I’m not sure what I think about Tom’s Kitchen, which is a problem because someone’s paying me to tell you about it. There are four in the chain now – five if you include the one in Istanbul – and they’re all perfectly nice. But a few things about them make me suspicious.
The first is that they’re a spin-off of a fine dining restaurant, Tom Aikens Restaurant in Chelsea, which I adored (it closed in January). Sure, the atmosphere is more laid-back and the prices are lower, but they’re not that much lower. I feel the same about Marcus Wareing’s Tredwells in Covent Garden, and Alain Ducasse’s Rivea at the Bulgari Hotel (don’t get me started on Jamie’s Italian). I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s a little cynical to paste your name over the door of one restaurant while you concentrate on making the food you really love somewhere else.
My suspicions aren’t eased by the location of the latest Tom’s Kitchen. At first glance, St Katharine Docks seems like it might be glamorous, what with all the ostentatious tokens of wealth bobbing in the marina. But look a little closer and you realise it’s mainly designed to skim the pockets of tourists who aren’t sure where to go after posing for selfies on Tower Bridge. It has a Cafe Rouge. It even has a medieval banquet-themed restaurant, for God’s sake. And, when you think about it, who spends time on a yacht when it’s moored in London? Nobody, that’s who – St Katharine Docks is really just a parking-lot for boats.
Tom’s Kitchen sits right on the water, so you can gaze at the lifeless vessels and wonder what more-glamorous locales they’ve visited before being locked up here while their owners play with other toys. When I arrived late on a Wednesday the place was deserted, which is exactly what you’d expect of a car park at that time of night.
Tom’s Kitchen itself is pleasant enough; the front half has lots of pictures of the restaurant’s suppliers framed on the walls (the menu stresses that “seasonal and local produce” are at its heart, which in this day and age is a bit like saying “our dishes mainly consist of things made of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen”), while the back half – it’s gigantic – goes for your standard exposed brick, tiles and low-hanging lights.
The menu is high-end French brasserie fare with a British twist. The venison tartare lacked a bit of kick, as did the pork, duck and foie gras terrine, but the roast bone marrow with snails was outstanding. The chicken liver and foie gras parfait was shudderingly good, so rich that serving it with brioche was overkill.
I had a wonderful roasted fillet of cod with sauerkraut, bacon and shallots, which seemed like excellent value for £22. El Pye’s halibut with cauliflower puree, pickled turnips and watercress sauce was good but not a patch on the cod – it could have done without the globular croquettes, which the menu says contained oxtail but could have been anything.
The pear and blackberry crumble was first-rate, imbued with a festive kick thanks to a generous helping of cinnamon. Frosted winter berries with a white chocolate sorbet was over-complicated by the addition of candied lemon chunks, but it was a fine dessert nonetheless.
A few quibbles aside, the food is first class – it’s not the most exciting brasserie menu in London, but it’s very well executed. Things were let down, however, by the service. The staff seemed perpetually baffled, as if they’d been suddenly awoken from a sleepwalk to find themselves in an unknown place, clutching a menu. Our server, for instance, was stumped when we asked for a recommendation from the menu. Later, as the starters were being cleared, we spotted a specials board that hadn’t been introduced (we were then asked if we’d like to order anything from it, which I’m sure the chef would have appreciated, having already finished preparing our meals). Later I asked three times for our coffees to arrive after dessert only for them to come at the same time, inevitably going cold by the time we got round to drinking them. You’d forgive mistakes like these in the first couple of weeks, but the place has been open since September.
This brings me back to those suspicions I was talking about earlier – you’d never get service like that in a Tom Aikens flagship restaurant. On the other hand, you wouldn’t bother making your food as good as this if your restaurant just existed to fleece tourists. Like I said, I don’t know what to think.
First published in City A.M.