Aqua Shard is the ultimate destination restaurant. This is very fine dining, with a British-inspired menu and cocktails that will leave you almost as breathless as the view across London.
1,016 feet of steel, glass and expectations rise up into a restaurant venue that is as unmissable as the iconic structure itself. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the Shard is inspired by icebergs, London church spires and the masts of old ships that would have sailed up the Thames. However cynical you might be about the aesthetics, your heart can’t help but soar a little as the lift whizzes up 31 floors to the Aqua restaurant, and you emerge with slightly weak knees and mouth wide open at the vista across the metropolis. Owned by David Yeo, the restaurant group knows the secrets to success, as they have 23 restaurants in Hong Kong, Beijing and London, with another contemporary northern Chinese restaurant, Hutong, upstairs from Aqua.
Service is slick, well dressed and just flirty enough to make everyone feel a little more glamorous. Staff bring a sense of occasion, from their slicked-back hair and high-waisted trousers, to the theatrical way you are welcomed into the restaurant. There is an unequivocally sophisticated air to the place, yet you can still hear quiet squeals of delight as a guest sips a delicious cocktail, or catches sight of their own house from afar.
The Shard might be a controversial building, but the menu plays it reasonably safe, with a well-considered range of dishes that would work equally well for a corporate dinner as a romantic soirée.
The whole dining experience is reflective: as the city below looks up at the Shard, Aqua guests are caught in a mutual gaze looking back at the city. But the dishes also use this reflective idea, by featuring two bold flavours that counteract and complement each other. One starter, for example, includes green pea custard (£14) that takes on the density of the seared foie gras with which it is paired. Or the hand-cut steak tartare (£13.50) that delicately evokes a burger, and jives off the creaminess of a perfect scotch egg.
The plating style is simple, but flavours are a complex, elevated taste of the city; as you look over London, you’ll eat butter infused with smoke, or microherbs that are reminiscent of lichen growing up the city’s older landmarks.
More risks could have been taken with the Yorkshire rib-eye (£33), but ultimately it’s the safe alpha-bet on the menu. Still, truffle is delightfully pulled through a peppery watercress salad, and dark shallot jam is a good sauce alongside the béarnaise. Succulent lobster tail (£32) is served in astoundingly deep-flavoured lobster bisque, with crimson tones of seafood reduction and small cubes of ripe mango flesh. Grilled sweetcorn (£4) has a touch of Mexico in the lime butter, but is brought back home by the mousse using hard cheese from Bermondsey.
It seems unbelievable that an internationally recognised structure which dominates the London skyline would serve vegetables from Secretts Farm in Godalming or microleaves grown in a Bermondsey; but whilst executive chef Anthony Garlando may cook in the clouds, he sources food with his feet on the ground, from local small producers.
Reflections return at the end of dinner, as the sun sets over St Paul’s, and the waiter serves Eton Mess that’s hidden within a cathedral-esque dome of meringue. Mille-feuille is a pleasurable exploration of crisp layers, as a shard of perfectly tempered chocolate gives way to fine layers of pastry beneath, with an elegant peanut butter filling and a dusting of fleur de sel.
No trip would be complete without a cocktail in the atrium bar. Decorated with discrete Liberty prints and minimalist design, the open space above the bar arches 3-stories high. This is a fabulous bar – and with cocktails starting from £11.50, it’s reasonably accessible too. Inspired by British tea and gin culture, clever use of fresh herbs and quirky ingredients like stinging nettle agave nectar or chocolate absinthe foam make it impossible to order just one of these cocktails.
The Last Word
You must go: simple as that.