A staggeringly tall block of ex-council flats looms before my boyfriend and me as we stand in front of Balfron Tower on a chilly autumn evening. We exchange a glance and I check the address on my phone for the third time.
“It’s definitely the right place. The message says wait outside the tower and somebody will come down to collect us.” As we were 15 minutes late to the event – transport links to the east on weekends being as much use as a bikini in a Balkan winter – I wasn’t even sure we would be able to enter the communist prison before us without scaling the walls.
Luckily, our head chef for the evening, the charming Vix Rathour, had received my frantic email and ran out to greet us. After a series of apologies and gesticulations we eventually stepped out of the lift on the top floor of the Balfron Tower and were greeted with an unparalleled view from Canary Wharf all the way to Westminster. Vix then ushered us into one of the nearby flats where sound of laughter and the clinking of glasses travelled down to us as we ascended the stairs to the makeshift restaurant space.
It really was charming. A waiter was waiting for us at the top of the stairs, between the doors to the apartment kitchen and living space, armed with flutes of champagne. The main room was sparsely decorated but welcoming; three dining tables had been set-up comfortably in the room, each seating about six or seven guests respectively; candles flickered from every available nook and cranny and the show-stopping view over London dominated the entire back wall.
To start, homemade bread and maple bacon butter, which was rather like eating a bacon sandwich on brioche; rather unexpected but absolutely delicious
I was reminded of, and humbled by, the old adage not to judge a book by its cover but then, I suppose, that is the joy of pop-ups. Talented young chefs in the city with a creative vision, Vix Rathour being a prime example, have the task of transforming ostensibly austere surroundings into dining rooms which once seen are never forgotten.
We sat down with our champagne and were quickly lulled into a relaxed, heady state as Frank Sinatra was played idly in the background. Unlike at most other supper-clubs, the diners on our table didn’t seem wholly interested in sharing conversation with anyone around them. We muttered a few awkward hellos before falling into quiet conversation with our respective partners – particularly irritating when the two tables around us descended into joyous laughter, making us feel like we were sitting at the table in class reserved for with the kids with questionable personal hygiene and penchants for compass-related violence.
Vix had prepared a five course tasting menu for our enjoyment. To start, he presented us with homemade bread and maple bacon butter, which was rather like eating a bacon sandwich on brioche; rather unexpected but absolutely delicious. Then came a sort of deconstructed Waldorf Salad; celery three ways with shavings of apple on rye bread, the sweetness of which was accentuated by a thin layer of cream cheese. Proving his devotion to local sourcing, Vix announced that he had harvested the rocks on which these were presented from local rubble mounds. A strange addition to the palate you may say, and one which had me eyeing up my slab of stone warily for added insect nutrition.
The next dish, a tasting of Lee Valley carrots, was a delightful throwback to Nouvelle Cuisine – and a wonderful reminder of how little we all used to eat at those overpriced temples to gastronomic OCD. Honey and truffle glazed, smoked, and pickled, perched in a splodge of carrot emulsion; the carrots occupied precisely one eighth of the plate, the autumn shoot and black of garnish perhaps one eighth more. The depth of flavour was astonishing, each variation standing out individually yet working with the others in perfect harmony. Who would’ve thought the humble carrot capable of such heights?
A sorbet of white peach lemonade, Pale Fire beer froth and homegrown pansies was like a blast of mountain air after all that autumnal indulgence
The Jackson Pollock-inspired fish course; all splodges of ink and chicken emulsion with a fish sandwich of pollock, onion ash and white chocolate puree, celeriac and more pollock on top, scored highly for innovation and presentation – but there was perhaps a little too much going on for the dish to cohere perfectly.
Undeniably, the pièce de résistance was the Goosnargh duck breast, cooked sou vide at 57º (the menu overstates by three degrees for poetic effect). It was meltingly tender; never has duck tasted so rich yet so delightfully light, too, something you must eat to appreciate. Blanched broccoli brought freshness, whilst the confit duck flakes which adorned the pile of silky-smooth mash were an inspired touch, adding yet more ducky goodness to this already wonderful dish. A beetroot and blackberry jus was the perfect accompaniment. Where gravy would have been too heavy, this cut through the richness to just the right degree, highlighting the earthiness of the dish and its sweetness too.
A sorbet of white peach lemonade, Pale Fire beer froth (from the local Pressure Drop brewery) and homegrown pansies was like a blast of mountain air after all that autumnal indulgence. Sharp yet sweet, it was most welcome indeed. Finally, pudding. And what a pudding. Chocolate orange sponge, so light it was in danger of floating off the plate but packed with enough flavour to stun a buffalo at thirty paces; a dusting of dark chocolate which, unlike most garnishes, served far more than merely aesthetic purposes, reinforcing the depth of the sponge; slithers of Seville orange, almost marmalade, exquisitely sharp and utterly wonderful; a wild flower garnish which normally I would turn my nose up at but which here seemed absolutely integral to the dish.
Overall, Vix and his kitchen team, all of whom study at the University of West London, treated diners to an eventful evening of elegant dining in the most unlikely of venues. Despite my initial trepidation’s when stood outside Balfron Tower, I am pleased to report that no communist detainees actually did ambush our party and the Goosnargh duck was not offered up for the good of the people: were it a prison, I would happily sign up for a ten year sentence.