This longstanding and popular D&D restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall might have some great views and good pedigree but it feels ever so slightly dated, and the food is a little hit and miss.
One of two Skylon venues (there’s a grill and bar next door), the restaurant proper has the better location, with its expansive windows offering some pretty impressive views out across the Thames, from Waterloo Bridge right up to Westminster. It’s certainly spacious, a big box of a room befitting the Modernist Royal Festival Hall in which it is housed, and from whence diners enter – something that does affect the lustre of somewhere regarded by most as a destination restaurant. Slightly retro wallpaper lining the staircase of one entrance matches a couple of very 70s bits of glassware, both of which hardly help Skylon to feel cutting edge, but on the whole it’s a smart, simple restaurant that lets those views do much of the talking.
Many D&D venues chase the business pound, but this is also in prime tourist territory, so expect a real mix, depending on what time you visit. Weekdays (especially lunchtimes) see their fair share of suits, with weekends welcoming out of towners and those seeking something special. Staff are well versed, efficient and more than capable of offering some very sound advice on the menu.
With head chef Helena Puolakka at the helm since Skylon opened in 2007, there’s always been consistency to the feel of the menu, with classical French cooking combining with influences from her Scandinavian upbringing. It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to see food that isn’t consistent in its execution.
For example, even though the lunchtime market menu (three courses for £28.50) offers some relatively good value, the skin on an otherwise delicious grilled mackerel starter (with a wispy light, punchily-flavoured potato mousse, pickled cucumber and horseradish) is depressingly limp; either fry it or dispense with it altogether. Similarly, the mushroom and rosemary velouté (with pickled shimeji mushroom and pommery crème fraiche) tastes great but looks like something you'd find in a cement mixer, and comes with a spoon clearly not designed for the diminutive, if pretty, bowl.
Mains improve drastically, with the ox cheek (braised until beautifully tender, with a thwack of beefy flavour), cavolo nero, light potato gnocchi and red wine sauce especially good. The accompanying bone marrow is wildly overdone though, evaporating into the ether of the oven. A fricassee of gnocchi is light and lovely and pretty much faultless, working well with perfectly roasted cubes of squash, a similarly – admirably - light parmesan cream and flecks of almond.
The cheeseboard (£6 supplement) is superb, and kept on a trolley in what one might presume is another nod to yesteryear. This time, though, it’s definitely a positive, with an array of British and continental cheeses kept at the right temperature as they are wheeled past in provocative parade. The dark chocolate marquise is every bit as rich as it sounds, which is no bad thing for those with very sweet teeth, but just in case there’s not enough substance it’s drizzled in a salted caramel sauce and served alongside an espresso sorbet.
A very impressive and broad selection of wines is no doubt geared toward those suits sealing deals, but there’s plenty of flexibility, enabling even the philistines amongst us to sample some very good drops. Head sommelier Alexis Meszoly seems to really know his stuff, and is more than capable of traversing a list that might be skewed toward France, but is one that takes in much of the rest of the old world and a fair few from the new world too. A better-than-average selection is available by the glass (including a 2002 ‘Grande Année’ Bollinger - £19) but a really good way to try a few is to take advantage of the ‘wine sampler’, where four taster glasses (one chosen by each of the venue’s sommeliers) are available for a pretty reasonable £25 for white or £29 for red. Highlights from here include a surprisingly good ‘Te Koko’ Marlborough from Cloudy Bay; a deliciously full-bodied Chardonnay from Ramey in Napa Valley; and a nicely balanced, slightly sweet Reisling Kabinett from Gruenhaeuser in the Mosel region.
The Last Word
There’s a lot still to like about Skylon, with a cracking wine list, some good dishes and a fine view out across the Thames. You just get the impression it’s going to have to start to work a bit harder if it’s going to keep what’s a pretty good reputation intact.