Friday, 10 August 2012
Duck & Waffle, The City
I'm sure I never used to be scared of heights. But as the glass lift at the Heron Tower torpedoed up into the sky, and the traffic of Bishopsgate dropped alarmingly away, I found myself gripping the handrail tighter and tighter. My friend who had agreed to come along for the ride that evening was taking no chances - she had her back to the view and her eyes tightly shut. I bravely attempted to enjoy the experience until the point where I realised we were nearly level with the top of the Gherkin and still rising, whereupon panic set in and I stared at my shoes until the doors opened on the 39th floor.
It's worth the petrifying journey, though. At least, Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor is. I'd like to tell you a little more about sister restaurant SushiSamba below, but after waiting 20 minutes for someone to pour us a glass of champagne, then giving up, that will have to wait for another time. It seemed popular enough, and of course everywhere you look there's that incredible view, but the bar staff seemed more preoccupied with accusing each other of petty crime ("He keeps stealing my muddler", "Would you like me to have a word?") than serving paying customers. First week nerves perhaps.
No such issues at Duck & Waffle. Shown to a windowside table overlooking Tower Bridge, we got our champagne within 30 seconds of asking for it, and from that moment onwards everything was gloriously, effortlessly enjoyable. A mysterious sealed bag was the first thing to arrive, along with a bijou portion of cod tongue fritters. The bag contained strips of spiced pig's ears and were exasperatingly moreish - I was trying so hard not to fill up on 'snacks' before the 'main' courses arrived but these tender bits of seasoned pork did not help. The cod tongues, ironically presented on newspaper like chippy fish, were lovely too, moist and crunchy and accompanied by a chunky tartare with bits of boiled egg.
Oysters were next, and no complaints here either. They had each been properly loosened, and retained a perfect amount of brine.
These pretty little things were slices of raw scallop on apple, topped with black truffle and lime. They arrived on top of a big pink brick, and we were told that if we considered the scallops a bit underseasoned to give them a "rub on the brick", which was actually raw Himalayan salt. They didn't need it, being perfectly seasoned already, and the combination of lime, truffle and raw seafood was incredibly successful.
Next, our favourite dish of the evening, a stunning rabbit ragout pasta topped with pecorino. Rabbit is a tricky old bird to get right, but this was preternaturally moist and rich, mingled with super-silky ribbons of pasta.
The two dishes ordered from the 'Brick Oven' section of the menu, while perfectly edible and well presented, paled slightly in comparison to what had come before. Lamb cutlets were overcooked and underseasoned - I half thought about asking for that salt brick back, but decided against it. Quail had been very cleverly (and presumably very laboriously) boned and rolled and wrapped in pancetta before roasting, but there was something unbalanced about the flavours - too much salty pork, not enough game bird. It may be, though, that we were just stuffed by this point and it's easier to pick fault when you're not ravenously hungry. They were both still very much worth the money.
Somehow between us we found room for a chocolate brownie with a fantastic peanut butter ice cream, and as the sun set spectacularly over West London we paid up and shifted next door to the Duck & Waffle bar. Here, enthusiastic and creative staff working on unusual "inside out" stations (there's no 'bar top', encouraging customers to feel closer to the drink-making process) are trialling inventive twists on traditional cocktails. Their "gin and tonic" comes with a gin-spiked yuzu sorbet floating on top of the tonic, and looks and tastes extraordinary. They are working, too, on a Negroni which comes inside a frozen globe of ice, which you smash apart with a little hammer to release the liquid, and coming soon is a drink which arrives inside a bag full of fruit essences - you pierce the bag, it collapses releasing the fruit mist, and you finish off with the cocktail. Sounds like a reason to go back, to me.
And believe me, it's not the only one. So often with restaurants in beautiful or otherwise desirable locations, it's a case of "never mind the food, look at the view". And the view from the top of the Heron tower is, make no mistake, unfathomably gorgeous - more than once last night we found ourselves just staring across London, speechless with awe. But the dishes from the kitchens at Duck & Waffle were reasonably priced, made with skill and served with care. It is, I'm guessing, possible to leave with a bill of £35-£40 a head if you're careful with the booze and although we didn't - ahem - quite manage to reign in our cocktail consumption I still don't feel anything was excessively priced. There are things I'd change - the stools in the bar raise your head up to just the height of the large window frames, meaning you have to duck under or peer over to see a proper view, and security at ground level meant a bit of a queue just to get into the lift - but these are niggles. Duck & Waffle expertly walks a line between spectacularly glamorous and accessibly homely, and I defy anyone to spend an evening here and not have the time of your life. I intend to be a regular.