I love spending time on the south bank of the Thames. For a start, I always find being by the river very calming, and the attraction of the south bank is that parts of it feel as if they have not changed in a hundred years or more. The atmospheric railway arches, the cobbled lanes, the ancient pubs and the glorious mechanical marvel that is Tower Bridge – not to mention the view across the water to St Paul’s cathedral and the Tower of London. There are many worse ways of spending a day than getting off the train at Westminster station, walking across the river and then following the Thames path east, all the way to Tower Bridge.
But all this walking is thirsty work and at some point you will need sustenance. When you have finished marvelling at Tower Bridge and the glass spiral housing the mayor’s office, walk under the Tower Bridge approach road and emerge in another century – Shad Thames. This tiny cobbled street runs between two blocks of Victorian warehouses which have been lovingly restored – including the metal bridges high above the road along which porters could wheel bales of imported goods, fresh off the ships docking along the river wharves. It is one of my favourite places in London. A block or so will bring you to Butlers Wharf, hub of the Conran restaurant empire and home to at least three Conran restaurants: Cantina del Ponte (authentic pizza at high street chain prices); the Butlers Wharf Chophouse (traditional English comfort foods for grown-ups) and Le Pont de la Tour (modern French cuisine with a strong bias to seafood). When I first came to live in London six years ago, the two restaurants I remember wanting to go to were Chez Gerard (inexplicably!) and Le Pont de la Tour. Both seemed equally unattainable at the time – I mean, Chez Gerard was where you went if you had an expense account and as for Pont de la Tour… any place that serves such spectacular seafood platters is clearly beyond my budget.
And sadly, many people still think this way about Pont de la Tour. However, if you walk by there often enough and read the menu, you discover that in the bar/brasserie section of the restaurant, there is an alternative – an affordable alternative – in the shape of the menu du marche. This menu which changes regularly contains four options each for starters, main courses and desserts, and for three courses you pay a teensy £14.95. And as you can see from the picture above, your view is the same as the million dollar view that diners in the more expensive restaurant section will enjoy. But… there’s more – and this is the best kept secret part: if you visit on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, the wine is priced at the same price as the restaurant’s attached wine shop, i.e. without the usual restaurant mark-up. This means that you can get a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or maybe a good Cotes du Rhone for less than the price of the set menu. Or, should you be feeling particularly skint, a bottle (yes, bottle) of house wine for £7. Once I’d discovered that, it didn’t take long for Le Pont to become one of my favourite and most reliable dinner venues.
As mentioned above, the setting is very glamorous – right on the Thames and within a stone’s throw of Tower Bridge. There is an indoor section to the bar/brasserie with a live pianist which I think makes it a rather noisy space, but there is also a fair-sized outdoor area that is under an awning and amply heated with (evil, evil) patio heaters, so it’s also usable in winter. I have always sat outdoors so as to enjoy the spectacular view. As the restaurant is part of the Conran empire, service is generally reliable and there is always a maitre d’ keeping a close eye on proceedings. I have on occasion eavesdropped as the knowledgeable sommelier was taking a lot of time and care helping a table to choose their wines, so there is help available for those daunted by the wine list or looking for something truly special. We, being old pros (!), made up out minds in a flash – a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for a paltry £11.
But on to more important things: the food. The first time I visited I started with the truly delightful salad of seared tuna with shaved ginger and vanilla-infused cucumber. This was just heavenly – the tuna only just seared, and the cucumber and ginger creating a crunchy, sweet foil for the rich and oily fish. Delicious. For my main course, I opted for the “iron aged” (sic) pork chop with roast apple, cherry tomatoes and black pudding. Some investigation (both quizzing the waiter and surfing the net) revealed that it was in fact Iron Age pork – pork from a breed which consists of a cross between Tamworth pigs and wild boar, not some sort of process for ageing meat by hanging it on an iron hook!! This dish was another roaring success. The pork was succulent with a nice rind of fat and its flavour was beautifully complemented by the sweetness of the apple and little roasted tomatoes. The black puddings tasted a lot like the mini morcillas from Brindisa and were just a treat by themselves. A lovely, simple, satisfying dish with flavours that worked well together.
And from there we moved on to dessert. I didn’t have the dessert at the top – that was Antony’s ice cream – I just could not resist photographing it as it was drop dead gorgeous! Olwen and I, on the other hand, could not resist the lure of chocolate and both ordered the petit pot au chocolat. This was prettily served in what looked like a miniature soup tureen with a layer of very, very thick cream covering the solid chocolate below. Yes, it certainly was petit, but it was also so rich that any more would have been surplus to requirements!! A deicious end to a lovely meal.
The total came to about £24 per person with water and service and my only quibble was that it took an age to pay: the waiter came to the table with his hand-held credit card terminal and then inexplicably took it and my card away with him for ages and ages. But this was a minor gripe – all in all, we had a really lovely evening, enjoying food and a view of a quality that far outstripped the modest price.
