When IÕm feeling ten years younger and ten pounds lighter, and I have a cigarette in one hand and an olive bobbing in a glass of liquid lighter fuel in the other, there are few places IÕd rather be than perched on a stool in the supremely kinky, Captain Scarlett meets Madame Whiplash bar in Isola, starring in my own very own episode of Sex in the City. I was planning to have my book launch here since the Ferrari red upholstery matches the cover, but global events rather took the canapˇ out of that idea and the book made it to the shelves without any accompanying fizz.
Since opening two years ago, the fancy upstairs restaurant has been closed, revamped and rededicated to drink, leaving the Brasserie downstairs, which was always the better, and cheaper, of the two eateries, to go it alone on the food. Star chef Bruno Loubet has also gone, like any sensible man, to Australia (to replace all their own kitchen gods who seem to be living over here) and the new guy in the kitchen is Graziano Bonacina. Ooh, it just rolls off the tongue like water of my swimming coachÕs back. In my next life, IÕm so definitely going to be Italian. Well, after IÕve been Sarah Jessica Parker and walked through the streets of New York in a white tutu (though why she keeps her bra on in bed continues to mystify me). What more could a girl want in life than rampant promiscuity, good underwear and a Barbie wardrobe?
Well a cigarette perhaps, but IÕve quit. So it does no good to pose at the bar watching the unlucky, Martiniless people slumped, blank-eyed as they glide through Knightsbridge in big red buses like moveable scenery. I can feel the hooves of the Marlboro manÕs horse of addiction riding over me, yelling nicotine from the Richard Prince life sized cowboy portrait hanging on the wall. And we all know where he ended up. So downstairs, despondent and de-fagged to the restaurant, a glass pillared palace featuring more squashy, cream leather than an Austin Morris convention and where, if you sit at the right angle to the pillars, you get a satisfyingly thin reflection smiling back at you.
The menu hasnÕt changed too much. ItÕs still elegantly rustic Italian, though Bruno LoubetÕs stupendous beetroot ravioli with horseradish and Parmesan, which was worth crawling over red-hot tarmac in a bikini for, has vanished in a heat haze, as have the pumpkin tortellini with almonds. In their place we were offered Pumpkin tortellini with almonds and/italics/amaretti biscuits; a pairing that sounds as bizarre as adding Smarties to turnip. In fact, they tasted rather good, slithering around the plate like baby oil in the bath tub, with only the barest hint of sweetness. I started with what I hoped would be the simple grilled vegetable salad with balsamic dressing, but noticed too late that there were two vegetable salads on the menu and ended up with the other one; a towering cylindrical concoction of very dry odds and ends - mostly aubergine - pressed like old newspapers under a fat manÕ sofa, and topped off with frilly lettuce. The accompanying mozzarella was, however, wonderfully smooth and creamy. My publisher friend, Dan, had a fine salad of octopus, baby squid, clams and king prawns Š exactly as promised on the menu Š again presented stacked like a lighthouse with a beacon of mixed leaves. It was, he claimed with technical accuracy you would expect from a publisher ŌexcellentÕ Š Ōwith numeorus fragments of wriggly, leggy things.Õ
While I was mincing away with a mixed salad, chasing my chubby tortellini round and round the plate, he went straight for the macho stuff. Forgoing such seasonal offerings as pan fried veal cutlet with pancetta, savoy cabbage and cooked chestnuts, or roast rack of lamb with potato gratin and wild mushrooms, he asked for the special - braised lamb shank. It looked divine, slow cooked and falling easily of the bone, succumbing to a poke with a fork as readily as I would to the packet of Marlboro Light which snaked out of his pocket, a second after heÕd cleared his plate with boarding school haste.
Have you seen those old Bisto ads? Well, youÕve got the picture Š me spooning a gorgeous taramisu into my despondent face whilst wistfully following the ribbons of carcinogenic smoke drifting seductively across the table. Other puddings on offer were a chocolate covered swiss roll with a tumbleweed of spun sugar perched on top, and something Š which has since mysteriously disappeared from the menu Š containing ŌcandidÕ fruits. Just what you need when youÕre trying to fight off the thrawl of the evil weed Š a fruit that speaks its mind: look sweetie, frankly, youÕre not pale and interesting, youÕre just washed out and anaemic, the hair doesnÕt look natural Š only Arthur Hayley makes a big thing of his roots - and those emaciating pillars make you look like a squashed Cher, before the nose job.
WeÕre taking serious, psychic pain here, necessitating the rapid substitution of cocktail anaesthesia. Result: Manhattans 2: Marlboro 0.