Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

IT WAS like being the child in the tale of the emperor's new clothes. We were in Isola, the much-lauded new venture of the great Oliver Peyton, preparing to enjoy our first mouthfuls of a menu which has won praise from most of London's culinocracy for its 'audacity', 'innovation', etc. But we had a problem.

My friend, Alice, had decided to start with the 'honey-roasted quail, salad of porcini mushrooms with four-year-old Parmesan'. The only problem was a lack of quail. 'Don't worry. It'll be hiding under that geriatric Parmesan,' I assured her. She picked away a little longer, overturning every shard of cheese before declaring that the quail really had come without any quail.

I had a rummage. It was true. This was not a case of ultra-minimalist cuisine. This was non-cuisine. When we eventually managed to hail a waiter, I expected some sort of explanation or apology for the quail-free quail. There was none. He gave us a slightly suspicious took and asked briskly, 'You want another oneT

Alice said that, yes, she would, preferably with quail this time. He disappeared with the plate. Other waiters shot us disapproving looks. Either they thought that Alice was trying to wangle some extra quail on the sly or they thought that we were impertinent for complaining. It seemed a very odd way to treat your customers when you have just spent L4 million on what is meant to be a gastronomic landmark.

Isola is certainly a bold venture. It is, in fact, two large restaurants in Knightsbridge. Isola is the brighter, brasher joint upstairs. Downstairs is the more relaxed and ostensibly cheaper Osteria. A huge glass front covers both levels so that Isola diners look down on the heads of the bus queue outside and Osteria customers look up at their legs.

Oliver Peyton, the man behind the Atlantic Bar and Grill, Mash and Coast, wants this to be his flagship restaurant, a New-York-style, power-dining paradise offering the best of Italian cuisine courtesy of a star French chef (Bruno Loubet).

As you enter Isola through a bank-vault door, another arena of power springs to mind. The perpendicular red banquettes, the brown tiles on the walls, the chrome and the sharp lighting struck me as rather Soviet. It is less Manhattan, more Politburo executive dining-room, circa 1965.

When I had made my reservation I was told that the earliest available table was for 9.30 p.m. When we arrived at 9.15, the place was barely half-full. The tables with a street view had been taken but there were acres of empty seats at the back, where Alice and I sat with a view of the parquet flooring on the wall. The service matched the view. Perhaps the letters T, 'e' and V had fallen off the sign saying 'Isola'.

Mr Peyton is particularly proud of an allItalian wine list which boasts 250 different labels, no fewer than 70 of them by the glass. The staff insist that their storage equipment keeps opened bottles fresh for weeks, but I have my doubts. I tried three different reds by the glass, one of which tasted as if it had been left open for a day. Again, it was only changed after much eyecontact avoidance and indignation from another po-faced waiter. I have seen happier bunnies in documentaries about vivisection.

Ordering a whole bottle is a better bet. Our L23.50 bottle of 1997 Montepulciano Macchione did not cost much more than two glasses of 1997 Barbera Sandrone, and was markedly better. …

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