Apart from the cuttingest edgiest art shows, the ICA has always had its own bar where people who hang around the place claiming to be involved in fringe arts mingle with those on their way to or from the latest film from Burkina-Faso, talk by Jacques Derrida or one of the many other events which make the institute impeccably alternative. This despite it being improbably housed in the grandest of Nash terraces on the Mall in a building that belongs to the Crown Estate, whose rules require payment of a pounds 1.50 entrance fee.
The bar has just been redesigned by 24/Seven, one of the exhibitors in Stealing Beauty. They've used those polypropylene stacking chairs "drained of colour", stripey plywood for the tabletops and - not that you'd know it unless you'd been told - white urinal slabs for the bar. That'll be because they are, they say, concerned with "the re-editing of experience, space, materials and their context", "shifting the terms of engagement", and exploring "the relationship between the borrowed and the made".
The cafe, on which they have yet to start work, has previously performed inconsistently and is handicapped by occupying a tunnel with a self-service counter at one end - although you can carry your tray out to tables in a corridor or up to the bar. To coincide with the redesign, the caterer Philip Owens has arrived to breathe life into the kitchen, and is doing so with full-blooded, Italian-influenced gusto.
Owens has perfect credentials for feeding an arty clientele with rustic Italian food at low prices. For several years he ran the Arts Theatre Cafe, a marvellous rendezvous underneath the theatre off Charing Cross Road. Then he moved to his own place, L'Arte, which, tucked away in Fitzrovia, lacked the Theatre Cafe's West End raison d'etre. Now, arriving at the ICA cafe, cumbersomely renamed Philip Owens at the ICA, he has returned to the kind of arrangement that suits him best.
I'd arranged to go with one of the Muf partnership, who I hoped would comment authoritatively on the interaction between design and consumption. But she couldn't make it, and I was left to wine and (sort of) dine her consort and my own on what they considered not entirely sufficient provision for a Saturday night. To get into the cafe we had to talk our way out of paying pounds 8 admission to a club event, and then found that in the evening it serves only snacks.
But what snacks. The menu consisted of small bowls of Thai and Italian "street food". We ate everything on it. This included small whole aubergines, grilled and nicely salty; fava bean puree on garlicky grilled chard with chilli; Chiang Mai sausages, which were more like pork meatballs; a pad Thai perky with shrimps and lemongrass; suppli - rissoles of tomato-flavoured rice filled with mozzarella; sticky-chilli chicken wings; and a fantastically pretty pat of coconut rice speckled with bits of carrot and chilli, salted with fish sauce and wrapped in a banana leaf.
One of the things I miss when I'm eating Southeast Asian food is bread. Here, with two cuisines bound by the unifying forces of garlic and chilli, we started with dense country bread and warm peppery olive oil. We hoped for more, but the waitress forgot. Do not expect polished service. The boys noted that she didn't offer the wine - Puglia Sangiovese, rather than the D'Arenberg I'd fancied because it sounded like a footballer - to be tasted. Her exit was followed by the off-stage sound of crashing plates. No puddings were officially available, but a chef, possibly Owens himself, at the next table interposed with some welcome creme brulees.
All this cost less than pounds 20 each, and it was clear the food deserved a second chance at lunchtime. I returned with someone who has lived with an Italian for a dozen years, and has had the ignominious experience of cooking for his family and friends who once gave her efforts marks out of ten. She ate chicken stuffed with sausage meat, roasted and sliced, and served in copious quantities with roast onions, garlic cloves, branches of rosemary and potatoes. Gleefully recalling that her sister-in-law always burned chicken, she judged what was in front of her to be superior. My orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) with greens, garlic and enough chilli to be pleasingly lip-numbing, though hotter than it would be in Italy, was perfectly cooked to retain some resistance.
A salad of cannellini beans with lots of parsley and red onions was fine; another of limp lettuce leaves with balsamic vinegar and oil dressing didn't quite make the grade. For puddings - only pounds 2.50 each - panna cotta with strawberries wobbled promisingly as we carried it from till to table, but proved a little too firm when the spoon was applied. Underneath a thick chocolate top, a pot of masala cream was simply a posher version of caramel Angel Delight.
Both meals were garlicky to an antisocial degree; but then, doesn't a real artist reject social niceties? Except that it's not the ICA's regular bar flies who are making most use of the cafe. At lunchtime, as in the evening when the bar was full, it was apparent that those with creative aspirations are more interested in drink. Meanwhile, smart, eat-seeking office workers were queuing up at what must be central London's hottest, hippest lunchtime cafeteria
Philip Owens at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171 930 8619). Open daily lunch and dinner. Around pounds 12 without drinks. Mastercard and Visa accepted. No bookings.
More arty meals: Bites, page 51