The area of London known as Brompton Cross is notable for two things – fine dining and tribalism. It's well served with restaurants, and they're always full of locals. From Brasserie St Quentin to the oyster bar at Bibendum, from Daphne's to the charming Malaysian Awana, there's a lot to choose from – and the denizens of SW3 pack them out, night after night. Don't these people ever stay home and cook for themselves? Do they ever think of throwing caution to the winds and eating in other parts of London?
A popular French choice used to be Papillon at No 96, a classic, unpretentious bistro run by Soren Jessen, a former Goldman Sachs trader who left banking to start a new restaurant career with One Lombard Street. Jessen has now teamed up with Giuliano Lotto to reinvent Papillon as an Italian joint called Ilia. They've moved in the decorators and the results are pleasing, if peculiar.
It's a wonderfully light and airy room, with twirly-design banquette seating and mint-green leather chairs. But the neo-classical bust of Caesar in an alcove suggests a raid on a Roman props shop, the sconce-lamps on the wall date from the 1930s – and what on earth is an oil painting doing plonked in the middle of a mirror? The tables are arrayed right up against the bar, and when our waitress directed us to sit underneath the denim-clad arse of a braying cocktail-drinker, I had to ask if we could sit elsewhere.
At 8.30 on a chilly Tuesday night, the place was almost full. An extraordinary number of young women in expensive, fine-guage jumpers flicked their hair and laughed throatily at their beaming swains. It was Sloane Ranger Central. You half expected Wills and Kate to wander in. Mr Jessen, the owner, moved among the guests like a thin sultan greeting the outer reaches of the harem. Among the staff were the manager, Umberto Scomparin, a colourful chap with a bald pate and a faintly threatening manner, and a sharp-suited youth who resembles an Inter Milan midfielder. Both could regularly be found sitting beside the diners, or kissing them energetically on the cheek.
The menu is enormous, like a town-crier's proclamation-sheet, and is divided into sections: Antipasti, Carni e pesci, etc. It seemed eccentric to offer the pasta dishes after the main-course meats and to charge £20 for "peas and cuttlefish broth", but it's probably an Italian thing. The fact that the wine list offers nothing in the £20-£30 range is definitely a South Ken thing; our bottle of Sicilian Nero d'Avola Soleia was lovely, but at £33, was an offer I could easily have refused.
For a starter, my date went for salumi, a house speciality, flagged by the presence beside the bar of a large, red slicing machine. She was brought a huge platter of San Daniele ham and salami, artfully folded and, she observed, "miraculously thin, like this girl at the next table". My "porchetta-style" rabbit with shallots was four oval slices of bunny, stuffed with parsley, breadcrumbs and jus de lapin camouflaged with shredded lettuce and faintly dressed with a sauce that involved parmesan, orange, lemon and spinach. It came and went without leaving much impression.
From the Primi piatti, Angie chose the spaghetti with clams, chilli and basil, but was told it was gone. My friend Mark Hix had sung the praises of Ilia's linguine with basil and trofie with bacon and cuttlefish, but neither seemed right as a main course. The waiter suggested some grilled calamari with rocket. Did he mean the deep-fried calamari-with-zucchini starter? No no, he laughed, this was a special. I chose braised lamb shank with chickpeas, which arrived steaming with that heady, umami pong that comes from slow braising. The gravy was both sweet and vinous with fugitive herbal touches. The lamb, though, was clenched and unyielding when it should have been falling off the bone. The chickpeas were as boring as always. A side of roast potatoes, overpriced at £4.50, turned out to be chips, but were delicious.
Angie's calamari came on a bed of zucchini with, for some reason, a paper napkin, as though she was expected to eat it with her fingers. "This isn't grilled," she said after a few bites. "It's battered and fried. You can tell by the grease all over the paper." We tried to find our waiter to remonstrate, but he had disappeared, probably to kiss a few more blonde patronesses. By the time another waiter arrived, she'd lost her appetite for calamari.
We shared a pudding of Zuppa Inglese all'Italiana, or English trifle done the Italian way – which meant substituting amaretto for sherry, and sweetening the cream beyond endurance. As we left, feeling distinctly underwhelmed, the owner was being gallant to the babes at the next table, and the joint was loud with kissing. Do try Ilia for its convivial atmosphere – but you may feel you're dining in a club of which you're not really a member.
Ilia, 96 Draycott Avenue, South Kensington, London SW3 (020-7225 2555)
About £130 for two with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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