Northbank, City of London
As David Brent – we gloss over the fact that this is a man for whom a Ginsters pastie is acceptable nourishment – uniquely puts it, ‘Does a struggling salesman start turning up on a bicycle? No, he turns up in a newer car. Perception, yeah?’ In similar fashion, Jan Moir has written with customary vim and eloquence that, in these straitened times, intelligent restaurateurs sense ‘the best way forward is to give customers more, not less’. Peter Woods, head chef at Northbank, and Christian Butler, its owner, evidently do not watch The Office or read the outstanding reviews at Are You Ready to Order? Which is a shame. If they did, they might not have instructed their staff to ‘hard sell’ quite so... well, quite so hard.
A and I have asked for a glass of champagne from the bar menu, a little printed thing that awaited us at table. There’s Moët at £9.50. Is that the only champagne by the glass?
‘’Fraid so,’ comes the meek reply.
Yet when we see the wine list proper, it turns out they have one glass at £7.00. How one bristles!
With alarming exactitude, they price the three-course lunch at £17.70. I’ve eaten it once before, about a year ago, and I also had the à la carte in summertime. Twice, I had a pretty good meal. But when we tell the waitress we’ve come for the set menu, she actually says:
‘Really? But the veal on the à la carte is so good.’
Perhaps it is, at eighteen pounds plus twelve-and-a-half. But such cutesy pushiness serves only to irritate. What is the point of offering a cheapie lunch deal, which enables City workers to snaffle down three speedy plates and be back in the office in around an hour, if you see it purely as a springboard from which to flog dishes costing more than all its courses put together?
This avarice is relentless at Northbank. We’re silkily informed that our thoroughly decent 500ml carafe of Australian red, an already steepish £22, isn’t as good as another priced at £27. Even after pudding and port and coffee they aren’t finished: the girl presses us to order something called a chocolate martini, which sounds perfectly revolting.
It all leaves a rather sour taste, which is a shame when the food itself is pretty good. There are two types of bread, rosemary and sourdough. They’re perhaps bought-in, but crustily fresh nonetheless. A soup of ham hock has a careful eye towards frugality but remains hearty, soul-warming stuff, bulked out with buds of lentils and chunks of parsnip afloat in fine, savoury consommé. A vegetable cake, while sounding like the worst Seventies sop to veganism, is actually very good: fried like a fishcake, with a perfectly citric hollandaise and a clean poached egg. Then a daube of beef cheek for the pair of us: rich winter fare perfect for these dreech days, with sweet diced carrot and glazed onions, in a sauce rendered almost black by long slow-cooking. The oven was a bit too hot, actually, and some of the beef is slightly burnt - in its way, though, this only adds to the pleasant rusticity of the dish. We also have a small side of well-cooked kale, priced at a maxed-out £3.50, and a sloppy puddle of puréed potato, sunk to the plate like an exhausted pig. For pudding, we share a dryish and wholly unseasonal fig tart, with some excellent praline ice cream.
All good stuff. And I haven’t mentioned the view, which is perhaps Northbank’s USP. On this crisp December day, the river looks resplendent, with the ochre funnel of the Tate Modern rearing above, and the wobbly bridge aglint nearby. Earth has not anything, etc. The restaurant is even better in warmer seasons, when they open the raised terrace, and your view won’t be interrupted, as ours was, by a Sauternes-swilling oaf demanding the blinds be drawn. The main room could seem cramped, but it’s been kitted out with an intelligence that provides the illusion of space: raised booths, masses of light, sensible partitioning. The trompe l’oeil wallpaper by Timorous Beasties cleverly melds vintage and modern design: the Gherkin and specific Soho delights wittily disguised in an old-fashioned greenish pattern.
But none of this changes how singularly off-putting it is to feel your every move is being monitored for its attendant margin. As a London food blogger, I feel it my reluctant duty to stave off the worst of the recession by eating out as often as I manage, or as I dare. Mean little restaurants like Northbank don’t make this any easier. Should the collective purse-strings fail to loosen, Butler and Woods will need to realise that customers only return when they’re made to feel like welcome guests, not as items on a balance sheet. A touch of generosity would go a long way. It is Christmas, after all.
Northbank, Millennium Bridge, One Paul’s Walk, London EC4V
Tel. +44 (0)20 7329 9299
See on the TFYS Map
Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £42.40; £91.97 all-in with two glasses of champagne, a carafe of red and a glass of port.
Two glasses Moët & Chandon, £9.50
500ml carafe Margaret River, W. Australia, 2006, £26