EATING OUT / Downriver to outer space: The Canteen - Harbour Yard, Chelsea Harbour, London

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CHELSEA HARBOUR has always been a bit of a mystery to me: those of us who were alive in the Sixties can still remember when it was Lots Road Refuse Tip, and it takes time to realise that all that post-Disney world of crystal towers is really there, tucked away as it is beyond what used to be the end of civilisation. Or at least to accept that it's as much a part of real London as Fulham or Hampstead.

When my literary agents moved there from next to the Savoy some years back there was a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth at the loss of so many good lunches at their clients' expense at Simpson's-in-the- Strand, or Rules, or the Savoy itself, and a lot of whistling in the dark about how soon you could get there by river bus from a stop outside the National Theatre. Or, more important, how quickly you could get back.

I actually tried it once. Except for the miracle of a river bus arriving at all at a bleak and deserted pier on the South Bank on a wet and windy day with low cloud, the journey was relatively uninteresting. I had hoped for the kind of jolly river traffic you see in illustrations of Elizabethan London, but we only saw one barge, and the driver - if that's what you call a man who steers a river bus - said that they had to keep their speed down because of the houseboats.

Certain crafty houseboat dwellers, it seems, had sued the River Bus Company for the contents of their bars - bottles and bottles of very expensive spirits and fine old wine - which, they claimed, had been smashed by the wash every time the river bus went by at more than walking pace.

More recently, I noticed that my agents had stopped talking nostalgically about the lost fleshpots of the Strand. It may be just that they have worked out how to escape more efficiently from their riverside Sing Sing - they seem to spend most of their time in The Ivy - but I believe that it may have something to do with the subject of this review, which is - after a rather rambling introduction - the food at Chelsea Harbour.

Arriving by taxi at night - I thought it would be a nice opportunity for my wife, who normally does the driving, to get honking drunk - there is still a sense of entering a moon base. The road sweeps round under soaring walls of glass, down beside concrete hangars full of expensive parked cars gleaming behind security grills, and brings you up into the kind of courtyard where you expect a green person with eyes on stalks to say, 'Welcome, Earthling, to the Planet Tharg.'

Instead, when you have found your way into a huge marble- and glass-covered mall and followed the signs to The Canteen past various impressive lift doors and window displays, you are greeted by quite nice bossy earthling girls in black who call another quite nice bossy earthling girl in black who click- clacks along the marble floor through a bar to take you down to your table.

If I say, which is true, that the food at The Canteen is as good as any food I have eaten anywhere in London - if not better - I have to qualify that by saying that there is still something about the place that is indefinably alien; I'm still not sure what it is. I think probably that it is the Mercedes-Benz- style Germanic efficiency.

The decor is a kind of Outer Space Edwardian, with great emphasis on solidity and massive decoration. The tables are arranged some up, some down on a lower level; some against banquettes and intimate, some huge, sociable and circular, accommodating what looked like whole conferences of businessmen.

A lot of attention has been given to detail: the menu and cloakroom tickets all follow a playing-card theme, even being printed on the kind of card used by playing-card manufacturers, with rounded corners, and the menu cover done like the back of a playing card in a kind of harlequin pattern.

Any hopes of the Little Woman getting blind drunk evaporated as soon as the food arrived. She was clearly enjoying it far too much to bother with anything else. I had ordered a bottle of good but quite reasonably priced Australian red wine and managed to slip her a tranquillising Beaumes de Venise with the pudding, but she was too engrossed in her rather Bloomsbury way defining precisely why everything was so delicious.

The Risotto Nero - a very delicate risotto with squid which takes its colour from the creature's ink - produced raptures, and had the mildly amusing effect of momentarily turning her lips black, like the man in the opera, Simon Boccanegra. But I had by that time succumbed to foodie mania myself. I had ordered the Cappuccino of Mushrooms, which wasn't anything to do with coffee, but a very smooth and delicious mushroom soup.

For our main courses, as it was a cold night, she had a Confit of Duck, Lentilles du Puy, Bourgogne Garnish and Port Wine Sauce, and I had Guinea Fowl 'En Cocotte', Pommes Anna, Braised Celery Heart with Sauce Supreme, all of which were as good as they sound and better. The duck had that wonderful French cassoulet flavour that I suppose comes from the lentils, and the guinea fowl, despite its French accoutrements, was very pure and English and uncomplicated and astonishingly subtle in its flavours.

We finished with a Tarte Tatin of Cox's - we'll overlook the spelling - which would have won in open competition with any restaurant in France. I think I'm just going to have to persuade my agents to take me there often and get used to the efficiency. The bill came to just over pounds 75 for two.

The Canteen

Harbour Yard, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 0XD. Tel: 071-351 7330

Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Average pounds 30 per head for three courses and house wine. Cards: Access and Visa only

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