Serbian chef Tom Ilic's travels around London now see him in charge of his own restaurant in Battersea, where his preference for pork is particularly evident. Joanna Wood reports
The cartoon pig poking through the "o" on Tom Ilic's restaurant signage is a clue to what to expect from his menu.
Serbian-born chef Ilic has always had a thing about pork, a reflection of his middle-European roots, and just because he has finally launched his own restaurant in south London it doesn't mean he's ready to leave his porcine heritage behind. "What else is there but pork?" he jokes.
Of course, there is plenty more besides pigbits on his menu - foie gras, a fair amount of fish, other reds meats - but pork is what has had Ilic's gastric imagination running over the 10-plus years he has been working in London.
From the days when he headed the kitchen of the New End restaurant in Hampstead, through stints at Bonds, then Addendum in the City, his tasty, butch cooking has won him many loyal fans.
Ilic's new eponymous 52-seat Battersea dining room (formerly the Food Room) is the first he has owned, and you could say he was fated to end up buying it, because 10 years ago, at the beginning of his London career, he worked here when it was the Stepping Stone.
He reopened its doors, without any fanfare, at the end of 2007, and has already garnered positive press for the eaterie - from, among others, Giles Coren of The Times. Cumulative press interest has helped to bring in a steady stream of diners, even at lunchtime. Currently, lunches are averaging between 20 and 30 covers, while evenings are full, more often than not. Friday and Saturday evenings are scoring 60‑65 covers.
What's keeping the restaurant ticking is a short, competitively priced menu, replete with Ilic's gutsy food, prepared by himself and brigade of two. "I try," he says, "to keep everything as good and honest and tasty as can be."
Among his porcine signatures are a starter of braised pig's cheeks served with chorizo and a garlic and parsley mash (£5.95), and a surf'n'turf main of sweet succulent scallops teamed with a bit of honey-roast pork belly (with lovely, unctuous fat and a crispy top) served with a crunch of hazelnuts and some Jerusalem artichokes (£13.50). They're both selling well, as is a croustillant of calf's head and sweetbreads with carrot and cardamom salad (£6.50).
At the moment, Ilic is changing the menu completely every few months, but he tweaks as he goes along, changing the odd ingredient when the seasons dictate. Earlier in the year, he had mallard among the mains: it has now been substituted by a roast loin of venison, with butternut squash, ginger tortellini and poached kumquats (£14.25).
He has also changed his main beef offering from a braised beef dish to one of roast fillet with an oxtail raviolo, which comes with caramelised root veg, spinach and bone marrow (£14.95).
However, seasonality is perhaps most obviously reflected in the vegetarian dishes. For instance, a roast root vegetable terrine served with a boiled quails' egg and toast (£4.95) suited the longer, warmer early spring days well - displaying a lightness of touch in the cooking and freshness of produce.
Reflecting the rest of his menu, Ilic's puddings, all priced at £4.50, are strictly in the comfort zone. Sticky toffee pudding (only recently taken off the menu) has been walking out of the door. Cheesecake and a chocolate fondant with seasonal rhubarb sorbert are still around and are proving pretty popular, as is a zingy lemon tart.
When he returned to Battersea before Christmas, Ilic just gave the restaurant a lick of paint and set about getting the tills ringing. With four months of steady business under his belt (average spend per head is £35 for dinner), he is now contemplating a more considered paint job and one or two other tweaks in front-of-house decor.
Ilic has done things the right way in getting his bank balance sorted first. But his cooking - from his bread, made on site, to his pork dishes - remains his most important calling card.
What's on the menu
Tom Ilic, 123 Queenstown Road, London SW8 3RH. Tel 020 7622 0555. www.tomilic.com