I’ve eaten at altitude so many times recently I now have a permanent nosebleed. All anyone in this city does now is eat atop skyscrapers. Like one of Dr Pavlov’s dogs, I only salivate while peering down into the tip of the Gherkin. You can’t move for the things, and now there’s yet another up Tower 42, which might be the ugliest building in the universe.
The venue was previously home to Gary Rhodes’ Twenty Four, which finally packed up after 10 years of being a restaurant that everybody quite liked, partly down to the food and partly down to the tower itself, which people tend to overlook despite it being the second-tallest thing in the City.
People are paying attention to it now, because Jason Atherton has moved in and he’s officially Hot Stuff, the man with the Midas touch, a chef who’s pulled off the enviable trick of expanding his restaurant empire to 12 venues – including Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House, Little Social, Berner’s Tavern and now City Social – without everybody getting thoroughly sick of the sight of him.
City Social’s website promises “chic, sophisticated ambiance” and “the ideal environment for those in search of a discreet space to ‘talk business’” (the inverted commas seem to imply that “talking business” is a euphemism for something unspeakable). Atherton’s brief to the designers appears to have been: “Make me the exact opposite of Berner’s Tavern”. It does feel discreet – despite being 24 floors up and surrounded by floor to ceiling windows, it’s somehow still gloomy, like a speak-easy that got lost on the way to the basement. While your table is splashed with light, the rest of the restaurant fades into a pleasant, murky brown after the sun goes down. You have to squint to make out the cheese trolley a few feet from your table. The jazz-age styling isn’t anything new but it’s well executed and fairly subtle; an art deco napkin holder here and jaunty soundtrack there.
It attracts a more City-ish crowd than Atherton’s other ventures. I’ve visited at lunch and on a Monday evening and both times men in suits filled the majority of the tables, presumably “talking business”.
The menu is largely English-inspired, with global influences thrown in here and there. And as we’ve come to expect from Atherton – and from executive chef Paul Walsh – everything is immaculately presented, each dish a miracle of culinary engineering, appearing to require cantilevers and foundations.
I kicked off with a pig’s trotter and ham hock in crispy breadcrumb, with a cylinder of black pudding wrapped in a deep-fried lattice; a combination of fiddly haute cuisine and comforting, stodgy grub. The tuna tataki is a real looker, with three pieces of seared fish topped with diced cucumber and radish, nestling among bright green globs of creamy avocado and chunks of gherkin, finished off with a sweet, smoky ponzu sauce. There’s a lot to comprehend and all of it is top notch. The tartare, with a little roof of sourdough, was over-complicated, with shaved truffle, dollops of truffle oil, goat’s curd, dried vinegar and tiny pickled onions all fighting for attention.
The rabbit comprised of three rich, salty cuts of saddle, served with tiny, spicy rabbit sausages and heaps of asparagus. The halibut – again visually spectacular, topped with vibrant red peppers and deep fried squid – was nicely cooked but lacked a strong flavour to pull it all together.
The rum baba, though, was about as good as it gets, soaked in enough rum to get you trolleyed and drowned in a strawberry daiquiri sauce that’s added with a flourish at your table.
The venue may be discreet but the food has all the hallmarks of Jason Atherton; bright and beautiful and relentlessly interesting, even when it slightly misses the mark. With starters around £14, mains at the £30-mark and decent wine starting at about £50, it’s about as expensive as you’d expect – it ain’t cheap but you won’t need to remortgage your house.
While Tower 42 may be a boldly untrendy location, City Social works. It’s a blank canvas that lets the food do the talking. And the food says mostly good things. It isn’t the only restaurant in London’s sky, but it’s probably the best.
First published in City A.M.