30 Mar 2009

Powered by Art

A QUESTION banded around by those in gastronomy is, ‘can food be considered art?’ It is, I think, basically rhetorical, although with a mouthful of main course and a bellyful of grog, I enjoy the debate. Whether or not the restaurant at the Wapping Project, a barely converted hydraulic power station overlooking the infamous ‘Prospect of Whitby’ pub, actually puts art on a plate, the whole site certainly provides an anchor for it.
Jules Wright, a psychologist turned theatre director and overall curator of the project, uses revenue from the restaurant to commission a charismatic body of work. For example, inspired by the theme ‘Turning of The Seasons’, handsome photographs reveal a high-octane love story set against the backdrop of Goodwood races. The canvases provide a glamorous contrast to the industrial atmosphere of the grade II turbine halls, where much of the machinery that powered the docks survives.
In tandem with her architect husband, Wright began to rescue the Victorian pile from dereliction 15 years ago, although I noticed fronds of ivy creeping back through a skylight.
With homemade toasted sourdough, I started with a moist tile of smoked mackerel, trout and salmon terrine. It was spiked with a little horseradish and a sprightly tangle of radicchio and radishes.
This was followed by another intelligent, flavoursome fusion. Blood orange spokes complimented tenderly char-grilled swordfish on aniseed-scented braised fennel. A side of sprouting broccoli, left with long stalks, retained colour and bite.
The fact that Wright comes from Adelaide - “great for a weekend, just not a long one” - helps explain the determinedly Australian wine list. At four years old, a Pinot Noir from Piper’s Brook, Tasmania, was smooth, mildly creamy and simultaneously savoury, with an herbaceous edge and a gradually rising alcoholic kick.
At least one of the savvy staff in 60’s style charcoal dresses had exhibited here. Incidentally, you adapt to the relaxed pace, because it is unlikely to adapt to you. Whilst the food is as engaging as the canvases (if not more so), the kitchen, although calibrated is more of a cabinet in a corner than a powerhouse for power dining.
As the perfect pastry of my banana tarte tatin with almost bready but refreshing roast coconut ice cream was pulled into shape, we had time to venture downstairs. Art installations continue on Astroturf. A wall of ceramic stag heads adds to the eeriness of the former boiler room. Blankets and big cushions presumably allow good lunchers to snooze off their food.
I broke my slight haze of intoxication with an espresso shot of black chocolate bitter Illy. We rounded off our arty afternoon with a visit to the roof where a lily pond is set to bloom in summer, followed by a browse in the bookshop. Enchantingly, this is actually a greenhouse in the garden, recycled from the waitresses’ Gdansk exhibition last year. About 100 birdhouses clung to a tree yet to leaf, and a vintage car with spectacular bodywork slumbered in a shed.
Overall, dining amidst the very visible footprints of an industrial past, it had been a somewhat magical, sun-drenched afternoon where every morsel had been infused by an artistic creativity. I look forward to returning one evening mid-summer to dine by candlelight…
Wapping Food at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall. E1W 3SG. T. 020 7680 2080
Nearest DLR: Shadwell
For The London Word
Wapping Project on Urbanspoon

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