The name of this Italian restaurant is obscure, to say the least. It is not some offshoot of “Bob, Bob, Ricard”, or a weird allusion to the “I Robot” classic science fiction collection by Isaac Asimov. Instead it refers to a painting by Sussex artist Kate Boxer, apparently noted for her paintings and prints of animals, in this particular case a rabbit known as Robert. Quite why this was chosen as the name for an Italian café eludes me, but there you have it, and the air of mystery was not lifted when I inquired, since the restaurant manager was similarly baffled. The dining rooms, spread over two floors, are decorated with assorted original paintings, the tables reasonably well-spaced and noise levels were tolerable despite the wooden floor.
This venture is something of a departure from the previous form of Arkady Novikov, who owns numerous places in Russia but in London is known for his vast, flashy eponymous restaurant and bar complex in Berkeley Street. London’s press critics seem to have instinctively taken against Novikov, but the food at his Italian restaurant in the Novikov complex is very good, and there is nothing wrong with the produce at the Asian restaurant either, as its display of live shellfish testifies - they are just rather expensive. “I, Robert” is a more casual, affordable affair employing a chef, Michele Granziera, who used to work at Zafferano for seven years before running Avista. Here the pasta is made fresh daily and hand-rolled, and the bread is also made from scratch. The white bread was lovely, the brown a touch stale, the strega suitably crisp.
The mostly Italian list had wines such as Girlan Flora Chardonnay 2013 at a reasonable £34 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £18, Querciabella Chainti Classico 2011 at a chunkier £68 given that it retails at £21, and Gaja Rossj-Bass 2013 at £115 for a bottle that will set you back £52 in the high street. Pricing mark-ups for the prestige wines were, strangely, less kind than the cheaper bottles: Antinori Tignanello 2011 was £185 yet costs £67 retail, and Tenuto San Guido 2009 Sassicaia was listed at a hefty £450 for a label that currently sells for £125.
Trofie pasta with pesto, peas and courgettes was very enjoyable, the pasta having good texture, the vegetables possessing nice flavour and the basil from the pesto not overwhelming (14/20). A warm salad of puy lentils with pumpkin and quinoa was simple but pleasant, a suitably comforting dish for a cold winter night like this, the mix of textures enjoyable (12/20).
Salmon was marinated with citrus and dressed with ginger, horseradish and chilli, the spices lifting the salmon flavour without dominating it. This is a basic enough dish but was well executed (13/20). Tagliolini was nicely made, served with rabbit ragu that was flavoured with a little celery. The rabbit meat was a touch dry but the sauce had quite punchy flavour, the seasoning accurate (13/20).
Cheesecake with black cherry had good texture and enough fruit to cut through the richness of the cheese (13/20). A “lemon tart” was really a lemon meringue pie, and had decent pastry but needed a bit more lemon to successfully balance the sugar (12/20). Coffee was ordinary.
The bill came to £90 with a good Prunotto Barbaresco 2012 at a chunky £85 compared to a shop price of £23; if you shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head would be around £65. The service was the weak point of the overall meal experience. Our starter was delivered with a baffled “Who ordered what?” from our confused-looking waiter, who acted as if he had stumbled into the restaurant by accident and had been handed a couple of plates to deliver by a passing stranger. The wine was mercifully left on the table for us to top up, because getting attention here was far from straightforward. The starter arrived preternaturally quickly, but getting the bill was as elongated a process as reading a Tolstoy novel. However the food itself was competent and the prices not excessive for Mayfair.