5 Aug 2008

Getting to the Pont

'There is no such passion in human nature, as the passion for gravy among commercial gentlemen...'
[Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit]
IN THE early ‘90’s, arbiter of taste Sir Terence Conran brought aspirational dining with inspirational views to a dilapidated dive. Shad Thames was once London’s busiest warehouse complex, heaving with whores and alluded to by Dickens’ as Bill Sikes’ den. After two decades of desolation, ‘Pont de la Tour’, ‘Cantina del Ponte’, ‘Butler's Wharf Chop House’ and then ‘Blueprint Café’ breathed fresh bakery air, grand piano glamour, a wine list to drown in and a larder of ingredients with exotic connotations. Little wonder therefore that Tony Blair treated the Clinton’s to a soirée at the flagship Pont de la Tour six months following his party’s victorious election.
Dining with a friend from Foggia (who knows good food without fuss) we settled in for a long lunch at Pont’s Bar & Grill. You may smoke on the terrace, which pleased him, but visually irked others. God knows how, but looking above, a map of sporadic cigarette scars had been burnt into the canopy. The fragrance of lilies and the chords of a proficient, but fast paced jazz pianist floated from within.
As Conran’s connections with the international restaurant scene gently unravel, I was keen to find out whether the venue had lost its lustre, rather like New Labour’s gossamer veneer. Sir Terence was incidentally a fervent Labourite until 2005 when he branded the PM ‘George W. Blair’ over the Iraq war. He dismissed No. 10’s décor as ‘dull’ a year later, a very scathing remark from a design sage of his stature. Most recently in Conran’s firing line: the privatisation of national assets. We got off to a healthy start. Thin slices of bread filed into a balsa basket were good enough to prompt an enquiry to our waitress “I don’t know where it’s from, but you are welcome to have as much as you like,” answered the cute Slovakian. We obeyed. It is, incidentally from their own bakery, which supplies all of the Butler’s Wharf ‘gastrodome’ (rumoured to serve 1,000 guests per day).
We had completed a light circuit of Borough Market during the morning. The highlight: a trio of chubby Hand-Dived Scallops from Shellseeker’s with smoked bacon lardons. The lowlight (for my friend): burly, misty cider from ‘Barry the Poisoner’ (“quite unlike anything in Italy”). From the restaurant’s all-encompassing list, I chose a bottle of Portuguese white from former chemist, Luis Pato. His '07 Vinhas Velhas (old vines) Branco is made from what one might call the antithesis of fashionable grape varieties: Bical, Cerceal and Sercialinho. Whilst these might sound like a trio of idle brothers, the bright wine evoked cosy brown butter and breadcrumbs with a clean, soft textured, undulating palate: more mineral than fruit. Agile and refreshing. The tastefully designed label featured a fowl as a visual pun to its maker (‘Pato’ means duck). The ice bucket was well within reach, clipped to our table with a smartly ergonomic bracket. From a limited, brasserie style menu, I chose Goat’s Cheese, Beetroot & toasted Pine Kernels, which arrived warm on rusting salad leaves. My friend’s Smoked Mackerel Salad, which involved more tarnished greenery, was torn over firm cherry tomatoes and buttered new potatoes. It looked irksomely basic rather then confidently minimalistic. To follow, my half of Lobster, with irrelevant utensils (the kitchen had already had a cracking time) was greasily dripping with garlic butter. This disguised the small amount of fluffy meat I could excavate. I felt like tipping my plate’s contents, claws and all, into the adjacent hedge (which must hide a multitude of sins). Pommes Frites Maison were bulky (I was expecting the French style salty matchsticks). Sea Bass Fillet Pak Choi & Red Wine Sauce was more successful, even though its presentation was again primary. The overall reaction between the crisp skin, slightly chamois Chinese cabbage, soft flesh of the bass and rounded, almost fine soil like tannins of the red wine was literally absorbing.
After two glasses of Bonny Doon’s cherryade coloured rosé from California, which was metallic and unimpressive, I asked for coffee. The server's response provided the meal’s (Oliver) twist in the tale. “Are you sure you would like that now, Sir. You are obviously a connoisseur...' [hadn't I just ordered a pink Californian?] '...I would be delighted if you could try something on the house. May I bring it?” Whilst we were dimmed not only by the wine already consumed but Barry’s cider, I agreed. And wouldn’t you?
I expected a couple of ISO’s dabbed with something off the 'by the glass' list. Instead a bottle of Grand Cru St. Emilion, Chateau Bellefont-Belcier98, arrived, theatrically decanted at table and poured into crystal Riedels. The initially powerful aromas subdued as it settled, revealing a touch of game with antique hymnbook pages on the nose and a slightly sweet, long-lived palate with the texture of suede.
I have often heard the adage that expensive wine tastes better. In reality, free wine is ever sweeter. The serene, freckled Brazilian lady on the table opposite agreed, as we leaned across to offer her a sample.
Criticisms are often levied at this venue over lethargic service and terminal understaffing. It is true that staff attendance is insufficient, and D&D’s website lists various vacancies if anyone wants to help remedy. Whilst the people I encountered were always charming, things can take time; best therefore to plan twenty minutes ahead for that second bottle of (£4) Belu.
Overall, I saw a handsome bistro with potential. Thank goodness, the owners have decided to invest: a Crustacea Bar was recently added to the restaurant. Lee Bennett, most recently Head Chef at The Savoy Grill is now at the helm. But stylish fonts, lulling piano and complimentary wine (however delicious and brightly explained) do not appease plates lacking poise...
The Bar & Grill at Pont de la Tour - 36d Shad Thames, SE1 2YE. T. 020 7403 8403
Nearest Tube – Tower Hill
Le Pont de la Tour on Urbanspoon