2017 marks the tenth anniversary of Northbank – and I don’t mean the rebranding of the north bank of the River Thames in the hopes of competing with the South Bank. You’ll have seen the overhead street banners last year, pronouncing this doomed rebranding, failing to state what the brand actually represents other than a geographic location.
No, I’m talking about the Cornish-influenced modern British restaurant by the Millennium Bridge, and yes, as the name suggests, it is on the north bank of the river. The restaurant’s setting of course is spot on. After all, what establishment overlooking the Thames can be said to be in a poor location? But they make the best possible use of it with floor to ceiling windows framing the view across the water to The Globe and Tate Modern.
Such a setting makes it a great spot for a cocktail, or three, and Northbank’s city leather chic bar has a good range of their own cocktails that are clearly popular with the local offices and the teachers at City of London School. Personally, I’d suggest the Gin Revolution; as you go through the cocktail there’s a gradient from elderflower into gin.
The restaurant’s menu changes monthly, with fresh fish delivered daily according to what’s available from the fishing fleets of Cornwall. New head chef, John Harrison, also brings a fresh identify to the menus, based on his experience cooking for the likes of Marco Pierre White, Paul Heathcote at Longbridge, Ham Yard Hotel, and at Newbury Manor Hotel, which he took to two AA Rosettes. For this reason, I went, along with IGT Wine Editor Marshall Allender, to see what’s been going on.
We chose starters of pigeon with port-glazed shallots, onion soubise and lovage, and the roasted scallops, enoki mushrooms, truffle butter and tarragon. These came after an amuse-bouche of salmon mousse on mini blini; it’s not a particularly creative amuse-bouche, so needs to be spot on, which it was. It was well flavoured, the chive cut through, leaving a fresh feeling in the mouth, and the blini, thankfully, was moist, which sadly most are far from.
The pigeon was perfectly rare and bursting with that tell-tale iron-y game taste. Beautifully plated, each of the classic accompanying elements was well executed but, as a whole, they had a tendency to overpower the pigeon. The strongest culprit was the lovage, though this was a minor element, the main issue coming from the port glazed shallots which still had an afternote of sharp oniony bitterness that meant it could have done with being sweated off longer.
The scallop was served au gratin and had the perfect translucence that one wants. The flavour of the scallop stood out above everything else which is a nice change as so often it’s lost. The downside was that the breadcrumbs were over buttery, giving an oily, wet texture that coated the scallop, rather than giving the flavourful crunch that was intended.
For main course I chose the Cornish brill with monk’s beard, Jerusalem artichokes and romanesco broccoli. The brill, I’m pleased to say, was large, meaty and cooked perfectly – and with a crisp skin. Combined with robust hunks of Jerusalem artichoke and romanesco, roasted but left with an al dente bite, and the light sauce, it made for a delightful and enjoyable dish. My side of cauliflower, leek and smoked bacon cheese, while looking oily in fact wasn’t, though it was heavy on the sauce and I was left asking where the leek was.
Marshall chose the quail with braised cabbage heart and parsnips. It was well cooked, but he did pronounce himself disappointed in the cabbage as it was too soggy and lacking in that bite one wants. The quail, as has been the trend for some time now, was deconstructed, which did lead us both to ask the more general question of what’s wrong with serving the bird whole; at the very least, why not serve the breasts and legs intact? Yes, this whole deconstruction thing makes the meal look bigger, but it also means it gets colder quicker and, when plated like this, it can look a total mess.
It was Marshall’s side of twice cooked chips that was the real disappointment of the meal. What was served up to him was a bowl of the most anaemic looking, undercooked, slightly-yellow-from–the-oil chips. They were sent back and replaced with chips that, at best, had seen the fryer for five seconds more. There was no lovely crunch leading to a fluffy inside, instead they had a thin skin resulting from their either having been cooked in the oven or frying oil being passed over them. The insides were so piping hot that, given the lack of cooking on the outside, one wondered if they had seen a microwave.
The rhubarb crumble soufflé with poached rhubarb and custard, accompanied by a particularly nice glass of Vin Santo, was how I chose to end my meal. It was a fine example of how light and fluffy soufflés should be; it didn’t even collapse when cut into, so I can only assume the chef has found a way of stabilising them so they don’t. Poached rhubarb at the base of the soufflé was nice and tart and the custard was a crème anglaise poured into it, while the oat crumble was a lovely sweet addition. What was missing was more of a rhubarb flavour, the only taste of it coming from the poached rhubarb. The soufflé itself was plain and had the taste of the egg whites; it needed poached rhubarb or a rhubarb puree mixed through the egg whites before baking. This would also have meant that the dessert was closer to what was advertised – two rather than one lot of rhubarb.
While the food fell down at times, it was the service that made the meal more than anything. They knew, of course, why we were there but, judging by their interaction with the other diners, I’d say that the service is impeccable for everyone.
In general, I have not been a huge fan of many of the restaurants based in the City as they have often seemed to me to be all show without the substance to match, and to have very similar menus. In fact, Northbank doesn’t fail to offer a good menu or service, setting or ambiance, but alas each dish, despite the main elements being perfectly cooked, was undermined by an error in the cooking of one of the base or accompanying elements. This was an issue that the chips drew attention to more than would otherwise have been the case. And so, disappointingly, while much of our dinner was enjoyable, Northbank needs to do more to alter that opinion.