Food and Drink: Not quite south of the Park: Chelsea and South Kensingston may have the right image, but their restaurants can have difficulty living up to it, says Emily Green

A QUAINT prejudice persists in certain London circles that Chelsea and South Kensington ('south of the Park') are preferable to Notting Hill and Bayswater ('north of the Park'). As the north becomes less bohemian and more expensive, one would expect the demarcation to disappear. No such thing. The brass knockers and wistaria may look much the same either side of Hyde Park, but the food cultures reveal the divide.

Allowing for gross generalisations, north is a haven for modern, urban post-adolescents, for food as fun; south is for serious money and those who aspire to get it. Not surprisingly, it is home to two of the best restaurants in Britain: La Tante Claire and Bibendum.

One of South Kensington's hardest working chefs, a Welshman named Bryan Webb, has been somewhat eclipsed by these glittering stars. Yet this is surely self-inflicted obscurity: only a fool or a brave man would take over the stove at Hilaire after Simon Hopkinson left to open Bibendum.

Granted, Mr Hopkinson and Mr Webb are very different cooks, just as Bibendum and Hilaire are very different restaurants. Mr Hopkinson is an innovator; Mr Webb is a follower. Bibendum is grand; Hilaire is cosy. Bibendum is expensive; Hilaire is medium-priced.

Acting not just as a chef but as a patron these past three years, Bryan Webb has quietly made substantial and sensible moves, including running good-value set meals. A two-course lunch is pounds 10.95, desserts pounds 3.50, and wines average pounds 15 a bottle.

The menu is appealing, and so it should be: any number of dishes crop up that other chefs have popularised. There is a Kensington Place dish - pigeon and truffle crostini; a salad from Franco Taruschio of the Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny and frequent nods to Hopkinson's cooking with horse-radish creams, saffron mash and the like.

Copying dishes is fair enough: homage and all that. But the execution during a lunch last week risks stranding Hilaire in Second Division Kensington. It may be better when Mr Webb is at the stove - he was lunching at a window table with a wine merchant during our meal.

A fluffy potato pancake with smoked eel and horse-radish sauce was delicious, but the eel was strangely cold in an otherwise hot dish. Braised pork was stringy and dry, a problem even a pungent gremolata could not compensate for. Saffron risotto to the side was poor: it utterly lacked balance, tasting purely of that smoky, expensive spice, as if it had been cooked in water instead of chicken stock.

The duck confit was a parody of that wonderful dish: the skin was flaccid and greasy, as if the meat had been braised. A salad of avocado, anchovies and shaved parmesan came with a strange, slightly burnt bread listed as focaccia.

Service was deft, and the upstairs dining room is airy and notably pretty - a dash of civility on the Old Brompton Road.

ELSEWHERE in South Kensington, the shopfitters have been busy hammering out new dining-rooms. Two opened in the last six weeks. Or, in the case of Daphne's, one should say reopened. A potted history supplied by the new owners says it was founded in 1964 by a casting director named Daphne Rye, and favoured by show people and royalty in the Sixties and Seventies. By the late Eighties, Time Out's restaurant guide was describing it as a Sloaney institution, good for escargot, steak with bearnaise sauce, and a safe refuge from New World wines.

The new owner is Mogens Tholstrup, the young Danish proprietor of a sleek Soho restaurant called Est. Where Est is minimal and Modernist, Daphne's has been beautifully kitted out in a more romantic mode, like an Italianate conservatory.

The respect for Italy is best paid with the floor tiles. The cooking, judging from a recent dinner, is poor. The reason may be found in the restaurant management's description of the chef's history: 'At 24 Eddie Baines seems to have finished a culinary grand tour in no time at all . . . Eddie describes his cooking at Daphne's as 'Modern European provincial with an eye firmly on North Italy'.' Some might say it is all over the shop.

Risotto with asparagus was overcooked and had the consistency of wallpaper paste. There were no asparagus tips, just stalks, stringy and bitter from grilling. One of the managers noticed it went uneaten and kindly deducted it.

A Modern European Provincial North Italian salad was remarkably bad: cannellini beans, which were mealy and seemed tinned, were tossed with overcooked prawns and set in a field of rocket. A bland dressing tasting of lemon and oil was congealing, probably from sitting in a fridge. Cost: pounds 6.50.

Bruschetta, made with indifferent white bread instead of campagnola, was topped with clams, mussels and so on in a butter and saffron sauce. Serving the seafood in its shells defeated the point of the dish, which is basically seasoned toast.

Dessert was no respite, unless an apple tart on half-baked puff pastry appeals. Service was smiling but confused: mineral water was offered three times and requested as many before arriving. The waiters' efforts were augmented by several posh types in civvies who might have been managers and who were rarely around when we needed them.

We went to reception after a long wait to request our bill, which came to just over pounds 30 each including a good bottle of a fresh white wine, Vernaccia.

THE OWNERS of the other new site in South Kensington, Beauchamp Place, say they wanted a 'Moorish' effect from their architect and builder. From the street one could mistake it for the silversmith, whose shop occupies the ground-floor window. The basement dining- room is hardly Moorish, but airy enough.

Food was fine, and the service from a charming New Zealander was exemplary. A lunch produced several good dishes and a marginal one. Good was a fishcake made with kedgeree and served with a curried sauce. Home cooks note: this is a nifty technique for left-overs.

Something called a 'confit of potatoes, artichoke, soft polenta and fontina' was a savoury vegetarian glop, bound with melted cheese served in a lava flow of polenta. Again, it showed the home-cook approach: 'What's in the fridge? Let's cook it.'

Another dish was poor: baked mackerel tasted past its prime. The skin, which should go papery and light, was undercooked. It sat on what the menu described as roast vegetables, which included aubergine and what looked and tasted like braised celery. The dish was not a good match of strong flavours.

The wine list is international, very good, and clearly a point of pride. There is no reason why more places should not serve a premier cru beaune by the glass. Cost: pounds 30- pounds 40.

Hilaire, 68 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (071-584 7601). Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Vegetarian dishes. Major credit cards.

Daphne's, 112 Draycott Avenue, London SW3 (071-589 4257). Open daily lunch and dinner (Sunday brunch 11am- 4pm). Vegetarian meals. Major credit cards.

Beauchamp Place, 15 Beauchamp Place, London SW3 (071-589 4252). Open lunch and dinner daily. Vegetarian meals. Major credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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