Le Pont de la Tour
Le Pont de la Tour appropriately holds the title of the most exquisite yet understated French restaurant London has.
Le Pont de la Tour opened back in 1991, as the showpiece of Terence Conran’s regeneration of the Shad Thames warehouse complex, dating back to the 1870s, also featuring the then Design Museum. At the time, going there felt almost exploratory —now it’s one of London’s lavishly served hubs.
Le Pont de la Tour London received an historic consecration in 1997 when it hosted the Blairs and the Clintons, still an alarming snap. At this time, Conran was busily building a restaurant empire across London but in September 2006 his executives Des Gunewardena and David Loewi led a buyout, creating the D&D group, which now operates no fewer than 34 upmarket places, including some abroad, with revenues of more than £100 million a year.
Pont de la Tour’s amazing location needs no further description: it occupies an extraordinary length of the ground floor of a warehouse building right beside the Thames, giving glorious views both ways, most notably of Tower Bridge, lit up electric blue at night. There are plenty of tables under an awning outside the restaurant too, for more clement days. It’s exhilarating to eat here, just for the site alone.
Sage’s redesign, though, makes the earlier incarnation feel as though it were oddly stark. He has divided up the length into two areas, a leathery banquette-dominated bar, with music (live at weekends), cocktails and a small-dishes menu, then a vast luxurious dining room, agreeably quiet, apparently taking inspiration from what many still rate as the greatest ocean liner ever, the SS Normandie, launched in Saint-Nazaire in 1935. There’s a lot of gilding and mirrors, intricately carved dark wood, half-height curtaining if needed, soft lighting from brassy lamps and big circular tables of radiating colour — as well as sumptuous amounts of white linen and shiny cutlery. The Art Deco-style chairs are stylish, if surprisingly hard — and there’s an extraordinary carpet throughout, apparently pre-distressed and composed of strongly geometric, abstract lines, maybe inspired a little by the designs of Edward McKnight Kauffer?
It’s a really grandiloquent, imposing room — with just a little serving island in the middle, topped with massive hydrangeas. Yet golden and impressive though this interior may be, it only enhances the glamour of the site and view. So this is an absolute success as a refurb.
The Pont de la Tour menu remains high French luxury without gratuitous innovation, expertly delivered, at a price. There are good deals offered — a three-course weekend lunch for £30, a more limited choice weekday lunch or early evening dinner for £23.50 for two courses, or £28.50 for three, plus service, plus drinks. But if you go à la carte, as you will probably want to do, and start exploring the rewarding wine list — this has always been a restaurant where the ratio of drinking to eating has been generous, possibly in tribute to the oft-expressed preferences of its founder — you’re on for a sizeable bill as well as a special occasion.
From the starters, seared duck foie gras, black fig was just that — two tender slices, just crisped, with a piece of caramelised fig and a little Madeira and balsamic reduction. No brioche, no fuss: just utter luxury on a plate, the right quantities, perfectly judged. Roasted Orkney king scallop, violet artichoke was just as good: two meaty scallops, nicely browned, in quite a salty, well-reduced creamy foam, served from a little copper fait-tout, around a well-softened piece of artichoke. It came with a scattering of a succulent, slightly bitter and saline green, V-shaped vegetable that is new to me, a bit like samphire, originally from Asia, called salty finger, a curiosity now also grown in Cornwall.
From the mains, braised halibut, grelot onions, cauliflower, crab sauce was also ever so suave, perhaps even a little too smooth and flattering: an excellent, smallish piece of fish, surrounded with cauliflower purée and florets, with some of this trendy little onion (not so different from spring onion?) nicely poached, and a rich, smooth crab sauce provided to pour over.
Roast Yorkshire grouse, brussel tops, liver croute, blackberries was a treat: the bird was taken off the bone and served pink and redolent, the brassica just nice little bitter greens, the blackberries all that was needed in terms of a fruity component, a lovely wine reduction for gravy, a liquid and ideally bland bread sauce served in another copper pan on the side, a smallish piece of toast just softened with the liver… As good a grouse as ever I’ve eaten.
For puddings, a vanilla-poached half pear with some ice cream and a madeleine (£5.50) was excellent, although not really needing the last- minute crisping of extra sugar that it had been given. An impressive cheese-board rolled up, with the French classics tactfully interspersed with the best of British too, if you wanted to go that way, Stilton between the Roquefort and Bleu-d’Auvergne, Cheddar holding up its head between differently-aged Comté: a melty St Marcellin and a Calvados-infused Camembert were particularly good.
Le Pont de la Tour is not pushing boundaries, not trying to keep up with street food: it’s just giving pleasure. Save up a bit! As I once heard the chatelain of a castle say on Down Your Way, on being asked what day-trippers might think, on seeing him regale himself beyond the ropes. We paid £203.01 — gladly.
Pont de la Tour London address: 36D Shad Thames, London, SE1 2YA
Le Pont de la Tour Opening Hours: daily from 12pm-3:30pm, 6pm-10:30pm