Restaurants: Conran's latest: a star player for Chelsea?
Saturday 05 February 2005
Their joint project - the Bluebird Dining Rooms - is definitely more Beamer than Mini Cooper. Formerly the restaurant of the Bluebird private members club housed in Conran's Chelsea gastrodome, it opened to the public before Christmas, with a new chef - Mark Broadbent, ex The Oak and Isola - and an ambitious all-British menu.
There was something so ... so Conrany about my first encounter with the revamped Dining Rooms. The chap who called to confirm our 8.30 reservation warned that we would definitely have to be at our table by 8.30 ("If you want to have a drink in the bar first, may I suggest you meet at 8.00"). We arrived on the dot of 8.29. "Ah, you're the first to arrive," said the same chap. "Let me show you through to the bar ..."
"You see! That's what I hate about Tom Conran!" erupted my guest, Mr Angry, when he arrived at 8.31. Most Conran-haters reserve their wrath for Sir Terence himself, but as a long-standing resident of Notting Hill, Mr A has managed to build up quite a head of steam about young Tom as well. (The King of Ersatz, he calls him, though on closer questioning his dislike proved to stem from an incident when the Conran heir queue- jumped him at Tom's Deli. Which to be fair, the man does own.)
Once we'd managed to engineer the conversation away from "the Conran clan as metaphor for the failed New Labour project" and on to the menu we were on safer ground. This isn't so much a menu as a round-Britain quiz. Regional ingredients shine, from Cornish lobster to Tobermory scallops, by way of West Mersey oysters and brown shrimp from Morecambe Bay. And they're used in the most exotic combinations. How does "dandelion salad, wet walnuts, Lambourne apples, Shropshire blue" sound for starters, followed by "smoked haddock rarebit, curly kale, Old Spot bacon, Devonshire cockles". Not exactly sexy, but certainly exciting. Back in the Sixties, Sir Terence helped introduce us Brits to the pleasures of French cooking. Now he is reintroducing us to our own heritage.
A starter of Cornish crab salad came with potato drop scones of souffle- light fluffiness. "London particular" (pea and ham soup) was a veg-crammed feast founded on a sturdy, smoky stock. Plump snails were well matched with smoked bacon and watercress, in a warm, sweetly dressed salad, while succulent scallops came wrapped in treacle-cured bacon and served on a "skuet". This menu calls for a dictionary as well as a gazetteer (it's a skewer, by the way).
Main courses were equally impressive; best of them a slow-roasted slab of Middle White pork complete with a crunchy canopy of crackling, with roast potatoes and crispin apple jelly. At the other extreme, a shimmering tranche of roast Cornish cod was lightly cooked and partnered with salsify and a vivid green parsley mash. Rump of salt-marsh lamb came with a layered potato cake, Lancashire hot-pot style. One mild disappointment, in the form of a rather dry roast partridge, wasn't enough to spoil the show.
This is serious, grown-up food, and the Bluebird Dining Room's clientele reflects that; it's older and chicer than the crowd that frequents the Bluebird restaurant next door. Mr Angry observed that the diners were "a bit middle-aged", but as his only view was of myself and Mrs A, he might have formed a slightly misleading impression. From our viewpoint, we could appreciate what is an extremely elegant room, its high glass ceiling and wood-panelled walls reminiscent of the cocktail lounge of a Cunard liner. In the bar are some of the now unimaginably valuable Jack Vettriano paintings that were commissioned when The Bluebird first opened in 1997.
If we didn't feel able to add our voices to the unanimous chorus of approval that has greeted the Bluebird Dining Rooms, it was largely down to the non-food elements, though a really ropey apple and pear crumble, with a topping as powdery as moondust, certainly didn't help. The wine-list is expensive, and service weirdly disconnected, from a succession of tall, dark men who hover broodily in the background like Vettriano characters, darting forward to refill glasses at inappropriate moments then disappearing for long periods of time. The Bluebird might be a shrine to the age of speed, but their pacing is all over the place.
At around pounds 70 a head with wine, prices are certainly top of the range. As the next stage in the evolution of our love affair with British food, though, Bluebird gets more right than it does wrong, and even Conran-baters will find plenty to admire about the place. Whether anyone will absolutely love it, I'm not so sure. E
The Bluebird Dining Rooms, 350 Kings Road, London SW3
pounds 70 per head including wine
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