Pont de la Tour revisited – September 2006
It should come as no surprise therefore that, before long, we were back at Le Pont for another dinner – the same crowd with the addition of Nick. However, this time the unobtrusively reliable service gave way to something akin to Manuel from Fawlty Towers! Our mad Mediterranean waiter forgot to bring things like water, he exclaimed (positively and negatively) over our menu choices, he conspiratorially touched our shoulders – all very very odd! It really felt as if they were short-staffed and the pot-washer had been unexpectedly promoted to front of house and was treating this as his Big Break. It wasn’t shockingly bad – it was just completely left field and threw us all slightly off balance as you never knew what the next visit might bring in terms of comment or convivality!
Anyhoo. Moving onto the (thankfully) less erratic food and wine! We opted for a couple of bottles of Rueda and although I didn’t write down the price, it was again in the £11 region – and delicious. This time round I started with chicken liver pate served with cornichons. This was a generous helping of coarse, yummy pate and fresh brown bread. The cornichons provided a nice crisp counterpoint to the rich pate and the balsamic reduction drizzled over everything cut through the richness. For my main course I had grilled salmon fillet with a creamy lemon sauce on a bed of lentils. This was a lovely warming dish without being too heavy. The fish was cooked to perfection and was perfectly matched to the creamy lemon sauce. And I am a sucker for lentils :-). For dessert, I didn’t make any waves – I headed straight for the petit pot au chocolat. It was just as delicious as last time – but this time it was served in an espresso cup, with a couple of little madeleines on the side – adorable! The bill came to about £22 per person with two bottles of wine, water and service. Paid without incident, got up to leave… and when we had actually stepped back onto the riverside walkway, off the restaurant premises, Mad Manuel our waiter came dashing out: “You leave without saying goodbye!” and… kissed Olwen and I on both cheeks!! We were just speechless and then we could not stop laughing – probably a combination of the waiter and the Rueda! But seriously, I imagine this might have been off-putting to some customers, and I would bet my life on the fact that Sir Terence Conran would be supremely unimpressed!
Pont de la Tour, round three – September 2006
Once I discover a good thing, you just can’t can’t keep me away, and later in September Olwen and I were back again, on a crystal clear September night. I’m afraid I am not giving you pictures of the food for this visit – we were sitting outside and the light was very low, so there is camera shake on all the photos. But didn’t the bridge photograph beautifully?? This time round, service went to the opposite extreme – from over-confident, to mouse-like and nervous. Maybe the restaurant needs to look at its selection policy! That aside, we decided that the weather was chilly enough to justify red wine, so we pushed the boat out and got a bottle of Gigondas for something like £12.50 and it was total heaven in a bottle. My starter was a warm goat’s cheese salad with pine nuts – this was tasty but I probably should have gone for something more warming. For mains I had the lamb brochette with harissa spice and couscous. This was not the best thing I’ve had here – the lamb wasn’t particularly tender, but was particularly dry, and the couscous was under-seasoned. But it could be bad ordering on my part – some of the other mains on offer might have been perfectly lovely. Dessert was a bit of a debate – there was gratin of fresh figs with eau de vie sabayon… but in the end the lure of the petit pot au chocolat was just too strong 😉 During the course of our meal, Tower Bridge lifted up twice for river traffic (hint: if you hear a siren during your meal, this means the bridge is about to lift up – excuse yourself, grab your camera and go and get a picture from the river’s edge!). But the truly fascinating aspect of this particular meal was our fellow-diners. At one table there was an older woman with a MUCH younger man, dressed a little like a dandy highwayman – I recall that there was a velvet coat involved and a floppy fringe to match floppy white shirt cuffs. And at the table next to us, a couple arrived as we were having dessert – he in a suit and she in the Shortest Skirt in All of England. They proceeded to order champagne and then nibbled on each other in lieu of hors d’oeuvres (I use the word “nibble” because I don’t want to frighten my readers, not because this accurately describes what they were doing!!) Extraordinary. We left soon after! The bill came to about £25 per head including water, wine, service and people-watching.
In summary, I have to reiterate that I think Pont de la Tour’s menu de marche and the special deal on wine on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday makes this the best bargain in London. Your view is spectacular if you get an outside table; the service is generally good and the food is high quality and surprisingly inventive for £14.95 (you also have the option of haveing only two courses for £12.50). There is a little upselling that goes on – side dishes offered as well as coffee and tea – but not enough to be annoying. It remains one of my favourite dinners to remind you that you are in the glamorous end of London, without breaking the bank.
Le Pont de la Tour
The Butlers Wharf Building
36d Shad Thames
Tel: 020 7403 8403
Fax: 020 7940 1835