Lola’s is upstairs at one end of a converted tram shed in Islington, resulting in a pleasant, split level interior that is part loft, part conservatory. At one end of the long, airy room there’s a large, pretty Play School window (what’s through the arched window today? – surely the childish roots of my Elle Deco voyeurism?) framing a slightly raised table that lacks only a crescent moon backdrop for textbook romance. The rest of the restaurant benefits from huge overhead windows set into the pitched roof, with sheets of Hessian hung like slack rigging underneath the glass to filter the sunlight. Tables are close enough for you to eavesdrop on your neighbours – not always beneficial in a neighbourhood gaff, especially for business lunches, but great if you’ve had a fight with the Mister and need to pass the time.
Unusually, we were in full conversational throttle so being seated next to one of the few occupied tables in an almost empty room (it filled up nicely as the evening progressed), and separated from another couple only by a curl of decorative wrought iron was not ideal. They were so close we could have played join the dots with each other’s freckles. The waiter graciously moved us to a more isolated table, but still within earshot of a diner giving a strident monologue, practicing for a one woman show in corporate management techniques by the sound of it. Never mind. The Mister was much more worried by the fact that he and the waiter had on the same shirt.
You should be relieved – at least he is not a raving queen, I said. Ever since he mistakenly bought a copy of Gay Lifestyle instead of Men’s Health (his defence - both had sepia toned six packs on the front) the kids have been ragging him, his clothes, and his cropped hair all the way to Habitat and back. You are so/italics/ New York gay, said the daughter (world weary schoolgirl sophisticate who has been to NY once/italics/). The boys, meanwhile call him my Gay Dad, and worry about his flower habit. It’s only a matter of time before they start asking why he makes me wear his old suits. Anyway, the mister’s fashion crisis was reaching epic proportions. At least it’s a Paul Smith/italics/ shirt, he whispered.
Food is equally high-end clobber, with Lola’s new head chef, Hywel Jones, straight from Foliage in Knightsbridge’s Mandarin Oriental where he gained a Michelin Star. Given this more modest location, the food is happily less overblown and fiddled around with, but no concessions appear to have been made to quality. Mister’s starter, avocado and red pepper tian, came with tiny pearls of avocado piped around the base, and one single poached langoustine arched in a sea of white porcelain like a minimalist still life, while mine – terrine of confit chicken and smoked ham, though a trifle dry, looked beautifully gutsy, wrapped in cabbage and dotted with acid yellow piccalilli. Other choices were a summery globe artichoke and asparagus millefeulle with mesclun salad and gribiche dressing, pan roasted scallops with smoked haddock brandade and marinated beetroot, or the good old Michelin favourite foie gras arranged on a long plate and served three ways. I did ask what these were but the explanation was drowned out by Mme Orator at the next table. Service was slow but solicitous – my first marriage was over quicker than our first course, which was, after all, a superior but simple assembly job. Main courses were similarly tardy but worth the delay – poached chicken, braised cos lettuce, herb gnocchi and baby leeks, fillet of beef with fondant potatoes, or roast fillet of brill with Provencal veggies. Mister’s roast rump of Welsh lamb served with cannelloni of slow cooked shoulder (explains the wait, perhaps) was profoundly good. My pan-fried Gilt Head bream was accompanied by delicate spears of vaguely obscene and consumptively limp, white asparagus. Poor little sun starved shoots - the vegetable equivalent of eating veal. The menu’s inclusion of single quotes around the new season’s pea and ham ‘risotto’ apparently changed it from the slurpy soupy rice dish you might have expected into a cheesy pea rissole, wrapped like a parcel with strips of ham. And pudding, of course, came artfully arranged on more elongated plates - mine – a teeny hot Cuban chocolate fondant with white chocolate cigarettes (truly – the nearest I get to fags these straight, non-smoking days) and whisky ice cream, bearing a dimetrodon fin of spun sugar and small antennae. I can’t decide, ummed the Mister. Well, not the macaroons, I said masterfully (his suits do that to me, it’s the stitching I think). My suggestion/italics/ - Tahitian vanilla cream in a tower of strawberries balanced between little discs of pastry had simply gargantuan antennae big enough to take your eye out. He was very impressed – took his mind right off the shirt.