The Ivy Chelsea Garden is a restaurant inside an Edwardian house disguised as a Tudor house on the King’s Road; it was formerly the fetid Henry J. Bean’s American Bar and Grill, which was a sort of magnet and sex market, with cheeseburgers, for Chelsea teenagers. It sits in a row of babywear shops and artisan bakers — why Chelsea needs bakers I know not, because no one here is fat enough to eat bread. Perhaps it bespeaks a psychic insecurity that even the rich of SW3 feel — for the bread is the life?
It is the third instalment of Richard Caring’s growing Ivy franchise, because Caring — catering’s Dr No — cannot let a good brand rest in peace; he loves money, and napkins, too much for that. I wonder if he dreams idly of turning the whole planet into a fashionable restaurant in soothing shades of green with witty and interesting furniture? Does that make ivy a kind of metaphorical civilisation-munching weed that will douse everything in bright all-day menus, clean aprons and smiles? And will the original Ivy’s customers abandon it now it is democratised, with new venues in both Covent Garden and Chelsea? (I exaggerate as to the democratic possibilities inherent in dining in a Richard Caring restaurant; of course I do. He is the man who owns Scott’s, where every customer looks like a Bentley Continental.) The answer is — who cares?
It is two weeks old, large and fantastically beautiful; Caring has — although I suspect it is not his primary motivation — finally built a restaurant I admire. (I never liked 34. It felt like the end of the Weimar Republic, but more depressing, and with smaller tables.) It is sage green with dull orange banquettes, botanical prints and brass light-fittings. The women are Chelsea women; that is, their faces are emphatic with make-up but their eyes are dead; without make-up they would have no expression at all, and would look like pieces of paper that have learnt to speak. The men are grey-suited, red-faced gnomes seconded to the financial sector. They are uglier than the women; they always are. But the restaurant outclasses and outwits them; it bustles with happiness. It could be dawn in Tolkien’s shire, with thinner and more covetous hobbits.
To the garden: blue awnings, painted park benches stacked with cushions and a random stone fireplace with a pot plant on top; town gardens have a fairy quality, at least to me, a woman with a Kentish Town roof terrace which local children throw eggs at; and that is the only decoration. There is the dull thud of drill, which I presume is devouring a narcissist’s foundations to build him a basement he can think about in his many terrors — but this cannot hurt a London garden in April. It is almost empty. Possibly because of this, it is charming; just me, A, the plants and the drill.
The menu is huge — did Caring, having scored with style, fear collapse on the food and overreach in thekitchen? (Forgive me if I indulge in a psychological portrait of Richard Caring; I cannot help it. Such men interest me. I have, for instance, not written a novel about the last day in the life of Paul Dacre, in which he is murdered by single mothers with Turkey Twizzlers — although Ebola was initially suspected. It is called Final Edition.)
It is a megalomaniac menu; it offers breakfast, brunch, tea, steak. It is almost flailing; and it works. Mushrooms on toast are thick, rich, heavy; asparagus and pea risotto comes with a puddle of goat’s cheese and a purple pansy; pork belly is flavour-some, happy, damp.
I thought Chelsea had lost all heart, even well-executed, well-shod heart; I was wrong.
The Ivy Chelsea Garden, 197 King’s Road, London SW3 5ED; tel: 020 3301 0300.