Few London dining venues are more memorable than Le Pont de la Tour on a sunny day, with it’s namesake Tower Bridge looming large from the terrace and sightseeing cruisers making their way up and down the dear old Thames from Westminster Pier to Royal Greenwich. But regardless of the time of year or the climate, the same old boats go up and down and the same diners, albeit inside through the panoramic windows, watch them pass – Le Pont de la Tour being as much a year-round venue as London itself, or so it appeared on the bracing April day I visited…
Having been recently redesigned by Russell Sage Studios, aside from the aching hard Art Deco style chairs, the interior of the dining room is a warm, inviting space inspired by the 1935 ocean liner SS Normandie and harking back to an altogether more glamorous period. Come evening the city lunch crowd make way for courting couples holding hands, sipping champagne and enjoying the views which the river-facing tables for two afford, while those really keen to impress their date can even charter a Venetian-crafted boat to arrive in style (from £700).
First opened in 1991 as part of Terrence Conran’s remodelling of the Shad Thames Victorian warehouse complex and bought out by the D&D group in 2006, Le Pont de la Tour encompasses a food store and coffee kiosk, wine merchant, bakery and a stylish bar & grill offering a more relaxed menu of French brasserie classics which encourages more regular visits, particularly during the warmer months. The formal restaurant has meanwhile remained the jewel in the crown and boasts one of the most luxurious wine lists and a la carte menus in London, with almost all the key ingredients shouting excess; lobster, caviar, oysters, foie gras, chateaubriand and so on and so forth – a good reason to bring my father here on a ‘landmark’ birthday.
Kicking off with a bottle of the finest, his eye caught the crab and caviar platter for two; white and brown crab meat, poached salmon mayonnaise and frozen cucumber with dill, all centred around the piece de resistance, Aquitaine caviar, and served on mother of pearl dishes resting on ice (mini blinis on the side). After a few blissful mouthfuls partaken with bubbly, Pa was put in mind of Botticelli’s Venus. He’d already decided this was going to be the best meal of his life – and so far so good. Meanwhile Mama was also in seventh heaven as she made ecstatic purrings over the succulent half a lobster thermidor she ordered to start, and in appreciation of the charming Argentinian sommelier’s suggestion of his native Torrontés; a variety which harvests grapes grown at 9,840 feet above sea level and moves from a powerful elderflower nose to delightful peachy notes when coupled with seafood.
When it came to choosing mains, there was only one that seemed fitting for a man who has technically reached ‘old age’ yet has all the energy and vivacity of a man half his age, and that was a chateaubriand pour deux; wheeled in on a trolley as if in tribute to ‘the good old days’, served perfectly rare and accompanied by wilted spinach, a silky pomme purée and the glossiest red wine jus either side of The Channel. The celebratory bottle of Margaux was sublime and made the whole feast reminiscent of a Napoleonic victory banquet, fully justifying the expression ‘pushing the boat out’.
Frederick Forster was appointed head chef last year as part of the relaunch of the restaurant and, having had stints working alongside Raymond Blanc at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Michel Roux Jnr at Le Gavroche, he is clearly more than comfortable in captaining this grand dame of a restaurant, although for a young chef you wonder how much creative licence he gets with not-so innovative dishes like chateaubriand and lobster thermidor. Forster could have convinced me that he’d been cooking like this for forty years and, if I hadn’t know better, I might have imagined an arrogant, overweight, well-boozed French chef barking orders like Escoffier. How Forster’s own cooking style will develop remains to be seen, but he’s certainly had a promising opening.
The meal ended on an equally high note, as best illustrated by my father’s intensely flavoured raspberry soufflé, arriving at the table to cheers due to being as tall as a chef’s hat, and which the sommelier partnered with a 2009 Royal Tokaji due to its punchy raspberry notes. Most restaurants don’t manage to entice me with their dessert menu, yet here, due to it being a celebration of French favourites, it’s the opposite problem. How to choose between baba au rhum, tarte tartin and crêpe suzette which I caught delightful wafts of whenever it was flambéed at neighbouring tables? I also hear (and smell) that the cheese selection is legendary, but alas it was already well past midnight. It’s amazing how a good meal can make you forget the view, however impressive – and that’s all the evidence you need that Le Pont de le Tour is still one of the finest destination restaurants in town.
Le Pont de la Tour, 36D Shad Thames, London SE1 2YE. For more information and reservations visit the website.