Restaurant review

Isibani restaurant review: Clever chef with deft ideas avoids being blinded by lights


Every chef has their own idea of ​​what makes a restaurant tick, but there is one that is particularly close to my heart. “Let me tell you something, yes?” Marco Pierre White told me, as we smoked side by side. “In restaurants, the atmosphere is what is generated by people. The environment is what you create. The most important thing” – here the clever tapping of the ashes, the sudden turn of the head – “is the lighting”.

I mention this not because I want you to (wrongly) assume that Marco and I are friends – although, of course, I want you to think so – but because it never made much sense until until I enter Isibani, a new West African. spot in Knightsbridge, which has the same kind of lighting as the frankly dark offices this article was cobbled into. Isibani’s light is as gray as diseased skin. The banquettes, a shade of blue normally reserved exclusively for pencils, do not help matters. It is a disorienting, disconcerting introduction. Knightsbridge can be a lot of things – flashy, full of prostitutes – but the sheen of luxury tends to be a bit thicker than that. And usually there is no shortage of dimmers.

However, my friend Marco wasn’t always right about everything. It is said that his technique for shooting customers he had fought against was to do the ‘whoosh’ – the theatrics of removing all cutlery, plates and glasses in a bid to encourage troublesome diners to walk away . Isibani may need an electrician and a new upholsterer, but his specialty is hospitality; during supper and then lunch, the butler, a waiter and even the chef made sure everything was fine. Eleven times all in. I counted. But that also mattered; this is a restaurant that wants to fly straight.

This chef, the handsome Victor Okunowo, is a talent. It’s a career of obligatory mentions – time spent at Wolseley and Chiltern Fire Station, a good run on Masterchef: The Professionals – but it feels like it could be the name-maker. He cooks in a strange place, behind the tasteless glamor of the Bulgari Hotel and stuck in a shortcut next to shops and restaurants that seem unlikely in SW1, their speed seeming more Swindon. It may not matter; Okunowo has a sense of things, when things go his way. They didn’t make it on a first meal there; we were firmed up on a “special” set menu as the chef had little choice as half his stock had not been delivered. It was an uneven feed but not entirely unpromising. The steamed moi moi with quail eggs was given a jolt of the light tomato spice of chakalaka, the taste and sweet indulgence came from a buttermilk sauce. The truffle, lazy shorthand for luxury, should have been kept out. But it was a push to come back.

Adrian Lourie

So I did. Lunch – two courses at £35 – felt on its feet, that hint of talent now a thing in its own right. Dishes come from all over Africa, with Nigeria apparently wielding the greatest influence. The guinea fowl, rather than the chicken, has had a makeover. I must say here that my knowledge of West African cuisine is slim, but even I saw the deft sleight of hand that transformed a typically robust dish into an elegant terrine with a beautifully charred top. It sat under a scattering of onion skin and brackish touches of olive. Such elegance was set aside for a big fillet of cod under a landslide of okra, prawns, glasswort and sea fennel, showing that the cuisine has muscle too. There was the obligatory jollof rice, pricked with heat.

It was slow cooked; lunch that shouldn’t have ended. From the start I wondered what crazy would open a place like this here. Not because it’s not good – it is – but because it feels like a place for locals, one of those slightly quirky places that sneak in affections. I don’t know how many people there are still in Knightsbridge. But if you are one, go for it. Have them drop the Lionel Richie and dim the lights. And tell them Marco’s friend sent you.

9 Knightsbridge Green, SW1X 7QL. Meal for two, plus drinks, around £160. Open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11am-2am; Sunday 11am-11pm;

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