I hardly ever go across the river to the south side. I cannot stand the man-boys ruckling along on their skateboards. Yet go we did, over the footbridge just outside Embankment tube station, on a dull Friday morning. The skaters were not getting any younger and the hipsters still show no sign of giving up their promenade.
We were off to see the Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern but first we stopped for lunch at Skylon, on the first floor of the Royal Festival Hall. The restaurant and bar is 1950’s chic, the kind of place that Don Draper would take a lady for a cocktail if he was in town for a couple of nights. I was reminded of Bernard Levin who said of its cool slick design ‘It felt as if I had been instantly transported far into the future and that I was on another planet.’
We ordered cocktails. I had an ‘UP and Away’ a fittingly optimistic champagne concoction with Mandarin Napoleon and candied ginger. My guest had the ‘Cotton Cloud’ another champagne fizz but with wild berry cordial and rose perfume. We don’t usually do cocktails before lunch but we were high up above the riverside path and watching hurried office workers nabbing boxes of noodles, we sipped the bubbles and felt good about ourselves.
I have a pretty good idea that in the 1950s restaurant staff would have been diffident. Many diners back then would have been unsure of how and what to order, and wrong-footed at every stage of the menu. I like living in the bold future and I like contemporary London’s restaurant culture. The staff at Skylon are friendly, helpful and enthusiastic. We had an actual real conversation with our waitress who led us through the menu.
To begin I chose hand dived scallops with cauliflower, capers and Champagne veloute. My guest had Chichester wood pigeon with beetroot and chestnuts. These were poised plates. Both had depth and lightness. We did the new thing of sharing each other’s starters. The pigeon and beetroot were deeply iron. The scallops and cauliflower had a suitably fresh tang and the cauliflower puree was a comfort.
Our waitress sent us a sommelier to assist with the long wine list. We gave him the challenge of selecting a bottle that would match both our main courses. Without hesitation he suggested a bottle of Saumur Champigny. It was a light, fresh red, wholly appropriate for a lunchtime quaff. Half a glass into the wine and I entered the state of equilibrium that swept over Charles Ryder when he dined with Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited.
I had a crisp skinned duck leg with cabbage and my guest had confit sea trout with baby potatoes and wild garlic foam. Side orders of sautéed kale and rosemary salt chips were excellent accompaniments. The style at Skylon is modern and refined. Yet it has the deeply savoury quality that Simon Hopkinson says typifies the best of British food.
The burned lemon merengue tart I chose for desert was an airy conjuration of sharp citrus, the shortest pastry and caramelised egg whites. My guest chose the frankly titled ‘aromatic pear.’ It was so good she refused to share any of it.
Well set up for Bonnard we wafted along to the Tate. I would definitely go over the river again to Skylon.
Words by Steven O’Brien.
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