Duck & Waffle has been open for a while now and has been reviewed left, right and centre, but it’s often worth eating at a restaurant after the initial impetus that it launched on, as that’s when you get the real service, the service given as standard when not under a microscope. It’s also worth going at non-peak times for the same reason. Said level of service should be just as it is at busy times and when the restaurant is under close scrutiny.
So last Thursday we headed to Heron Tower for a special lunch, choosing Duck & Waffle on the basis that I have the cookbook and the food combinations looked intriguing, and I am constantly bemoaning the lack of innovation on menus these days. Then, of course, there was the view from the restaurant, and the reviews all suggested it was really worth going to. I usually give restaurants up tall towers a miss as the food is often overpriced due to the view, but in this case the prices on the menu were about right for a good restaurant at any altitude.
Food-wise the menu followed the recent trend of not distinguishing clearly between starters and mains. Instead it began with breads and raw fish, small plates, and then ‘plates for the table’ (perhaps as if the other dishes are designed to be eaten on the floor!). The latter limited selection of dishes constituted the main courses, but none really took our fancy so we explored the rest of the menu and ordered their homemade artichoke and parmesan bread, two raw fish dishes – yellow fin tuna and Cornish mackerel – and two small plates to share – roasted octopus, and foie gras crème brûlée.
The first dish to come was the violet artichoke and parmesan bread, which can’t be faulted. It was a base of dough (much like the dough used for garlic bread at Pizza Express) topped with the cooked artichoke and finally melted parmesan. It really was good and one of the best of this type of bread dishes I’ve eaten.
The yellow fin tuna with avocado, balsamic reduction and foie gras was next to be served. I have to say that I’d forgotten this came with foie gras and it wasn’t a discernible flavour. I can only surmise that the sprinkling over the dish was foie gras and created either by shaving frozen foie gras over it or by using a spray gun to cover it in mousse. This aside, the dish was pleasant and fresh, with the balsamic and avocado puree going nicely, though we felt it could have done with a bit of salt and a wedge of lime, just to lift it and give it some oomph.
The mackerel with its rhubarb, kohl rabi and fennel herb was, I fear, a mistake. The fish was not raw as billed, and the texture put one in mind of eel rather than mackerel; it did go well with the rhubarb but the extent of the bones and the kohl rabi’s effect on my tongue, a painful tingling, made the dish unpalatable for me.
The octopus came next, a dish that I was looking forward to as it was the first recipe by Duck & Waffle I’d ever read and I was fascinated by the use of a daikon radish to tenderise the octopus rather than the usual boiling; it clearly works well – the octopus was beautifully tender. It is a classic combination: octopus, chorizo, potato, capers and lemon. All was done very nicely and the clear twist from the norm, other than the tenderising method, was that the lemon was cooked in with the dish, rather than lemon juice just being squeezed in, so it had that bitter flavour you get from cooked lemon pith. The only disappointment was that, as with the tuna, though it was executed without a fault, we were left feeling that something was missing flavour-wise.
But one thing’s for sure, you couldn’t say the same about the foie gras crème brûlée. Its problem was the opposite. The buttered lobster that topped it, despite being perfectly cooked, was entirely lost to the rich toffee like flavour of the brûlée and the rich butteriness of the toasted brioche. Indeed, the overwhelming taste was foie gras covered in toffee.
Unfortunately we were both left feeling rather dissatisfied by our overall experience there. We had arrived at the entrance on the ground floor looking forward to the late lunch I’d managed to secure at a week’s notice. However, our enthusiasm for the meal ahead didn’t last past this point as the two at the desk were rather dismissive of us, I think on the basis that we were not going to Sushi Samba, which would be slightly more understandable if the two restaurants weren’t owned by the same company. But this was nothing compared to what greeted us after our lift ride to the restaurant.
Having wandered through a long winding corridor with no reception along the way, we came into the bar with its views towards Stratford on one side and the City on the other. There was still no member of staff to welcome us, just a large table in the centre of a small room and glasses hanging down over it such that you could not see to the other side. What looked like a reception desk was tucked into the corner, though it was unmanned, and we waited for a good five minutes before anyone arrived from inside to greet us. Nobody from the bar came over to help either, not even their head barman, recognisable from the cookbook – he seemed busy chatting to a woman who had been in the lift with us.
When we were greeted there appeared to be little organisation, and finding our reservation took an age. I thought we might be waiting for our table to be ready, but that clearly wasn’t the case – when we were shown through by a friendlier member of staff the restaurant was half empty; he was good enough to let us have a free table by the window.
When you are up one of the tallest towers in the square mile, what view do you expect? The City? St Paul’s? Not, I’m guessing, the ‘delightful and picturesque’ lands of Tower Hamlets and Hackney. I’m afraid that’s what we got, and what a majority of diners will have too, given the direction the restaurant faces; you need to be in the bar for the ‘good’ views, which are still partly blocked by other towers. We could see the Olympic Park, and some will be able to see Canary Wharf, but really the best view is from the glass lift that whisks you up and down.
During the meal, the staff seemed friendly and all were busy doing things, but nothing appeared to involve looking after the diners; the only interaction with them was in taking orders and the delivery and clearing of food at the tables. I am not saying I want lots of engagement from waiters but I do expect more than their putting down the food and immediately walking away; it would be nice to have some sort of acknowledgment that the diners are more than just cattle.
Our experience at the restaurant left us somewhat empty in spirit. The service wasn’t overtly rude really, just more non-existent and, when there was interaction, it was limited and uninterested in our presence there. The food, with the exception of the mackerel, was well-prepared and flavourful, but most of the dishes left us feeling unsatisfied – just as the view did. I’m sure if you’re a regular they are probably very friendly and good with you, but I don’t think it for us it merited going back.