replied.

And following on from the grissini, a box of breads was delivered to the table with a cat's saucer of deliciously grassy olive oil.

I had no problem in choosing my first course of creamed white onions with truffles: a mound of exquisitely silky puree that some poor minion in the kitchen must have sieved about 25 times. Lightly coated in a fondue, the whole thing was covered in fine shavings of truffle. It had announced itself at least six feet off as a heady scent wafted over to the table, though this turned out to have more to do with a heavy hand with the truffle oil than the truffles. (I have reservations about truffle oil, it has the same capacity to disorientate your palate as an aniseed ball.) Having finished, I asked Lenin what kind of truffles they were.

"White truffles," he replied.

"No, they're definitely not white truffles," I said.

"You think that they are black truffles?" he asked me, surprised.

"I think so. And just to be really difficult, could you tell me what kind of black truffles?"

Unfazed by the diner from hell, Lenin disappeared off to find out, popping back to tell me they were indeed black truffles. At the end of dinner he reappeared, tuber in hand. It looked suspiciously like a summer truffle, which I confess I am not a huge fan of, and sure enough there was no real scent.

My husband trumped me with his starter of ravioli, full-blooded Italian pouches of thin and tender pasta concealing a delicate puree of jerusalem artichokes that shone through the rich meatiness of duck rag beneath.

Next up I had the poached hake with squid-ink stew: a juicy, fat fillet perfectly cooked and judiciously scented with aromatics, resting on top of a base of coarsely chopped potatoes in olive oil, lubricated by a sticky, black-ink sauce. Equally praiseworthy was the dish of pot-roasted squab pigeon with croutons spread with foie gras, the highlight of which was some large green olives deep-fried in breadcrumbs.

"Can we have these at home?"

"No, we can't," I replied, going off the large, green olives.

Despite the largesse of the portions, we ran the full marathon with the dessert menu. At this point, though, it seems Bruno Loubet, fed up with Italy, packed his bags and went back to France.

I chose the most Italian item on the menu: a selection of cheeses with fig jam, which came arranged like the petals of a flower. The jam was good enough to eat on its own, the cheeses less endearing, two of them being of the type that remove the roof of your mouth. Having twisted my husband's arm to try the saffron parfait, I ate more of it than he did. The flavour was more pleasing than I had expected, although the surrounding blackcurrant sorbet drowned out the spice. And the financiers (small, almond sponge cakes) that were served with it had seen better days - the one before, at a guess.

For each of us to lick two out of three plates clean isn't bad going. The bill, with a very elegant bottle of Gavi, came to pounds 120 - on the fair side of pricey. I would like to return and eat at Osteria, downstairs, where the food is allegedly more rustically Italian. Upstairs the food is an interesting hybrid.

While the flavours may refer to Italy, Loubet delivers them with all the complexity, control and formality you would expect of a highly trained French chef. The sense of abandon I associate with Italian cooking doesn't sit easily on his shoulders. Perhaps they should turn Isola into a French restaurant. Or would that be too obvious?

Isola, 145 Knightsbridge, London SW1 (0171-838 1044). Lunch and dinner daily. Last orders 10.30pm. Wheelchair access. All credit cards

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