Now the same premises hosts something called "The R Bar". The new leaseholder, Will Ricker, is again Australian, but this time the theme of the place is less regional. It is loose, so loose it is unravelling. The place seems to be devoted to partying.
The name, which implies it is purely a bar, is somewhat misleading. Evidently the "R" is a jokey reduction of "our", and alludes to some sort of share scheme Mr Ricker devised to raise pounds 100,000 to refit the place. On the raised ground floor, there is a restaurant; halfway to the basement, on a mid-landing, are kitchen and toilets. The bar is down yet another half- flight of stairs. Mr Ricker tells me that this basement was recently named Bar of the Year at the London Restaurant Show. My own guess is that the judges were either in a hurry or on a blinder, or both.
This basement of the year is fitted with modern fixtures, but in a thoughtless fashion, so that traffic flow is bad, the seating is queerly laid out, and the bar is crowded. The drinks are all right (a vodka tonic is an automatic double and costs pounds 4) and the olives, which drinkers should reach for because they will not be offered, have cumin in the marinade. Even early on, bartenders make clear that they appreciate exact change. The room is smoky, airless and loud; the stereo and Duchess of York laughs dominate. It fills up fast. The night I was there, a loud young crowd built up in no time: pinstriped lads from the City, babes in fashion, rich kids. The upshot is rather like an alcoholised version of Blind Date: the customers are hormones on pegs. Their scant inhibitions are drowned by early evening and the loos take a hammering. Not one of them, it would seem, can pee straight.
Upstairs is more sedate. Different music is piped through at a slightly more discreet volume. Male waiters breeze around, and occasionally they dance their way from table to table. "Would you like a coffee? Cha, cha, cha..." Their style is mischievous, but rarely crosses the line into cheek. When it turns downright lackadaisical, say a waiter moves a table of six within four inches of you, by all means call him on it. He'll gladly increase the gap between tables to eight inches.
It works, particularly in Chelsea, partly because floor staff have the insouciance of gay hairdressers, and partly because the food is surprisingly good. The head chef is Simon Wills. He has cooked in lots of places I know nothing about, including The Hothouse in Wapping. I have been sent his menus in the past, thought them absurdly eclectic and trendy, and ignored them. This is a shame, and my loss, for Mr Wills can cook. That admitted, his menus are still absurdly eclectic and trendy: starters alone take in Cantonese noodle and vegetable soup, crostini of roasted peppers with goats' cheese and toasted pine nut terrine, Thai steamed mussels, salad of tandoori tiger prawns, and so on.
This stuff is not as exotic as it sounds. A "bruschetta of smoked chicken and avocado with lime cream dressing" was a damn good chicken salad with a bit of bread at the bottom. The salad leaves, particularly rocket, accompanying it were astonishingly fresh, peppery and exhilarating to eat. If there was a problem with this snack, it was that the chicken was too cold, and flavour suffered as a result. As for something advertised as "crab, pawpaw and bacon salad, sweet chilli dressing", this was also too cold; basically good, but neither the crab nor the pawpaw made much impact. Bacon provided the flavour. At pounds 7.75, this dish made the biggest impression on the wallet. Please, Mr Wills, no more pawpaw. How about a nice dressed crab?
Main courses were proper, and very good. Braised lamb came with grilled leeks, and mash laced with truffle oil. The meat was perfect, rich and tender, and the whole business worked fantastically well. A sirloin steak, the meat similarly tender and unusually flavourful, had a classic sauce: molten shallots with red wine and butter. It came with potatoes and slices of steaky field mushrooms. I cannot, for my life, remember the spuds, but top marks for the meat, sauce and mushrooms; and, also, this kitchen clearly has a top-quality butcher whom it is willing to support in a crisis.
Something called apricot bread-and-butter pudding will either please or horrify those who order it. Served in a whacking great lump, it could simply be taken as a big, soggy pud. I quite liked it, though it is more piggy home food than a restaurant dish. A russet apple compote with vanilla cream, topped by a crumble, was altogether more elegant, and quite pleased the person who had ordered a chocolate and coffee marquise. So much so, that she decided to eat it instead of pointing out the mistake.
The wines are ridiculously priced: only a third of the reds are available for less than pounds 15 a bottle, and I was looking at items costing pounds 20 and more before my mouth started to water. Gigondas, such as the Domaine de Font-Sane, served here, is a perfect restaurant red: structured, spicy, great with meat. Yet charging pounds 23.50 for a '92 was just a bit grabby.
Word has it that restaurants hereabouts need to mark up more heavily than in other areas because the rich of Chelsea are crummy tippers: their mortgages and BMWs limit their readies. Well, there is another explanation. At just over pounds 45 each for three courses, a half bottle of wine, two bottles of mineral water and two snifters with Calvados, maybe they don't have any money left over for a tip. In the case of The R Bar, I dug into my reserves to leave a decent one, and leave it in cash. We had enjoyed our meal, and our waiter brought a smile to my face at the end of a particularly punishing week in the history of food scares. He'd earned it
The R Bar, 4 Sydney Street, SW3 (0171-352 3433). Open dinner Mon-Sat, 7.30-11pm (Sat midnight). Vegetarian meals. Loud music. Meals pounds 30-pounds 45. Major credit cardsReuse content