Thursday, 1 December 2011
The Oxo Tower, Southbank
Nothing was quite right about our meal at the Oxo Tower restaurant. But before you settle down for a long and satisfying dose of schadenfreude, I should also say that nothing was that bad about it either. Everything, from the decor to the service to drinks and (most importantly) the food weaved a fine line between disappointing and just about acceptable, never dropping below the former and rarely rising above the latter, and so I can neither wholeheartedly recommend it or condemn it. It's a frustrating place, wowing you with superficial glamour while never quite satisfying on any other level.
Take that view, for example. The Oxo Tower is on the 8th floor of a building right on the south bank of the river Thames and is blessed with one of the most fantastic vistas in the city, a grand, sweeping panorama encompassing St Paul's cathedral all the way round to the Savoy hotel. Quite understandably the staff are keen to show it off, and we were offered a seat on the terrace accompanied by cocktails and nibbles. But while I should have been enjoying the view I couldn't help being distracted by the scruffy old uncomfortable chairs, the weird Astroturf on the floor which made me feel like I was sitting in a B&Q garden furniture display, and the regular misuse of apostrophes in the cocktail menu. Also, am I wrong to expect a lychee and rose petal martini to be pink or at least be garnished with rose petals? It tasted OK (and was "only" £10, actually a pretty good price for a cocktail these days) but again, there was just that overwhelming sense of "not quite". The nibbles were pretty interesting though, a fancy black box with drawers containing olives, home made (and very good) pork scratchings and some delicate potato crisps.
Once reseated inside, the general sense of discomfort only continued. So keen are Oxo Tower to show off their fantastic view that there is absolutely no guard against the early summer sun, and anyone unlucky enough to be seated facing west had to squint at their date and the table in front of them until sundown. And yet, eating with one hand and using the other as a visor, an amuse of gaspacho was genuinely lovely, well seasoned and with nice fresh vegetable flavour. Perhaps the food would be worth it after all.
A quail starter was nearly right. Clearly a lot of work had gone into boning the teeny leg and breast portions, and the selection of summer vegetables was cooked perfectly and very pretty. But the bird itself was soggy, smelling rather more of the oil it was cooked in than of nice fresh poultry; it seemed they had sacrificed a nice browned skin and crispy texture for tender moist flesh with slower cooking. Which is a bit of a shame. In a similar vein, a crab starter was fairly underwhelming, just a blob of fresh crab meat and salad, although an accompanying mini rye loaf was very good indeed, as was the selection of house breads. Whoever's in charge of baking at Oxo Tower knows what they're doing.
Mains were more disappointing still. Despite being told the lamb came medium rare, it was overcooked and chewy, didn't have a great deal of flavour and was rather a chore to eat, although the accompanying cheese "crumble" (kind of a mini cottage pie) was - bizarrely - gorgeous. And I don't know what they'd done to my lemon sole, but this usually robust and flavoursome fish was bland and mushy, in dire need of seasoning - or something - to lift it, and the collection of insipid vegetables and froth beneath tasted like pond water. Even the "caviar" on top was muted, with hardly any flavour at all.
Although we skipped dessert, they were nice enough to bring what would otherwise have been the complimentary pre-dessert of raspberry panacotta. It was nice enough, but certainly nothing interesting enough to make us wish we'd gone for a full extra course. Same goes for the petits fours.
The bill for two came to £141. We had ordered a £36 bottle of Beaujolais and a £4.50 side of French beans, but that total doesn't include the cocktails (which they strangely didn't charge us for); as I say, none of it was technically inedible but I think I am entitled to expect a little more dazzle from a meal that sits alongside places like the ever-reliable Galvin @ Windows in this price category and style of cuisine. And Galvin can even beat them on the view. For somewhere that asks so much of your wallet, the Oxo Tower never gives enough back to represent value for money, and value for money is really what it's all about. The restaurant was at capacity last night - clearly there are enough people who think "never mind the food, what about the view", but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. And I can't see myself returning.
This post was originally written in May 2011