The tongue-and-cheek approach

Those Italians, they do know how to seduce a girl. With gloomy decor, plenty of offal and pig's trotters, to be exact
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Where would you recommend?" If you want to make my heart sink faster than a failed soufflé, ask me where to go for dinner. "Whereabouts, when, with whom, what for, how much are you prepared to spend?" I'll ask. You'll narrow the field. I'll make a few suggestions. You'll ignore them and go somewhere you've been before.

Where would you recommend?" If you want to make my heart sink faster than a failed soufflé, ask me where to go for dinner. "Whereabouts, when, with whom, what for, how much are you prepared to spend?" I'll ask. You'll narrow the field. I'll make a few suggestions. You'll ignore them and go somewhere you've been before.

However many restaurants open in London (and only here are we so spoilt for choice as to suffer option- stress) even the best must be recommended with qualifications, and few have what it takes to become classics. Those that do may, after the initial flurry of interest, acquire contented regulars and weather some ups and downs without ever becoming as widely known as they deserve. Take Ibla, for example. It opened three years ago, when the deli and café Villandry moved out to larger, more minimalist premises. At the time, it attracted attention, but its reputation seemed to fluctuate, and if anyone ever urged me to go I can't have been paying attention.

By the time it seemed the answer to a lunchtime meeting in Marylebone, it had earned and lost a Michelin bib gourmand because of a hiatus in the kitchen last summer, but just been shortlisted as one of five in the Best Italian category of the London Restaurant Awards.

After buckwheat pasta with savoy cabbage and wild mushrooms, and fantastic pink lamb with artichokes from the £15 two-course set menu, I can't imagine why I never went before. And, with apologies to those who hoped to keep it to themselves - and the seasoned political commentator who was lunching there alone - I must share the secret of this bon viveurs' lair.

In the evening, when I returned to give it a more professional going over, dinner is £30 for three courses, £35 for four, with one dish from each section - antipasti, pasta and risotto, pesce and carni - carrying a £3 supplement. Though the small white print on pale blue was hard to read, it was immediately clear from the menu that this was more than a neighbourhood discovery, and no off-West End bargain, either.

Ibla's is not artlessly simple, rustic Italian cooking, where much is made of the origin of the olive oil, and you pay through the nose for grilled fish. It's complex, earthy but more evolved and offally than we've come to expect of Italian. As was first demonstrated by a sensationally good ragout of pig's trotter, prawns and snail. "Not so much surf-and-turf as stone-and-sty," quipped my consort, of this unusual alliance. Consisting of a "trotter mix" of the uniquely gelatinous meat and skin, with juicy prawns on top and the gastropods on the edge, it cleverly matched differing degrees of chewy. Uniting it all was a mustard sauce sweetened with balsamic vinegar that didn't catch the back of the throat the way all the balsamic now being splashed around often does.

Pastas play a role greater than that of intermediary course. Tempting though crab ravioli with poached eggs and black truffle was, it threatened to undermine any ensuing fish or meat. Instead, tortellini filled with lightly spiced minced pheasant, with savoy cabbage, wild mushrooms and gamey stock (similar to the set-lunch pasta, with wings) was a wintery treat.

Meat dishes boldly fielded offal in two out of four choices. Veal cheek or beef tongue? Our choice of cheek was another textural triumph. Tender, again gelatinously melting, nuggets of meat came with braised fennel and a scoop of polenta. Sea bream given a smoky branding on the chargrill, with caramelised orange zest and sliced globe artichoke under a lid of golden, crisp potato petals, was gloriously good, rising well above the now- mundane Mediterranean horizon.

After two, of a possible three, such literally lip-smackingly savoury courses, a zabaglione semi-freddo and creamy honey mousse in a praline sandwich lacked intensity, though they satisfied a craving for sweetness and looked pretty enough. As an alternative, there's a menu of a dozen Italian cheeses. In every respect, Ibla's doing everything right. Waiters in black didn't put a foot wrong, except to carry off our bottle of wine every time they topped up our glasses. Another almost persuaded us to have the rabbit-in-a-bisque special by claiming to have eaten it only half an hour ago. (Call me Miss Marple, but I doubt he had supper at 8.15pm, and he repeated exactly the same story to the next table 10 minutes later.)

Nevertheless, the staff's conviction, the restaurant's refreshingly sombre interior, and an irresistible basket of breads were on their way to making the third convert of the week before we even started eating.

You don't have to be a fogey to appreciate an antidote to minimalism. "It's my fantasy restaurant," said my consort of the barely decorated Georgian dining-room with golden wheatsheaf candelabra casting reflected pools of light on the glossy, chianti-coloured, panelled walls. The fireplace is intact, there's no superfluous decoration, but despite a shortage of soft furnishings, the noise level's that of civilised dining, the mood one of intimacy. Which may be why it attracts a wide age range, seemingly getting younger towards the front, where the more modish room's painted a less flattering shade of shiny olive green.

Our more lived-in looking neighbours, in the atmospheric ruby room, were a timeless collection of dowagers, men in wide chalk-stripe suits accessorised with signet rings, long cigarettes (and, a sign of past excesses, a glass of Coke) and women who might have modelled in the 1960s. Marylebone's so much more recherché than Soho.

Three years is supposed to be the average lifespan of a London restaurant, but Ibla - like its customers - gives the impression of being older, wiser and having an interesting past and a prosperous future. However, praise comes with one qualification. My dear, the price: £50 a head including a £23 bottle of Ciro Classico, from an all-Italian list with little under £20. Even so, If you ask me where I recommend, I'd still say Ibla. And I'd say it again: Ibla, Ibla, Ibla, if I thought you'd take any notice.

Ibla, 89 Marylebone High St, London W1 (020-7224 3799. Mon-Fri lunch 12-2.30pm, dinner 7-10.30pm, Sat dinner 7-10.30pm. All major cards accepted. Limited disabled access

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