Marco Pierre White's Canteen sits in the middle of the antiseptic and soulless atrium and shopping complex that is Chelsea Harbour, as incongruous (and as welcome) as a soda fountain in the Sahara. I have nothing against the Harbour - truth to tell I even had a perfectly digestible lunch once, at Viscount Linley's burger bar, Deals - but it is all so unconvincing. It is like walking around an enormous artist's impression of a leisure development, with all the people balanced on plastic plinths to stop them falling over. You keep wondering if the shops are ever going to start acquiring any customers. You certainly can't imagine anyone going there to eat with any degree of seriousness.

You would be wrong. The Canteen is a terrific lunchtime spot - light, sassy and a good deal more friendly than I had expected. The great double doors at the entrance are the only sign of heaviness. Inside, the seating area is upholstered in an extraordinary playing-card design, which is either raffish or preposterous according to your taste. Perhaps it is meant to be a talking point.

I was joining ten other people to celebrate the publication of a new volume of stories by Rose Tremain, the gifted author of Restoration (now being filmed) and Sacred Country. Publishing lunches are jolly but high-protocol occasions in which certain roles are played: the publicity department diva lightly joshes the journalists, the journalists beg for stories about Jeanette Winterson, the managing director works out elaborate royalty scams on the back of the menu and the feted writer sits blissfully apart, being hosed down every so often with draughts of Chateau d'Yquem praise.

The menu offered 11 starters, so we all tried something different. When the dishes arrived, they seemed like entrants in a Japanese crafts competition, whose object was to make food look like something else.

The biographer on my left got a papillote of smoked salmon 'Albert Roux', in which the salmon was so stuffed with mousse that it resembled a fat orange wallet. The agent had gazpacho in a shade of powder-puff pink that would make the angels weep.

The senior editor had parfait of foie gras. I tried the Savoy cabbage Alsacienne (minced belly pork interleaved with lettuce in a veal stock and tomato sauce) and drew the short straw.

It wasn't bad at all, but was clearly

the Ugly Sister in this glamorous company. Otherwise, full marks for

presentation; the literati briefly nodded their approval of how it all

tasted before getting back to Ms

Winterson. . .

The Canteen's Marco Pierre-trained chefs, Tim Payne and Peter Reffell, have a weakness for fish with inventive accompaniments. For some reason, nobody went for the fillet of red mullet, ratatouille Provencale, beignets of sage and sauce tapenade, even out of curiosity. Fish and ratatouille and sauce and New Orleans croissants? You feel the dish is the result of a row between the two chefs beside the Sabatier knives.

I had cod Viennoise with buttered noodles and a sabayon of grain mustard. Like mullet, cod is not a fish conspicuously gifted with personality, flavour or texture, but Messrs Payne and Reffell had its measure: they laid on it a soft blanket of pureed tomato and smoothed that with the lightest imaginable herb crust. The combination was magical. The mustard sauce seethed around it. Only the noodles were wrong. If ever there was a dish wildly signalling for some mashed potato, this was it.

Elsewhere, the turbot Boulangere with buttered cabbage and lie de vin (red wine sauce) was greeted with grunts of bookish delight. The agent broke off a funny story about Naomi Campbell's novel long enough to compliment the pot-roast pork with spices and ginger.

In a rush of take-the-afternoon-off bonhomie, we called for puddings, all but the biographer who was dieting. The creme caramel 'au raisin sec (lots of the menu is like this, with bursts of inverted commas - do they mean the dried fruits on top are not really raisins?) had a lot of takers and went down well.

But I must recommend the creme vanille with poached fruits, a dish of utter luxury in which slices of peach, pear, plum and the like (nothing too hard) are shown a pan of boiling water for a minute and then served with a sandcastle of double cream, sugar, strips of fresh vanilla and Bacardi. I watched aghast as a whole corner of this gorgeous stuff disappeared inside the biographer, who by now was taking spoonfuls of everyone else's pudding and growing by the moment. So this is what Lord Snipcock gets up to every day of his life.

There are many thing to praise about the Canteen and one of them is the price. Given the steepness of Marco Pierre's other restaurants, Harvey's and the Hyde Park Hotel, it is nothing less than startling to find such a comparatively humble prix fixe here (all starters pounds 6.50; all main courses pounds 11.50; all puds pounds 4.50).

The wine list is adventurous and unsnotty. All the reds are bunged in together, like a basket of currencies - Chilean, Italian, New Zealand, French, Spanish. I was especially keen on the 1987 Chateau Musar (pounds 25) from the Bekaa valley. Quite the best thing to come out of the Lebanon since Nam Atallah . . . But that's enough publishing jokes for one lunchtime.

The Canteen, Chelsea Habour SW3 (071-351 7330)

(Photograph omitted)

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