The Oxo Tower Restaurant has been chugging along forever, minding its own business. Harvey Nicks has run the eighth-floor dining room for 19 years. Its head chef, Jeremy Bloor, has been there for 12. The restaurant manager is a relative rookie, with only nine years under his belt.
Located on the South Bank, in one of London’s most recognisable buildings, with views of St Paul’s, you’d assume it would be operated as a pitiless tourist trap, charging exorbitant prices to punters unlikely to return for a second sitting. But if that were the case, they’d make it easier to find. As it is, literally nobody could be accused of stumbling upon it by mistake – no signs guide the way and the lift is located down what looks like the serviceman’s entrance to an office building. The dining room has recently been refurbished, although that’s probably too strong a word, given it looks exactly the same; less a facelift, more a short course of botox. The bar has been lowered, apparently, and the back of the dining room overlooking the London Eye has been spruced up, but that’s about it.
My last visit was on a summers day, and I ate on the astro-turfed terrace. This time it was a bitterly cold February evening, so we were stuck inside. And inside, someone has made some very bold choices with the lighting. And by bold I mean blue. Very blue choices. Common wisdom says restaurant lighting should be warm and neutral. Candle-light where possible, low watt light-bulbs, that kind of thing. But here, everything is bathed in icy ultra violet, the kind of lighting they use in bus shelters when they want to stop people injecting themselves with heroin. It’s like eating at a very quiet nightclub, or a Santa’s grotto.
The menu is modern British, but ambitious with it, featuring pairings like pork rib eye with black pudding spring roll and kumquat marmelade, or veal ballotine with potato and anchovy salad sauce. First came an amuse bouche of Dorset crab on brioche, which would have fine were my bouche not distinctly unamused when I crunched down on a fragment of shell. The pork belly starter, though, looked like a million dollars under the lighting, with carrot and mango puree streaked across the plate like day-glo paint on a raver’s face. The pig was perfectly cooked – brown, crisp skin atop fatty white meat. Meanwhile tendrils of crackling reared up off the plate, and a tower of bok choi topped with date relish sat in the corner. The sweet potato with whipped cheese, baby beetroot and truffle honey was almost as good, and just as well presented.
I had beef fillet with oxtail ravioli for my main, which I asked to be cooked rare. “Because of the lights, the steak will look darker than it really is,” explained the waiter. Now, I’m glad he said this, because it gives me the chance to make a joke about asking for my steak rare, not blue. However, it also acts as a neat illustration of why restaurant lighting shouldn’t be this colour – it interferes with your experience of the food. In the event, the beef was fine, as was the ravioli and accompanying spinach and blue cheese.
El Pye went for the monkfish, which was quite something, served underneath what looked like a hollowed out anemone (crafted from potato) filled with diced peppers and tomato, with some clams skulking in a light broth beneath.
For dessert, a plate of chocolate petit fours, each one very good. El Pye ordered what sounded like an unassuming rhubarb mascarpone, pistachio mousse and gin sorbet. It comes stacked into a candied phallus that bursts from a crockery volcano, white balls of meringue strewn around its base. The plates were made especially, I’m told. She gobbled it up whole.
The bill came to a shade under £200 – expensive, but not unreasonable so given the attention to detail. The wine list is comprehensive, the cocktails – especially one featuring bacon-infused Bourbon – good enough to ensure I’m writing this with a hangover. I just wish they’d sort out those lights. Either that or go the whole hog and call in some cage dancers.
First published in City A.M.