Restaurants need great food or real personality to stand out for the right reasons in London.
Ilia has both.
The chef at this new Italian establishment in South Kensington is Omar Agostini, 35. He was born in the Abruzzo region, near Rome, and has spent much of his career working with French chefs, including Alain Ducasse and, more recently, Helene Darroze, from whose London restaurant he joined Ilia.
His cooking is skillful, yet restrained, allowing the excellent ingredients to speak for themselves. That’s as opposed to the ventriloquist approach to cooking, where the chef’s voice is to be heard loudly in every dish.
The front of house is run by Umberto Scomparin, the kind of maitre d’ who is probably capable of making a few enemies as well as plenty of friends. He’s loquacious and opinionated, and I would cross London to be entertained by anyone so capable of bringing operatic color to the serious business of hospitality.
Ilia -- on the site of the old Papillon -- is owned by Soren Jessen, the Dane who also owns 1 Lombard Street in the City. The look is a mix of Art Deco and clean Nordic design, with stylish light fittings and chairs that are comfortable and functional. It’s elegant, without a hint of ostentation.
The menu may be confusing if you like to progress through a meal in a linear fashion from antipasti to dessert. More than 50 options are listed on a large sheet, with the wines on the back and the desserts on a separate piece of paper. The soups are halfway down on the far right, below the pasta.
Sit me down with a cold Italian Chardonnay, a plate of San Daniele ham and regional cheeses, and I’m more than happy to take the time to digest the menu, starting with a tartare of red prawns with lemon and orange at 16 pounds ($26), fried anchovies, and, perhaps, liver crostini with fennel salad.
Pappardelle with wild-boar ragu already has become my usual pick, though you can just as easily appreciate the quality of the pasta in a simple dish of linguine with basil pesto. While the fish dishes change daily -- this is one place where it’s worth having your conversation interrupted to hear the specials -- meat eaters would do well not to miss the braised lamb shank with chickpeas.
One of my guests, not in the first (or even second) flush of youth, has described this as one of the dishes of his lifetime. OK, we had made our way through the wine list by this stage, but he’s still talking about the richness of the flavor and the tenderness of the lamb. Other meat options include sirloin with foie gras, and roasted pork belly with broccoli and almonds. Veal tripe with chickpeas is a side dish at 7 pounds.
The all-Italian wine list starts at about 30 pounds and ascends quickly. There was much to excite my wine-loving guests but the choice is limited if you’re on a budget, which you probably won’t be if you choose to dine out in South Kensington. I wish Italian restaurants were more democratic in this regard, though I admit I’ve had little luck with budget wines from Italy. (On the rare occasions I stray from Champagne in my local Waitrose supermarket, it’s generally toward Portuguese wines for value.)
Ilia, which seats 60 in the main dining room, is understated in appearance and that also may be your first impression of the dishes. The singing and dancing only start when the food reaches your tongue. By that time, Scomparin may be skipping across the restaurant humming an aria. If you like a restaurant with personality, you need look no further.
Ilia, 95 Draycott Avenue, London, SW3 3AD. Information: +44-20-7225-2555 or click on http://www.ilia-london.com.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? About 50 pounds a head for the food.
Sound level? Starts below 70 decibels. Buzzier later.
Inside tip? Don’t argue with the maitre d’.
Special feature? The maitre d’.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes, it’s elegant and sophisticated.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
65-70: Office noise.
75-80: London street.
80-85: Alarm clock at closest range.
85-90: Passing bus.
85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)