From the breathless write-up of Signor Zilli on Toptable, on the basis of which I booked for dinner with Andrew last night, I was expecting celeb-chef Aldo Zilli’s Soho flagship to be something akin to Cipriani – super-chic decor, a bustling atmosphere and wall-to-wall beautiful people, with the food taking only a bit part in the whole drama of the affair. Not so, in fact the exact inverse: the food at Signor Zilli is excellent but just about everything else leaves a lot to be desired.
Let’s start with the room; well, Signor Zilli opened in 1988, when every posh Italian (or those with aspirations to be) had to have frescoed walls, plump padded chairs and mirrors galore; Signor Zilli had them then, and still has them now, seemingly unchanged from opening day. This gives the ground floor dining space (there’s a twin in the basement) the air of a low-rent Rome hotel’s breakfast room. The welcome, from the very Italian maitre d’-cum-head-waiter (a Giacomo of all trades?) was effusive and charming, which he continued to be throughout the evening, but his treatment of the waiting staff even in front of customers was brusque and overbearing and no-one wants Jekyll and Hyde supervising their supper.
There are some nice, if basic service touches, for example good fresh onion focaccia is provided free and regularly replenished, even if of the oil and vinegar provided for dunking only the former gets topped up. Wine and water is poured only when one is absolutely ready for it, and tap water is offered proactively which always gets a gold star from me. Toilets, accessed via a very low-ceilinged staircase (not good when you’re as tall as I am) are probably spotless but look grubby and tatty; all-in-all, the whole place feels unloved, adding weight to the popular belief that if a chef is spending as much time writing books, flogging breakfast cereals and appearing on TV as - say – Aldo Zilli, he can’t really be spending that much time looking after the restaurants which bear his name.
Saying that, whoever actually is in the kitchen is turning out some extremely good food. Everything we ate was great, from the crayfish, orange and avocado salad we both chose as our starter, via my delicious main course of tiger prawn, squash and pea risotto, to our shared pud of chocolate torino (chocolate fondant, basically, but a really good one) with pistachio ice cream. But that’s only when, or indeed if, you actually get your food; the dessert was (scant) compensation from the maitre d’ for the kitchen having got my main course order wrong not once, but twice, meaning that by the time my risotto finally arrived Andrew had all but finished his pancetta-wrapped salmon fillet with tomato and red onion salad, again very good but rendered less enjoyable by the discomfort of having to eat it while I sat there foodless. While sitting waiting, no one offered any explanations or provided any updates, but looking on the bright side it at least meant extra gossiping time with Andrew which is never a bad thing.
Another positive was the wine, a 2006 Grecanico which for a house white was more than usually palatable and reasonable enough at £16 (it says £15.90 on the wine list but I’d not the inclination to argue this point), but I must fault the wine list itself for leaping up in increments of £4-£5 rather than the usual £2-£3; not very credit-crunch friendly Aldo, even if the food is perfectly reasonable price-wise.
And that, come to think of it, is probably Signor Zilli’s only real selling point: for the quality, in this part of town, the food’s quite good value, even if as we did you eschew the Toptable special offer menu (with its dull, chosen-for-cheapness options) and go for the much more appealing menu del giorno at only four quid a head more. Maybe we just visited on an off-night; maybe any other night of the week Signor Zilli really is filled with glitterati rather than an office party and a couple of couples as on our visit. Perhaps the beau monde of Soho see past the tatty frescoes, stained chairs and inept (though sweetly enthusiastic) service and see something I don’t? Perhaps...but I doubt it. I feel like I’m giving Signor Zilli, both restaurant and restaurateur, a kicking here, and I don’t want to; it’s not a particularly bad place, and some aspects are very good, but overall it’s just...fine. And these days that just doesn’t cut it, when everyone’s being more cautious about where they spend their eating out money and everyone’s a critic (!)
Feeling a bit flat after the Signor Zilli experience, we took ourselves over the river to the fabulous Skylon for coffee and cocktails and had at least three times as much fun as we’d had at dinner in less than a third of the time. We enthused about how successfully Skylon brings together ambience, appearance, service and quality whatever the time of day or night to provide a really enjoyable experience – perhaps Signor Zilli should get his notebook out and come take lessons on how it’s done...
Signor Zilli, 41 Dean Street, London W1D 4PY Tel: 020 7734 3924 www.zillialdo.com
Skylon, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX Tel: 020 7654 7800 www.skylonrestaurant.com