I'm a huge fan of Oliver Peyton's. He may not be a household name--not yet, anyway--but in the restaurant world he's a big noise. He's probably best known for owning the Atlantic Bar & Grill, but he also owns Mash in Great Portland Street and Isola in Knightsbridge. At one stage he owned at least half a dozen restaurants, but he's been retrenching recently, selling the Admiralty for £6.5 million last year. Not bad for a 41-year-old lad from Sligo.
In case that sounds like abject brown-nosing, let me say immediately that Isola, his flagship, is far from perfect. Peyton first acquired the site--a former Knightsbridge shopping arcade--in 1997 and it took two years, three designers and £4 million to transform it into the restaurant it is today. Actually, that's not quite accurate, since it was originally two restaurants: Isola and Osteria d'Isola. It was rumoured to be up for sale in 2001 and it's been re-launched more than once since then. In its current incarnation, the raised ground floor is a cocktail bar, while the lower deck is an expensive restaurant that's aiming to compete in the Italian premier league, a division that includes Locanda Locatelli, Zafferano, Assaggi, Riva and the River Café.
Is it in their class? I'm no gastronome, but the meal I had there with my wife last week was right up there with the competition. Bruno Loubet was the original chef, but he departed in 2001 and the latest import is Mark Broadbent who used to be at the Oak. I started with veal risotto and followed up with lamb and roast potatoes, both of which were extremely good. My wife had a salad and then a goats-cheese-and-aubergine concoction that she couldn't stop raving about. The only disappointment was the wine. We had three glasses between us, each recommended by the waiter, and they were all pretty mediocre. At £10 a pop I was expecting something a little better.
Conceptually, Isola is harder to get a handle on. Who's it aimed at, exactly? Fashionistas? Wanker bankers? Ladies who lunch? Probably all of the above--and therein lies the problem. As one critic memorably said, "The menu is too stuffy for the young and the room too relaxed for their parents." The interior--all leather, wood and chrome--looks like the sumptuous upholstery of a luxury sports car--a Bentley Coupé designed by Gianni Versace. Is it Italian? Spanish? Brazilian? Again, it's hard to tell. It's "sexy", rather than sexy. On the night I went there I spotted about half a dozen couples, two groups of young men and an office party. They weren't lager louts by any means--the office was probably a graphic design outfit--but they weren't particularly fashionable either.
With its striking interior and impossibly glamorous owner, Isola seems designed to accommodate the beautiful people and anyone else looks slightly out of place. Having said that, celebrities do come here in droves. It recently made headlines when Chris Martin got into a fracas with a group of paparazzi who were waiting outside in the hope of photographing him and Gwyneth Paltrow, surely the tabloid equivalent of three Michelin stars. If Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez ever do get married, I wouldn't be surprised if they held their reception here.
As my wife and I were leaving, we actually saw Oliver Peyton himself. Seeing him at the best table, with his gorgeous wife by his side, Isola suddenly made sense. I think I'll start coming here more often and--who knows--if Chris Martin ever spots me loitering in the reception, notebook in hand, perhaps he'll do me the supreme honour of beating me up.