Skylon Restaurant - Modern European
Royal Festival Hall
Belvedere Road, Waterloo
Tel: 020 7654 7800
The transformation of the South Bank has been a triumph: even on an autumnal Friday afternoon you get alfresco dining amid markets and food stalls and a sense that, in spite of another washout summer, Londoners do get the opportunity to live out of doors occasionally.
But eating out along this side of the Thames has always been a bit hit and miss – from a few tourist pubs to the slightly ramshackle offerings around Gabriel's Wharf. Lately, the more upscale establishments clustered at the feet of the Royal Festival Hall have upped the anti.
Now that battle for supremacy has taken to the skies, with the Oxo Tower having long held the title of 'Best river view' unchallenged, this new pretender, Skylon, seems determined to bump the tower off its complacent perch. “The Oxo Tower has the highest views; ours are better for people watching” says the waiter. And he’s right. I’m surprised to find that Skylon is located just one floor above the terrace, not way up in the rafters of the RFH. A table by the gigantic windows puts us right in the action, and it is fun to watch the hubbub of activity just a few feet below. But sweeping Thames vistas, this ain’t.
What Skylon lacks in perspective, it makes up for in space and the volumes of unabashed natural light that wash through 30ft floor-to-ceiling windows. The sophisticated minimalism of the RFH's recently revamped 50s interior makes the most of this room’s inspiring scale. Quite striking too is the raised bar in the centre of the room, which divides fine dining from the bistro area. With an extensive cocktail menu, it’s good to know there is somewhere in this part of town where you can get a drink which isn’t served lukewarm in a plastic cup.
I am given three menus when I arrive at my table. Trying to handle them all at once is difficult and I am soon doing a bad impression of Mr Bean, as witnessed by a retinue of slightly over attentive staff who keep approaching me thinking I am gesticulating to get their attention. There’s a grill menu, a short fixed lunch menu, and an a la carte menu which, in spite of its description, is actually a fixed menu at £39.50. The latter is the one I go for because I’ve spotted pigeon (although the allure of baked Alaskan king crab on the grill menu is almost too much to resist).
I start with pan fried scallops and green mango on soba noodles. The scallops are generously proportioned, and no less succulent for it. The damp noodles I don’t go for however. This is rendered unimportant once I get a glug of the excellent Australian white - David Traeger Verdelho (£36) – a difficult choice due to the extensive list of European and New World wines. My Anjou pigeon turns out to be two skinned breasts served pink, which sit alongside a rather dejected looking slab of potato gratin prinked up by some very cute baby turnips. The pigeon is a little too rare for my liking, but is impressively flavoursome and provides me with that gamey hit that I'm craving. Executive chef Helena Puolakka's 'modern European' menu includes plenty of fish, and my companion raves about his sea bass.
For dessert we chose ‘Rhubarb poached, vanilla crumble ice cream, mint pavlova, raspberry emulsion’ and the cheese trolley. The former turns out to be as technical as it sounds, and the blobs and splashes of pink and white look rather like an 90s Athena poster. It is, apparently, quite good, although I am by now too engrossed in the awesome selection of oozing, putrefying, delectable cheeses to care.
Although floating at a lower altitude than some of its competitors, the battle for the skies is won in my mind by Skylon’s cloud free ambience and versatile menu. And at about £60 per head including wine it's less costly than some of its highfalutin neighbours.
Christian Walsh, Allen & Overy
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