Premium

William Sitwell reviews Isla, London: 'I declare that all peas be made into hummus under the instruction of this chef' 

4
Isla
, London
Our critic conquers a childhood fear at this council office turned snazzy hotel, restaurant and bar Credit: David Cleveland 

There is something wonderfully creative about turning a council office into a snazzy hotel, restaurant and bar. This fabulous two-fingered salute can be seen now opposite St Pancras Station at what is called The Standard. Its imaginative owners, having opened establishments in New York’s Meatpacking District and Downtown Los Angeles, have now come and done a favour to London.

They have taken a building of the brutalist architecture of the late 1970s and transformed this former annex of Camden Town Council into a pleasure dome. So where once were training rooms for traffic wardens, filing cabinets housing records of parking fines, desks devoted to refusing permission for home extensions, and meeting rooms used to discuss policies to combat cat littering, are now cosy, sexy bedrooms, a late-night cocktail bar, a DJ booth and a rather lovely restaurant.

The decor is a sort of reimagined ’70s fantasy. It’s as if Austin Powers invaded, with an army of girls in flowery flared jumpsuits and men with beards and large sunglasses. They assaulted the grey, lumpy façade and waved their magic wands. They turned the computer-says-no bureaucrats into staff whose job is to dish out happiness rather than refuse retrospective planning applications. Now there are curved wood panels, colourful carpets, deep and low armchairs. The bar is filled with books – a free library of philosophy and humour.

The restaurant is called Isla and serves food redolent of the north African coast; redolent, in fact, of a London restaurant called The Barbary. But that’s forgivable; in the food world, good ideas should be constantly stolen, fenced and dished out under new auspices.

The menu promises dishes ‘From the sea’, ‘From the soil’ and ‘From the land’ – for sharing (of course) – whose fashionable pretentiousness you can 
also forgive, because very nearly all of them are very good.

We started with a plate of crudité pickles and pea hummus. Its presentation was almost clumsy. Large chunks of radish and carrot, the latter’s tops looking like they’d been chewed rather cut. But it tasted as beautifully natural as it looked, as if the chef had barely interfered in its journey from earth to plate. If this is what pea hummus can taste like – fresh, springlike, a little crunchy in texture – then when I take the reins of power, I shall decree that all peas be made into hummus under the instruction of the Isla chef. As a child pea-hater, this was a helpful moment of therapy.

The crudité pickles and pea hummus: 'it tasted as beautifully natural as it looked' Credit: Charlie Mckay

We then piled through a selection of main course plates. The ceviche with lettuce and herbs came as two DIY dishes. You spooned the ceviche into the little gem and thence into your gob. I often find that ceviche tastes more of its cure than the fish; too much salt, too much citrus. But this collection of fish with herbs and little berries was silky smooth, with not a hint of acrid gagging.

There was also a triumphant dish of marinated tomatoes. They were wonderfully gunky and syrupy with an added little crunch of breadcrumbs. The sliced half of broccoli – firm and crunchy – had slightly charred florets and was caked in yogurt and mustard seeds. President HW Bush banned broccoli from his table – be it in the White House or on Air Force One. ‘I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli,’ he once declared. He would have understood my pea issue. If he’d dined at Isla he’d have made eating broccoli compulsory.

So go and feast on the veg, and go for the Iberico pork with chimichurri, if you need some flesh. It is deep and dark and wonderful. But ignore the fig tarte tatin. It’s deconstructed and uncooked – not caramelised and not clever. As a former council official might once have said, ‘Permission for this construction is refused and will not be granted on appeal.’

Read William Sitwell's latest restaurant review on telegraph.co.uk every Friday from 7am