The English Garden flourishes in a smart corner of Chelsea. And, says Terry Durack, with some careful pruning, it could grow and grow

It's not exactly the Chelsea Flower Show. There are a few shrubs up on some sort of terrace through a large skylight above my head, and a colourful gardenesque painting on the wall but the English Garden, I have to say, looks more English than Garden.

It's not exactly the Chelsea Flower Show. There are a few shrubs up on some sort of terrace through a large skylight above my head, and a colourful gardenesque painting on the wall but the English Garden, I have to say, looks more English than Garden.

If it's Sisyrinchium striatum or Campanula persicifolia you're looking for, then return to Sloane Square, hang a right, and follow the tinkle of ice in plastic cups of Pimm's. But if it's more important that you, rather than your garden, be well-fed and watered, then stay.

The restaurant has blossomed considerably since that delicate Irish flower of a chef, Richard Corrigan, took over the place two years ago and put Malcolm Starmer (his old second at Lindsay House) in the kitchen. Also from Lindsay House is the recently transplanted Thierry Talibon, a seasoned maitre d' who wears a proprietary air as effortlessly as he wears his tailored dark suit. His is just the type of personality a stiff-upper-lip Chelsea restaurant needs, bringing wit and warmth to the studied formality of parquet floors, slate-wall panels that form marvellous landscapes, suede banquettes and dim, moodless lighting.

What with little candles, the tulips on odd tables and the well-mannered noise levels, the place is so discreet and mistressy, I feel odd dining here with my wife. It also feels like a restaurant for rich people, so she feels odd dining here with me. The well-shod, cashmered crowd appears to have come not for a night out, but a night in. This might explain the presence of rib eye with pommes frites, and "crab salad, cos lettuce, Caesar dressing", which are nothing more than steak and chips and Caesar salad for the wealthy. What sound truly good are the more adventurous offerings such as pigeon in puff pastry with savoy cabbage; scallops with sweet potato, lime and Indian spices; and a stuffed saddle of rabbit with artichoke polenta and carrots.

The set price is not hideously expensive, however, and the food is not as conventional as it might first seem. The "Caesar salad" is a chic little carousel of crab, the leaves sticking up like feathers in a cap. An artichoke bari-goule is not the classic Provençal mushroom-stuffed artichoke but a deconstructed line-up of tender and plump little bottoms scattered with deep green, double-peeled broad beans, strips of paprika-laden chorizo sausage and Parmesan shards. A light olive oil dressing pulls it together smoothly.

Another first course of scrambled egg with smoked eel, bacon and red wine jus promises much but delivers little – literally. The sliver of very good eel is too small to make any real impact, and the minuscule rasher of crisp bacon is token at best, and both are gone before I know it. Too much would have made the dish too rich, but not enough leaves it looking like breakfast.

The wine list succeeds in pleasing most people most of the time. My 98 Domaine Maillard Pere et Fils Savigny les Beaune is soft, rounded and fruit-driven, fully deserving of the best playmate a Burgundy can have. Not me, the steak. It is superbly judged – crusty outside, and all wobbly, rested and pink inside, with enough fat and scorchy bits to make it a landscape you could cross all night. A divinely lush béarnaise drapes itself over one shoulder like a shawl, jumping with the wild, fresh taste of tarragon and the correct acidic bite. So this is a rich person's steak – beautiful meat, perfectly cooked, teamed with pommes frites the size of forefingers, and a chic watercress salad.

There's a swing to greater complexity with the stuffed saddle of rabbit, presented as it is in little upright tree trunks, surrounded by tombstones of carrot. The refinement is apparent, the picture pretty and the flavours delicate, but it's bordering on being topiary instead of a hedge.

In fact, the topic of horticulture is never too far away. One couple spend almost all evening discussing the relative merits of clematis versus camellias for their front entrance, deciding only on the camellia when their coconut panna cotta with marinated pineapple and coconut tuile arrives. This isn't as long as it would be in other restaurants, as the meals are paced quite swiftly by a kitchen obviously capable of feeding twice the numbers with little more effort.

Pudding, I've decided, is not the banana's finest hour. In spite of all Nigel Slater's heroic efforts, it is impossible to make this fruit into any- thing other than a pudding to have by the fire in your jim-jams. I simply do not enjoy a platter of roasted, caramelised bananas served with spiced bread, although the banana ice-cream it is brought with is great stuff. Better is a brûléed lemon cream served with snappy, lemony shortbread.

Starmer has a very good touch, and is at his best with the simpler dishes, where produce and craft are crucial. Simplicity, as Da Vinci said, is the ultimate sophistication.

It was the same story at the Flower Show last year, when the sheer simplicity and style of the Laurent-Perrier sponsored "English Meadow" won the gold. There were no imported exotics, no tortured topiaries, just a fantasy of the perfect meadow, looking as natural as can be. Somewhere in there is a lesson for both gardeners and cooks alike.

The English Garden, 10 Lincoln Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7584 7272. Open Tues-Sun 12-2.45pm and daily 6.30-10.45pm. Three-course dinner £27.50

Comments