Clarke's has made something of a feature out of its fixed price, no choice evening menu.  It's rather like going to a dinner party where you eat whatever the hostess cares to cook, except that you don't need to take flowers or make small talk with the dullard on your right (well not unless you're married to him).  You just sign a cheque at the end of the evening.  However my companion, the Frenchman, was disappointed.  He had expected something much more elegant than this rather cramped dining room with its chintzy, suburban curtains.

 

The decor may be on the boring side of pleasant, but what do you want - betassled lounge singers jumping out of cakes - origami napkins? There is a limit to what you can do with a room full of tables and chairs and I found it almost a relief not to be in yet another over-designed, pared down, style over substance restaurant.  The cutlery was not arranged at a 75o angle, the chairs didn't have frocks on, and neither did the waiters.  It was fine.

 

It was also full - albeit of the solid, dark-suited burghers of Kensington and Chelsea, and not the table hopping, kissy kissy lovies who make Notting Hill Gate such a vacuously trendy place to live.

 

The first table they offered me was on the curve of the wall between the bar and the busy stairs leading down in to the other dining room.  The second, a very tight fit next to the window.

 

I'm afraid I can't give you the other one, said the waiter apologetically as I regarded the empty vastness of the last, remaining table in the same way that Iraq looks at Kuwait.

 

Later, I understood why.  A couple of tweedy locals had booked it for a reenactment of the Gulf War.  They argued spectacularly for the duration of the meal in that peculiarly British manner that involves lots of hissing but no throwing of crockery.  Other people's arguments are like traffic accidents or daytime television - you don't want to watch and yet they're ghoulishly compelling.

 

We started with smoked haddock and smoked salmon served with a resilient watercress salad that may have once played ping pong for China, so adept was it at returning little pieces of creamy dill dressing whenever one tried to eat it.  It was a bit of an ordeal.  There were purple potato crisps as well - about which the most interesting thing was that they were purple, though not particularly crisp.  The haddock was good, but on the whole it was an uninventive concoction. 

 

Then when I saw venison on the ornately hand-written, but barely decipherable menu, my heart sank.  This would be the fourth time I had eaten it in two weeks and Doh-a-Deer, frankly, it's beginning to get as tired as the Julie Andrew's version.  However, it was wonderful warm, winter dish that should have come with an accompanying log fire and deep fur rug but had, instead, some soft parmesan polenta, red cabbage and spinach.  The polenta had too much liquid in it and was runny - like watery porridge - and the parmesan out of place with the sweetness of the cabbage and the gamey venison.  The effort could have been better spent on another part of the meal.

 

The bread was delicious, particularly liked the fig and fennel loaf. Clarke's have their own bakery next door and make all the bread, biscuits and even the oat cakes which arrived next with a nice pair of cheeses.  Service is efficient enough for you to want to hold on to your plate awhile to forestall the timetabled arrival of the next course.  Twice I tried to keep my half eaten cheese but the third time it was whisked away without consultation   Then we had dessert, or at least some overly creamy Expresso ice cream and ginger biscuits which may count as pudding in your universe but not in mine:. I was longing for something rich, dark and dense.  The Frenchman, maybe?  Or even some chocolate? But I was disappointed on both counts.

 

It was all too much like the kind of dinner party where the hostess puts all her energy into the main course then assembles the rest from the patisserie or delicatessen. You can buy the ginger biscuits in the shop - and even I have an ice-cream machine at home. What I don't have is a pastry chef.  For all I know Clarke's smoke their own fish, keep goats and do their own in-house laundry but if you can't choose exactly what you want to eat then the food, for the price, should be more exciting. 

 

However, if you had a nanny - you'll probably love it.  Or you could try lunch when the menu - though small - does offer several choices.

 

Either way, it's a lot more fun to philander there by candlelight without your husband that it is to fight there with him.

 

Or so I'm told.

 

Signature dish - there is a set 4 course dinner menu which changes daily and costs 44  Alternatives are offered for vegetarians and ice cream served only about once a week.  I was just unlucky.