But that’s not all. It’s overcooked, too. Overcooked like… well, like an overcooked steak. I mean, I know bavette's a cheap cut. Gloriously so, in fact: a juicy, hard-working slab of flank, popular in basic French bistros, predictably uncommon here. It needs a good bashing to tenderise it, and benefits from a day or two in the fridge, bathing in olive oil. This one has seen neither meat mallet nor rolling pin. Instead, it lay across the grill like a podgy sunbather for about five hours, before turning up here with a repellently oily Béarnaise and some cold, mealy chips.
Nothing is quite as dispiriting as returning to something you once enjoyed and discovering it's actually rubbish. Worse than the inevitable disappointment is the associated dilemma: has this got worse since I last encountered it, or did I just have no taste then? Has the Chelsea Brasserie, like the Simpsons, merely gone downhill? Or - the fear that stalks every critic - did I not know what I was talking about?
You see, a couple of years ago, when I was a mendicant student, and the closest I got to restaurants was pressing my face against their windows like a shoeless Dickensian urchin, I somehow scraped together the coppers and came here for dinner. We had one of those wonderful evenings given meaning and thrill from tight money – a cute and gutsy tian of crab with avocado; a pink-roasted Gressingham breast with mash and verdant spinach; and a fruitily pastried pudding I was a bit too pissed to appreciate. I remember giddily saying that this was egg-zackly the sort of place every neighbourhood deserved, and how brilliant it was to find it so comparatively well priced, in a prime spot on Sloane Square.
And when R and I turn up late on a Wednesday night, and sit down at our linened table with the menu, we feel reasonably optimistic. The restaurant is attached to a biggish hotel, and David Karlsson Möller (formerly of Racine on the Brompton Road - still wonderful) is in the kitchen. The room has an oddly post-industrial feel, all exposed bricks and sickly green lighting: L-shaped, with an attractive copper-sided bar. It’s almost ten o’clock, and we’re just in time to catch the second wind of the cheapish theatre menu. While its dishes have an obvious frugal bent, they read well enough: smoked salmon or salad tiède with duck confit, then a bavette steak with Béarnaise or a wild mushroom risotto, followed by crème caramel or rhubarb tart. Total cost: £24.
Oh. My. God. The duck salad is my worst dish so far this year: chewy, greasy clumps of fowl flung over baby chard, tossed with brittle, bricky croutons, and spattered in a fatty Hellman’s zig-zag. Smoked salmon is almost comically revolting – lanky, farmed, luminescently oily, its rank fishiness buttressed by a nauseating blob of roe. Then that steak – did I mention it was tough? – before the rhubarb tart: a dry, oversweet slab; and a crème caramel tasting of syrup and baby sick. We flee out into the night, vowing never to return.
But by a strange coincidence, I end up back here three days later. A friend of the family is staying in the hotel, and I meet her for breakfast on the way to work. Eggs Benedict is, of course, one of the world’s great dishes. The version here is not. Its poached eggs are ferociously undercooked, and when pierced, spurt across the plate in a watery yellow squelch. The salmon makes a terrifying return, the brioche is cloyingly sweet, and the hollandaise tastes stoutly of lemony fat and pus. Service, like the other evening, is slow and distractedly haughty. Still, I say thanks and goodbye, and cycle to work. There, within minutes, I feel a grip of nausea, deep, perturbed groans of the belly, slow waves of gathering sick. I rush to the loo and throw my breakfast up hotly onto the porcelain with clenched, noisy violence. Perhaps those eggs weren't fresh, or perhaps my body was telling me never to return - if so, message received. It's a shame the Chelsea Brasserie exists at all. It's a shame that customers have to suffer its food, and a shame that the same food can make them ill. Shame, in fact, is a good word to associate with the place. Then again, I suppose, that's tough.
The Chelsea Brasserie, Chelsea, London SW1W
Tel. +44 (0)7881 5999
See on the TFYS Map
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £48