High dining in the "Walkie Talkie's" Sky Garden
Rhubarb, the south-west London-based caterer-turned-restaurateur has three venues atop the £200-million 20 Fenchurch Street, nicknamed the “Walkie-Talkie” for its distinctive top-heavy shape. Together, the Sky Pod Bar, Darwin Brasserie and Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill are intended to form a “gourmet, garden oasis”. And so they do, writes Douglas Blyde.
Following a security scan, I took the lift to the almost-musical accompaniment of an eerie wind which seemed to bolt up the shaft with us. At floor 34, the doors peeled apart yielding a bird’s eye view of the silvery Thames. The giant rockeries up here in the Sky Garden are plump with plants, although it was odd to note their leaves do not, and cannot, flutter.
Rhubarb, the south-west London-based caterer-turned-restaurateur has three venues atop the £200-million 20 Fenchurch Street, nicknamed the “Walkie-Talkie” for its distinctive top-heavy shape. Together, the Sky Pod Bar, Darwin Brasserie and Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill are intended to form a “gourmet, garden oasis”. And so they do.
I met Jon Berastegui, the Sky Garden’s head sommelier, at Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill, the complex’s highest venue – and its haughtiest of price. Previously with Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s then Alyn Williams at The Westbury, Berastegui operates a comparatively streamlined list under the enormous glass ceiling here, which was being cleaned from the outside by two brave workmen while we talked.
“This is not the place to serve Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or 22 vintages of Dom Pérignon, as at Claridge’s,” Berastegui said. Indeed, one month into the opening, Berastegui revealed that of the 2,500 bottles sold each week to a thirsty City clientele, Prosecco had proved the most popular pick.
Another keen seller has been Italian Pinot Grigio, although Berastegui has banned it in the Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill in favour of the more textured Santa Celina Pinot Gris from Mendoza. Champagne from the LVMH family also features throughout, with Ruinart as house pour at the Bar & Grill, and Moët & Chandon at the lower venues.
Work in progress
Showing me his long to-do list, Berastegui mentioned he spends much time working out where to shoe-horn bottles over his three cellars, from the one he is cultivating in the eaves above us for up to 400 bottles, to the main holding “at floor -1”.
I stayed for lunch, which was cooked by 29-year-old head chef, Zac Whittle, a regional finalist of Young Chef of the Year. with roles at Galvin La Chapelle, Galvin at Windows, The Orrery and Quaglino’s already under his belt. The Champagne glasses optimistically present on the table were soon invigorated with R de Ruinart (£14/125ml), tasted alongside fresh focaccia-like bread, which bore a few too many rosemary pines.
I chose Fenchurch lobster cocktail despite the fact that its £24 price tag is the same as a three-course lunch at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham – and just one pound shy of the “View From The Shard” experience which, unlike here, offers an uncompromised view of London. The dish also came in too tall a coupe.
Fortunately, J Lohr Arroyo Vista Chardonnay Monterey County 2012, (£11.50/125ml) brought what Berastegui called “unapologetic sweetness to enhance the dish’s richness”. The wine is almost Rubenesque in the mouth. Meanwhile, a lime-like Riesling Skillogalee Clare Valley 2013 (£8/125ml) was sharp against a pretty plate of roast day-boat scallops with pork cheek and butternut purée (£16.50).
To accompany the main course, Berastegui had pre-poured Numanthia, Toro 2010 (£13.50/125ml) into a hugely broad glass which, he said, effectively acts “as a decanter”. Delivering an “explosion of fruit”, it bevelled well with a neatly trimmed 10oz rib-eye from the Goodwood estate (£30). “You can walk on it!” Berastegui said of the big but beautiful, chewy wine.
I preferred the whole Dover sole with brown shrimps and beurre noisette. It was very good; but again, at £42 it was just £12 less than a full lunch with wine and water at the two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche. I mentioned to Berastegui that the fish was Barbara Cartland’s favourite dish at his old workplace, Claridge’s where she kept a table for half a century. “That was a while ago!” he said.
Omero Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2011 (£9.50/125ml) is a good match with the fish “which is quite meaty”, Berastegui noted, recalling a visit to another producer of plump Pinot Noir – New Zealand – “where the skins on the vine look like tracing paper.” It was an odd remark, I later reflected, given there is not a single entry from New Zealand on the wine list.
I have noticed that Rhubarb always endeavours to shoe-horn its eponymous ingredient into the bill of fare. However, instead of the rhubarb soufflé (£10) which takes 20 minutes to realise, the caramelised quince with macadamia crumble and buttermilk ice cream (£8.50), which overall tastes of Battenberg cake, found a happy fit in Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2008 (£20/125ml).
Although airport terminal-like at present, the Sky Garden could become a popular and attractive events space for up to 450 guests at once, especially if it were a little warmer in temperature, allowing the trees and plants to grow. And with more staff like the opinionated and friendly Berastegui, who is building his team, it could even be “characterful”.