Tuesday, 28 May 2013
A meal at the Heron Tower always gets off to the best possible start, thanks to a thrilling journey up the Fastest Lift in Europe(TM). Unlike my first white-knuckled ride up to Duck & Waffle a year ago, I am now able, thanks to far more return trips than are good for my liver or my wallet, to have my eyes open for the entire thing. But the novelty never wears off - it's an extraordinary thing, being rocketed up into the sky, ears popping and stomach churning, and is no less spectacular on a Saturday lunchtime spending hours watching the trains snake in and out of Liverpool Street station, than an evening with London's glittering skyline providing the backdrop to your bag of pig's ears and yuzu gin and tonic.
So far though, the only floor I'd spent any time on was the 40th, in the bar and the restaurant of Duck & Waffle. SushiSamba, its South American sister downstairs, never felt like my kind of place; perhaps I had, unfairly, visions of the superficial, celeb-chasing likes of Nobu and Sake No Hana, and considered it a useful "filter" to prevent that kind of crowd creeping up to where the real magic happened. But also, I'd seen the prices, and I'd read the reviews, and if I'm going to spend that much on a meal I wanted to make sure I might get something more in return than some faintly ill-conceived sushi-tacos and a nice view.
But SushiSamba now has a new chef, and in an effort to persuade us that there's life outside the 40th floor, the kind people who do their PR sent myself and three friends to see what he was up to. And from the very first mouthful of the very first thing we tried, as London's summer squall raged outside (the SushiSamba terrace was, sadly but understandably, out of bounds that evening), we were impressed. Well, at least, I was.
Amuse of salmon tartare and yuzu caviar (I'm guessing but I don't think I'm far off the truth) was aggressively seasoned, so much so that a starter-sized portion of the same mixture would probably have proved too much. But one mouthful managed to stay just the right side of overwhelming, and a little box of runner beans in a lovely, bright, light tempura batter were complemented perfectly by a fluffy truffle dip.
Wagyu beef gyoza were similarly accomplished, packed full of juicy, crumbly beef and with a good crunch on the casing. There were five of them, making sharing between a table of four rather difficult, but somehow we managed. Most of the dishes, in fact, came in 3s, 5s or 7s, meaning there was a lot of improvised chopstick-sawing going on.
Trio of ceviche didn't display anything as stellar as I'd eaten at Lima, but comparing just one dish to London's best ceviche restaurant is unfair. They were fine - the seabass one being the best, with the strongest leche de tigre (literally "tiger's milk", the base marinade of any good ceviche) but they all seemed a bit subdued, and a horrible cold, chewy lump of squid on top of the seabass didn't do anyone any favours.
I don't remember much about the tuna tataki, so it was probably perfectly edible and yet not outstanding. Looks pretty though doesn't it.
This "wagyu tataki" was great - a little fan of pink beef underneath an obscene (in a good way) slab of wobbly seared foie gras, and a quail's egg on top. Bags of flavour, each element perfectly timed, and an example of how to make foie gras work with Asian food (as opposed to sticking it on top of sushi rice, which is a bloody awful idea).
You may want to make sure you're sat down before I hit you with the next course, because I have something quite shocking to reveal. This is, I think, unless I'm missing some ingredient in the sauce there, an entirely vegan dish. And not only did I enjoy it immensely, but it may even have been my favourite dish of all. And it's vegan. Not even vegetarian - vegan. Perhaps I'm more of a sucker for presentation than I thought, because it is stunning isn't it, like four miniature herb gardens sprouting next to a lily pond. But no - it did taste as good as it looked, herby and fresh, and incredibly skilfully done.
By way of extreme contrast, the next couple of dishes were entirely meaty. Flank steak was nicely chewy and rare, although the herby coating was rather nondescript. Lovely pink lamb chops, though, in an umami-rich red miso paste, were much better.
If you think the "El Topo" samba roll sounds odd on paper - that's salmon, jalapeño, shiso leaf melted mozzarella (I know) and crispy onion - then you're not the only one. Ordered out of sheer curiosity it divided our table between those who found it sickly and bizarre (me) and those who loved it (er, everyone else). Still, wouldn't do if we were all the same, as my grandmother says.
I found far more to enjoy in the "Sao Paulo", which was a bonkers selection of pretty much every different type of fish on the menu, all chopped up into little slices with black truffle on top. Fresh fish, not too much warm sticky rice, and an eye for presentation. Nothing to complain about.
Sashimi was not particularly stellar, although by this point it could just be that our appetites were waning - they were probably fine. You might be expected to expect better than fine, though, for £22 for 9 pieces.
And it's the cost that is really the only significant worry when planning a dinner at SushiSamba. Food like this is never cheap, and shouldn't ever be cheap - truffle, foie gras, wagyu beef, sashimi-grade tuna, all these things need paying for. And once the small plates are stacked up and counted (not literally, don't worry - this isn't Yo! Sushi) you could easily find yourself spending more than you expected.
We didn't pay, so you can take this post with a pinch of salt or dismiss it entirely, as is your right. But I asked for the bill at the end anyway just to see what it would have been, and discovered with some surprise that all the above, with plenty of interesting sake and a good few cocktails, came to just under £80 a head. Not cheap, not cheap at all, but I don't think far off value for what had been a very enjoyable meal with one of the best views in London. And so for top quality South-American-Japanese fusion food, served with pride and skill, in London's 2nd-highest dining room, you can't do any better. Yet another reason, if you needed one, to take a trip up the Heron Tower.
I was invited to review SushiSamba