After months of pre-publicity fuelling expectations of a Conran- style gastrodome, Chelsea Village finally opened for business a few weeks ago, with the launch of three new restaurants and a sports bar. Seeking the full-on experience, I decided to visit on the night of a home fixture, so tickets were duly wangled for one of the season's biggest matches, the second leg of the European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final against Real Betis.
All that was left to do was to select a restaurant from the new squad, which includes a "high style" brasserie, a back-to-basics seafood joint, and the American-style sports bar, all nestling in the shadow of the huge West Stand. I finally opted for Arkles, the "fine-dining" Irish restaurant, partly because it was the most expensive of the four, and partly because the prospect of a Murph 'n' turf themed evening seemed irresistible.
My match-going days as an Ipswich Town fan in the Seventies were characterised by discomfort, fear and disappointment in equal measure, so it was a revelation to experience the cleaned-up new face of the all-seater game. As my football- mad friend Clare and I settled ourselves in the shiny splendour of the West Stand, we found we were surrounded by the soccer equivalent of the chattering classes. Ben Watt from Everything But the Girl was behind us, sports minister Tony Banks in front, and on all sides I spotted the semi- familiar faces of TV producers and record company executives. If we'd been in a restaurant, we'd have been at the best table.
Sadly for Arkles, it has yet to establish a similarly glamorous fan base. Leaving the stadium shoulder to shoulder with an ecstatic crowd after a resounding 3-1 Chelsea victory, we erupted jubilantly into the restaurant, only to find it almost deserted, apart from a few tables of besuited businessmen who didn't seem to have been at the match.
The second surprise was the decor, which owes nothing to modish conventions of minimalism and restraint. In fact, if you were designing an exhibit specifically to illustrate all the no-nos of contemporary restaurant design, you might well come up with something that looked like Arkles. A mish- mash of clashing elements, seemingly culled from every hotel lobby and theme pub imaginable, it presents a bilious riot of swirly patterns, wood veneer and art nouveau-style stained glass. A wooden horse (presumably Arkle) rears out over a mock-Victorian oyster bar, and there isn't a single footballing reference in sight.
"It's such bad taste, you could almost believe you were in Ireland," was David Baddiel's verdict as he joined us. We had enlisted him to put Arkles to the true blue test as one of Chelsea's most famous fans. As we stood and marvelled at the elaborate hump-backed bridge construction which connects the reception area to the restaurant, we felt as though we'd stumbled into some contemporary version of Crossroads Motel, and half-expected Sandy Richardson to come powering over the bridge in his wheelchair to greet us.
In fact, the greeting duties fell to front-of-house manager James Dempsey, a twinkly Irishman recruited to impart a little old-country warmth and hospitality to Arkles. The advance publicity describes James as "fervently courteous", which turned out to be an understatement. Settling us at our table, and plying us with delicious fresh-baked soda bread, he kept up a murmured stream-of-consciousness commentary on the forthcoming delights of the menu. "Now, the goat's cheese is from a little village called Inagh, now dat is super. And the rack of lamb comes from Wicklow, where I'm from meself." Before long, we were totally disarmed, and ready to follow James wherever he led us.
The menu is long, and makes inventive use of fresh Irish ingredients. Starters range from the humble - potato and cabbage soup - to fancier concoctions such as chicken consomme with poached quails' eggs, and the main courses are heartily reliant on meat and game. There's nothing humble, though, about the prices - a starter of smoked salmon with soda bread is a hefty pounds 10.50 and most of the main courses are in the pounds 20-pounds 25 bracket.
David had planned to begin with oysters and Guinness, as a tribute to Matthew Harding, Chelsea's late vice-chairman, who famously enjoyed the combination in a local pub before every home game. But so persuasive was James's patter, that he abandoned his plan and went for the Inagh goat's cheese as recommended, together with a pint of draught Beamish, which is the restaurant's stout of choice (leading us to wonder whether we'd unwittingly unearthed yet another manifestation of the old Bates/ Harding rivalry).
In the event, the starters didn't live up to the pre-match build-up. David's goat's cheese, served on impregnable soda bread croutons, was only "ordinary", and he began to curse himself for being so suggestible. Meanwhile, Clare was thrown by the indeterminate temperature of her sea scallop terrine, which she described as "dumbed-down, like airplane food". My sauteed Dublin Bay prawns were well prepared and presented, but at pounds 12.50 for a moderate-sized portion, they should really have jumped out of their shells and peeled themselves.
It was proving difficult to get too much detailed criticism out of my companions, though, because by now they were lost in debate about whether Zola had finally regained his confidence. All Clare would say about her main course of grilled halibut and monkfish was,"at least they've cracked the hot thing", before launching back into a eulogy on Ruud Gullit's time- space concept. David was happy with his substantial helping of roast pheasant, though he would have been happier if it had come pink, as requested, and he was sure the potato cake that accompanied it wasn't colcannon, but actually a latke.
My own main course of Gaelic steak arrived in a cantilevered tower, topped with a single vulvic oyster, and it was perfectly good, though not exceptionally so. There seemed to be nothing particularly Gaelic about it, apart, perhaps, from the accompanying potato cake, an unexplained substitution for the advertised creamed potatoes. When it came to puddings, David again allowed himself to be persuaded by James, in a triumph of hope over experience, into ordering something he didn't really want, barmbrack parfait, which he was assured was like a fruit-cake, and "very light". It turned out to be a kind of glutinous ice-cream containing raisins and alcohol, reminiscent of one of those mystifying new product lines fielded by Marks & Spencer at Christmas. Far from being light, it was, David announced, "the densest thing I've ever eaten - it's practically anti-matter".
My bread-and-butter pudding was completely ordinary, and served cold, while Clare's apple tart came topped with a hair-net of golden spun sugar, and a side order of home-made Bailey's ice cream, a concoction which seemed perfectly to symbolise the gastronomic ambitions of Arkles. Delivering their verdict over decaffeinated Irish coffees, my guests were as gloomy as a panel of soccer pundits excoriating England for yet another disappointing performance. Clare bemoaned the creeping corporatisation of football, which she felt was epitomised by Chelsea Village. "It reeks of leisure industry," she railed, "all fake exclusivity and tiny demarcations of privilege, like some club class lounge." David was more defensive, countering, "I think it's remarkable there's one proper restaurant at a football ground, let alone three." But then his opinion may well have been influenced by his substantial recent investment in Chelsea Village shares (not to mention his ambition to become the next chairman of the club).
When I tried to pay the bill, I found it had already been taken care of by a shadowy operative of the Bates Motel, who unbeknownst to us had been sitting at a nearby table, listening to our wine-fuelled invective. According to my calculations, we should have paid a mighty pounds 60 per head (including two bottles of wine from Chelsea Village's own range). But rather than stay and wrangle with James for the right to pay for our meal, we decided to accept and go quietly. As we slipped guiltily out into the deserted compound of Chelsea Village, it was with the uncomfortable sensation that we'd had a near-death experience in a shower of corporate hospitality
Arkles, Chelsea Village, Stamford Bridge, Fulham Road, London SW6 (0171- 565 1420). Daily, noon-2.30pm, 6.30-10.30pm, may vary on match days. Disabled access. All credit cards.Reuse content