At the forecourt of dining

BLUEBIRD; 350 King's Road, London SW3 5UU. Tel: 0171 559 1000. Open Mon-Fri 12-3.30pm, Mon-Sat 6-11pm, Sat and Sun for brunch 11am-3.30pm, and Sun 6-10pm. Average price per person, pounds 35, without wine. Credit cards accepted
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Why not combine a restaurant review with a night's entertainment for the Aged P, up in London on a visit? (The Parent in question, my boyfriend's mother, is not really Aged at all, but we've both just finished Great Expectations, and it's the current Dickensian joke in our household). She's arriving on Wednesday, so I ring up Terence Conran's latest venture, Bluebird, to arrange a table. Uh-oh. The only sittings available are 6pm and 10.30pm (the restaurant seats 240). It's not really practical for two working people to get up to the arse end of Chelsea by 6pm, never mind have an appetite, and by 10.30pm the Aged P will be dead on her feet. Still, I book a table for 6pm, feeling grimly that I am having to fit my social life around the needs of Sir Terence, rather than the other way about.

But as Tel pointed out on our Letters Page, two weeks ago, we shouldn't expect it to be any dif-ferent. Restaurant staff are rude? Well, so are customers. Remember that "a smile and a compliment works wonders", says Tel. "Courtesy," he reminds us, "is a two-way street." Which is odd, really, as money isn't. Not only do we have to pay them, they'll be really hurt and offended unless we smile at them and compliment them too.

I regretfully decide that the Aged P will have to go without, and phone up to change the booking to a different day and a more congenial time for the two of us. This, too, proves to be fantastically complicated. "So it's a table for three on Monday at 6pm ..." No, I say through clenched teeth, it's a table for TWO on Monday at EIGHT-THIRTY pm. My spontaneity is in tatters. Is this what it takes to dine fashionably in London these days?

Bluebird is the white elephant at the end of the King's Road, a vast Twenties garage with a forlorn recent history as a hippy-shit emporium full of lava lamps and incense, and latterly as the poor raver's answer to Kensington Market. I have to rub my eyes in amazement at the transformation. The forecourt is dotted with tables, the ground floor is a glistening, fetishised food store; to the left there's a cafe, on the right a shop where you can pick up Conraniana: your demitasses and your ashtrays and what-not.

We go up the utilitarian concrete steps - there's no grand entrance - to the first floor where we are hailed with almost manic glee by five greeters. Now, my idea of the perfect restaurant is one where the loudest noise is the ticking of the grandfather clock, and you don't have to remove your mud-encrusted walking boots. This is yet another huge aircraft-hangar restaurant, painted clinical white, the only patches of colour being the ubiquitous bluebird motif and strange, kite-like structures suspended from the glass roof.

It's a slight downer to be shoe-horned between an already-chomping couple, and a table with a dramatically stained cloth (the six o'clock sitting must have been wild). At first I assume boisterous customers are responsible for the roars which echo, until I realise they emanate from the bright hell of the kitchen, visible through glass along one wall. The last time I saw expressions of such anguish was in a fresco of the Last Judgment. The noise has a curious insulating effect: although you're sitting cheek- by-jowl with your neighbours, you can't hear a word they're saying. We regret this when the stained cloth is whisked away and Posh Tart sits down with Crusty Old Git.

The long blue menu is utilitarian, brisk, and eschews restaurant-speak for plus signs. For some reason, we both agree it is imperative for him to have the cracked crab (pounds 9.95) as a starter, and I have the grilled scallops + lime and coriander. His half-crab arrives, neatly bisected by a single cleaver blow. It's served with a bowl of what looks and tastes like single cream, and is, quite simply, intensely crabby. I don't know what we expected, really. The scallop trio poses more of a challenge, being topped with unidentifi- able, slightly fibrous yellow slivers. Very fresh blanched ginger? That's my best guess.

We order one glass of New World Sauvignon Blanc and one of Chardonnay, and I'm a bit taken aback to see that for pounds 3.70 you only get half a (big) glass. The waiter (we've had three different ones in the first half-hour) is punctilious about making sure we have the right glasses, but I can't help wondering why his Sauv B looks so buttercup yellow while my Chardonnay is atypically pale. One sip and we silently swap glasses.

The woodroasted squab + pommes dauphinoises (pounds 18.50) looks like the sort of plaster miniature roast chicken which comes with a toy oven. It's crisp on the outside, correctly under-done inside, with blackcurrant-dark flesh and a thin gravy. I grieve insincerely over the tiny girth of the roast suckling pig, served with, I mean +, bean cassoulet; it's like eating a baby. The flesh is tender and flavoured with fennel seeds, the breadcrumb-topped butter-beans are slightly tough, the crackling resembles hard, golden toffee.

Perhaps because I haven't nutted anyone, clicked my fingers, or said "Oi, Garson!" once, service is almost passionately keen. Squads of functionaries stop by the table to drop things off or fiddle with the cutlery while enquiring solicitously whether we're enjoying ourselves. The waiter I like best has a shaven-head and what looks like a tattooed scalp, though I decide after discreet inspection that some kind of uneven natural pigmentation is responsible for the Rorschach effect. He is so lovely and charming that I get quite upset when I see him across the other side of the room, serving SOMEONE ELSE.

In the line of duty we have puddings: a small tower of roast peach + marscarpone, and chocolate semi-freddo + honey and turron. The latter is presumably the curlicue of hard, golden toffee resembling pork crackling. With coffees, mineral water and a side salad, the bill comes to a fairly startling pounds 95.51, which made me rather glad about the Aged P. And the Conran experience even extends to the loos, where an attendant dispenses liquid soap and works the taps for you. Hot and cold with embarrassment, you might say.

! Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall returns on 31 August