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.


Oxo Tower Restaurant, Bar and Brasserie on Urbanspoon

This post was originally written in May 2011


Hugh Wright said...

"wowing you with superficial glamour while never quite satisfying on any other level"

I've had boyfriends like that...

Gavin said...

Agree with all this Chris. This place has an incredible draw and is always packed. I've found that this gives them a bit of an attitude, both in snooty hard-to-attract service and ordinary food. Expensive too. I've only gone in recent years when visiting out-of-towners have insisted or have booked.

There's some weird shit bit in their lease that means that they have to let people in who only want to admire the view. Do this rather than eat there.


Piers said...

NO! £10 is not an acceptable price for a cocktail, particularly an average one. Loads of places serve really good cocktails for less than that e.g. Happiness Forgets, Nightjar etc. Sure they're not in restaurants, but that doesn't make it OK. (And yes, maybe I need to leave Shoreditch. Anyway, will now go read the rest)

Louis said...

Piers, I was going to disagree with you, but then realised that Hawksmoor do a spanking set of cocktails all around the £8.50 mark.

That said, if I knew a restaurant (the Connaught for example) did GREAT cocktails, then i'd be happy to fork over the ££s.

Judging by Chris' comments, this doesn't seem to be the case with La tour de OXO.

Chris said...

Piers: You're right, of course. Looking back I'm not sure why I thought £10 for a mediocre slightly warm cocktail was acceptable at all.

Anonymous said...

Complaining about apostrophes and then writing "a fancy black box with draws"?

Chris said...

Anonymous: Out of interest, what would you consider wrong with that sentence?

Hugh Wright said...

They're 'drawers'.

NB: I am not Anonymous, as you know I take great pleasure in having my comments attributable to me, but thought I'd point that out in case he (or she) doesn't deign to explain.

Chris said...

Anon/Hugh: Bloody hell, so they are. I could have stared at that sentence all my life and not noticed - wood for trees etc. *sheepishly edits post*

Laissez Fare said...

This accords with my only experience of this place (hence never returned): not worth the money although not wholly offensive. Not sure what kind of sole it was exactly they served you, but I had always thought of Dover Sole as a fairly mild-flavored and subtle-tasting fish...but still no excuse if the dish as a whole didn't make you want to eat it by being delicious. Are your pictures becoming more arty, or is it just me? :)

PS - their black box of drawers for openers reminds me of the finale of elBulli

Krista said...

Well, at least the lighting for photographs was EXCELLENT.

Graphic Foodie said...

Gah! The nibbles in the drawer are one step too far in ridiculous, gimmicky presentation.