With who: The Poker Shark
How much: £10-£16 for starters, salads upward of £14, mains were divided into fish and meat and were around £20 on average. We didn't pay for the meal (read on...) but it would have been £110 for two without service
Come here if: you miss the good old days of British restaurant underachievement.
In the Chelsea heartland, opposite Conran's venerable stalwart Bibendium, sits the brasserie that time forgot. There's a point in recent history acknowledged by all at which time all restaurants were rubbish. Ask your parents if you don't remember it. It was the 70's... the eating out one could do in the country without spending a serious amount of cash was limited to the soggy pub sandwich, fish n chips and the occasional treat at an Angus Steak House. In and outside the capital, 'foreign' foodstuffs like Chinese, Italian or Indian were treated with a modicum of suspicion and restaurants were grand, fusty and open for a couple of hours a day at best. The opening then in 1972 of La Brasserie must have seemed like a bold step forward for the poor folk of South Ken, coming 15 years before Simon Hopkinson, king of casual dining, picked up a knife across the road.
That's certainly how the restaurant's own website grandly remembers it, the first in London of its type, espousing the French style of all day eating and paving the way for 'large groups such as Conran who picked up their flexible approach to eating'... How Terrence must have cheered. Step on 40 years and the foodie landscape, particularly in London, has changed somewhat. You know what's occurred in the intervening years and, possibly due to their own innovations way back in '72, the faux Parisienne schtick of La Brasserie is an anachronistic nightmare.
The classic all day brasserie menu comes straight from the 70's. This in itself wouldn't be a bad thing. Simple fare that if cooked well can't be beaten. You don't need to be a great chef to get it right, but a brasserie is more than the sum of its parts, that's the point. Atmosphere is critical, as are the staff: when successful, both are warm and inviting while the latter is also efficient and snappy. Sadly none of these were the case... Walking in at 6.30 on a Thursday we were the only guests other than a brace of ladies who should have finished lunching by now and a florid ex hack and Private Eye target, making his younger, more attractive companion laugh uproariously. Over the next hour, this gradually changed, with the restaurant filling up with the trainspotter's guide to the King's Road. Ruddy young fillies and their polo shirt clad squires, Middle aged and well padded gents with that type of blonde 'companion' and slightly older gents with their wives daring a surreptitious sneak at the bronzed legs of the surly waitresses. A scene for the obscene.
The Poker Shark went for fridge-cold prawn cocktail in a sharp Marie Rose sauce served in half an avocado. A venerable dish, much like the wilted iceberg lettuce that propped it up in the bowl. A renegade from Abigail's Party, thankfully retired from most menus, here it seemed so perfectly appropriate. I got a little luckier going for 6 bland but innocuous snails, perched parsimoniously on their shells, reluctant to dive into the watery garlic slick, worried they'd bang their heads on the just-covered base.
I followed that with one of the simplest dishes on the menu, here executed with a style and panache not seen since Ann Widdecombe's last dance class. Like a classic Martini, I've found the steak tartare a good acid test of an establishment in the past. Simple ingredients, a painless recipe and absolute perfection when done with a modicum of care. The tartare had a grey-green hue, from a distance disconcerting, closer up it became obvious it had way too much acrid gherkin chopped through the mix, a small amount of (albeit vinegary) relief, though not much. The salty, floppy shoestring fries slopped down next to it were as unpleasant.
It would appear I'd ended up the winner though, again, if you could call it a winning experience. The Poker Shark went for duck confit, a classic brasserie dish, the staple of French railway cafes up and down the country. Here the meat came almost medium rare, clinging determinedly to the bone. Plonked across a kilo of red cabbage, rubbery skin draped over the undercooked duck, folding into the dips and wrinkles, like a geriatric Blind Date contestant covering her saggy bits with a coquettish satin throw.
Given that the Poker Shark is astoundingly British, I knew he was being stretched too far when he ruminated about complaining. Blank-eyed staff took the semi-full plate away without asking about our enjoyment. They looked like they knew the answer and we didn't get a chance to say a word. Against all sense of sanity (I'll explain why we bothered in a second) we were somewhat saved by desserts. Creme Brûlée was pre-prepped and fridge cold, but whoever had made it originally knew what they were doing. A Tarte Tatin was excellent, sticky and caramelised and toothsome, but this was a little too little and a lot too late.
In case you are wondering, we stayed for dessert and didn't bolt half way through the main as we'd been invited to review the restaurant. I'd been wondering how, like other critics, I should react to PR invites and, rarely one to turn down a meal - much less a free one - had decided that I'd accept, as long as I could go incognito and reveal myself (with a letter, calm down at the back) at the end of the meal. The PR team who arranged this were friendly and efficient - however, whilst you can get a reviewer in, if the experience is as bad as this, surely they'd be better off advising the owners to stick to their local time-warp of a crowd or take a good long look at what's going on in the kitchen.