Wednesday, 30 November 2011
Boisdale, Canary Wharf
It used to be so easy. The rule was, unless you could help it, you avoided Canary Wharf completely, and left those windswept concrete canyons to the suits and skirts who worked there. Even today, hardly anyone is traipsing around its soulless "streets" out of choice - you're there because you have to be. Recently though, if you have found yourself unlucky enough to be in Canary Wharf and out of the office long enough to enjoy a lunch or dinner, the choice is no longer simply between the nearest Pret or Eat, Cafe Rouge or All Bar One. The place still has as much style and charm as a multi-storey car park (and plenty of truly awful restaurants still do a depressingly good trade), but there is a slowly growing number of fairly decent places to dine, even if they do all somewhat conform to the city-boy stereotype. The latest branch of Goodman, which opened here last week, should find a very appreciative audience for its premium steaks and wine list, and despite not enjoying everything I ate at Camino, it's big and noisy and flash enough to fit right in. And now there is Boisdale, a place so unimaginably huge and lavish the only place in the capital it could conceivably exist, and at least conceivably break even, is here in the docklands.
It really is hard to fully convey the scale of the place. Split over two floors, each holding a good few hundred people, downstairs boasts a central bar with enormous seafood presentation, with lobsters and oysters and huge legs of Alaskan crab interspersed with the odd bucket of Beluga caviar. Upstairs, an even bigger space has, stretching down one side, a bar the size of an articulated lorry with a good 600 or so different bottles of Whisky. At one end of this room is a substantial stage featuring live music every night, and behind a number of wood-panelled doors are various extra private dining rooms and conference rooms, a huge outdoor terrace, a sealed smoking (sorry, "cigar tasting") room and a climate-controlled walk-in cigar humidor. It is absolutely vast, and quite overwhelming, and yet despite all the very obvious expensive showpieces like the whisky bar and cigar room there is still that rather corporate Canary Wharf vibe that hangs heavy over the tartan carpets and spotlighting. It's partly the size and shape of the place - it's nowhere near small or cosy enough for the member's club atmosphere they're presumably trying for - but it's also the clientele, all of a very specific middle aged demographic and awkward 'office night out' groupings. This may be sheer prejudice talking, but if I notice it there's a good chance you will, too.
The menu is, in keeping with everything else about the place, vast and expensive and rather overwhelming. It's also slightly confusing - there are no 'starters', just something called 'Small Plates' which included recognisably starter-y things like whitebait and foie gras terrine next to snacks like dry-fried broad beans. There were 'Salads', though only two, and a section for 'Sandwiches' although burgers appeared under a different heading 'The Grill'. Roast haggis was listed under 'Large Plates' while sausage and mash was under 'The Grill' next to the selection of dry-aged steaks. Finally there's a showy 'Shellfish' section where snacks, starters, small plates and large all gathered together as long as they have a shell and live in the sea. In fairness, all the individual items looked tempting, it just took us half an hour to work out where it all was.
Native oysters, in this case "Duchy of Cornwall No.3", were absolutely superb - fresh and crunchy and literally impossible to fault. Which is just as well, as at £18.50 for 6 they were also bleeding expensive. They weren't even the top of the range either - that honour went to some Maldon No.2 which came in at an astonishing £25 a half dozen. Maybe they all came with pearls.
Crab tian was lovely, too - perfectly dressed fresh crab with a smooth avocado puree, daintily presented, and so nice that at £12 it seemed like a relative bargain. It was a relief to discover that attention to detail in the kitchen hadn't been lost amidst the gazillions spent elsewhere on stocking a cigar list and sourcing caviar.
A 12oz fillet on the bone was £38 - silly money, but actually it was almost worth it, cooked perfectly with a great beefy taste and aroma. I hardly ever order fillet but this was at the recommendation of our waiter and as you don't often see bone-in fillet on menus curiosity got the better of me. The texture is the best thing about this cut; slicing through it is like carving butter, but so often the extraordinary texture makes up for a lack of flavour - not in this case. Even the béarnaise was good, although I wasn't quite as keen on the skin on chips - if I'm paying the best part of £4 for a bowl of fried potato, the least you can do is be bothered to peel them first.
After the food, we shifted upstairs for an awestruck audience with the world's biggest whisky bar (probably) and a fascinating Whisky "flight" - 6 quarter measures of some really interesting rare blends and thick, peaty single malts. I don't smoke, so I can't offer my opinion on the cigars (though I can say the room they came from smelled fantastic), but anyone with even a passing interest in whisky could easily spend a happy evening here, not to mention quite easily burn through their life savings if they accidentally picked out a bottle of 1946 Glenmorangie from the line-up.
The bottom line is, Boisdale is a good restaurant. The food is good, the service is good, there are enough nooks and crannies to cover every event from a quick bite to a multi-course slap-up seafood feast to a long evening in chugging cigars and sampling vintage whisky and everything in between. It's huge, but somehow the sheer size of the place allows a variety of ways of spending your time, and doesn't just feel like a cynical method of covering all bases for the maximum possible profit. What it isn't, though, is cheap - God only knows what our bill would have come to had we not been invited, but I'm guessing somewhere in the £100/head mark - certainly serious Event Meal territory. And it's simply this question of value that means Boisdale may not quite be a reason to visit Canary Wharf by itself. It may, however, be a good enough reason not to avoid it. And that, at least, is progress.
I was invited to review Boisdale