When people hear I am a food blogger, one of the first things they constantly ask is: “So what’s your favourite London restaurant?”. It’s a question that I’ve both come to expect and dread. Firstly, there is no answer to that question. It depends on a myriad of variables including what kind of food and level of formality I’m in the mood for; how much cash I want to flash; how far from home I feel like travelling; and whether it’s a special night or just a Tuesday when I can’t face cooking. Secondly, I have recently found that people you barely know pounce on whatever answer you give them and explain why they went to the same place and hated it, and then look at you expectantly as if they have rumbled you as some sort of fake. And thirdly, the question assumes that all food bloggers have their finger on the pulse of London’s restaurant and street food scene and attend every opening and are therefore perfectly equipped to tell everyone where to find the best kimchi/hot dog/roast chicken in town. Well, I’m sure some do, but I am generally not in that group. Yes, I do spend a fair bit of time in restaurants, but if you look at which ones I go to, I am far more likely to revisit ones I have enjoyed in the past.
My husband recently pointed out to me that, on the basis of how many special occasions we have enjoyed there, our favourite restaurant would have to be High Timber: the tally includes one 40th birthday; one new year’s eve; and most recently one Valentine’s Day dinner, and thay’s not counting the random visits in between. I first met South African owner-manager Neleen Strauss when she was working as a sommelier at another of my regular haunts, Vivat Bacchus. Neleen left there in 2009 to open High Timber, a restaurant that she jointly owns with South African wine producers Gary and Kathy Jordan of Jordan wine estate near Stellenbosch. The restaurant is not one you’d find by accident – more than once I have taken people there to have them exclaim: “But I never knew this was here!” Hint: the easiest approach is to walk as if you are crossing the millennium bridge from St Paul’s to the Tate Modern, but as you get to the foot of the bridge, take the stairs on your left that lead to the river bank, turn left, and walk about 250m along the river till you can go no further and you have arrived. The restaurant is situated on the ground floor of an otherwise residential building and features cool stone floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s perhaps not a cosy space, but light and airy, and with the feel of an upmarket South African wine estate tasting room to it – not surprising, given the pedigree! Sadly, the Thames flood defences mean that there is a very solid wall between you and the river which means despite being right at the water’s edge, not much of a view from the tables. But we often take our drinks and stand on the terrace (or dine al fresco in the summer) and from there the view is spectacular, day and night.
The restaurant prides itself on South African hospitality, but is quick to point out that they are not a themed novelty restaurant (in the way that, say, Shaka Zulu most definitely is). So the menu is upmarket steak restaurant fare with a few South African twists (homemade biltong, malva pudding) rather than a list of South African classics. But if the menu is international, the wine list shows a definite South African leaning – and the printed list gives only a flavour of the 40,000 bottles in the cellar. There is obviously a good selection of Jordan wines, but also an impressive spread of other South African classics, including the FMC Moelleux Chenin Blanc which the restaurant specially commissioned from winemaker Ken Forrester. Of course, there is also a good selection of classic European wines too – anything from a basic Côtes du Rhône for under £35 to a wallet-crushing Romanée-Conti. The wine list invites diners to request a trip to the cellar to choose their own wine, which I’d highly recommend as an experience to remember. Or you can do as we do these days and ask Neleen to recommend something based on what we’re eating, how much we want to spend, and my particular grapes we like or dislike.
But what about the food, I hear you ask? As I said, my most recent visit was earlier this month for Valentine’s Day, when we had a limited a la carte menu for £59 per head. We started with a gorgeous creamy Jersey oyster topped with a blob of Onuga caviar, paired with a glass of the delectable Graham Beck Brut Rosé. for starters we both chose the white onion soup, black truffle and rarebit crouton. For a chilly winter evening, I cannot think of a nicer dish – the soup itself was thick and deeply flavoured, and the rarebit crouton provided an indulgent textural contrast. (Other starters included confit duck leg & foie gras terrine, or smoked salmon). For mains, the stonebass and the carrot gnocchi did not even get a look in – both of us had our hearts set on the 28 day matured beef rib, on the bone, for two served with HT chips and Béarnaise sauce and what a good choice it was. The steak arrived rare and properly charred and had a great meaty flavour that was nicely complemented by the sauce. The side of buttered kale was wonderful too – lovely young leaves with no hint of stringiness. For dessert, we both chose the orange blossom cake with frosted pistachios and whipped crème fraiche, followed by petit fours. To wash all this down, we had a bottle of 2010 FMC Premier Selection Moelleux, a sumptuous wooded Chenin Blanc that managed to match the rich onion soup as well as the dessert; and a bottle of juicy Jordan Cobbler’s Hill (a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) to match the steak. It was a lovely relaxed evening free from any silly themed Valentine’s dishes – just good food and good wine.
Apart from the main restaurant area. there is also a bar area tucked away to the left of the High Timber entrance; a climate-controlled cheese room which guests can visit to make their selection; and two private function rooms in the wine cellar. I have previously visited the cellar and sat in the smaller of the two rooms, surrounded by the rather spectacular wine collection, so when Nick’s 40th rolled around, I immediately thought of the larger function room at High Timber. The rooms themselves feel a little cosier than the main dining room and for smaller parties, it is hard to beat the novelty value of dining among the wine racks. In conjunction with Neleen we decided on a budget per head and based on this we offered guests a limited a la carte menu. Beforehand, Neleen asked me what Nick’s favourite amuse bouche would be and without hesitation I replied “skilpadjies” – a South African delicacy of lamb’s liver wrapped in caul fat and barbecued (the English equivalent would be faggots) – and that’s exactly what we got as an amuse bouche! Starters included crottin goat’s cheese with beetroot, crispy walnuts & balsamic jelly; game terrine with foie gras mousse and spiced fruit chutney; and cured salmon with lemon gel, pickled shallots. . For mains, almost everybody else went for the 250g ribeye steak, but I chose the roasted halibut with smoked leeks, potato glass and chive butter sauce, a wonderful dish packed with flavour and given added crunch by the potato glass. For dessert, I chose the apple tarte tatin which was a sticky caramelised marvel, and then I still found space to go to the cheese room to try a few cheese and put together a sharing plate of cheese for the table. And after dinner, Neleen kindly let Nick entertain us all by doing sabrage on a few bottles of Champagne on the terrace, overlooking that wonderful view.
It’s not often that I have the pleasure of visiting Hight Timber during daylight hours (they are closed on weekends), but sometime during the glorious summer we had last year, we went for an early dinner with friends and got to sit outside on the terrace, watching the passing parade of people streaming across the Millennium Bridge and the bustling river traffic of sightseeing boats and Thames Clippers. While we sipped our Jordan Chardonnay, we snacked on biltong (£10.00/100g) – South African air-dried beef which High Timber make themselves, so it is beautifully moist and closer to bresaola than the tough strips that some This time I started with an awesome summery octopus and chorizo salad with semi-dried tomatoes – packed with flavour and a feast for the eyes. One friend had the biltong croquettes (£7,50), while another had a strip of pork belly with a spicy peanut glaze, radishes and pork crackling – but Nick won the gorgeousness prize with his seasonal crab-stuffed tomato on avocado puree (a dish that I need to try and recreate at home!). For mains, almost everybody had steaks while I tried the slow-roast shoulder of lamb with Turkish aubergine ragout, tzatziki and crispy flat bread – an impressive portion of fall-apart tender lamb well matched by the spicy aubergine and cooling tzatziki. Nick and I also shared Alex’s very mixed-up salad (£7.95) – the salad for people who cant see the point big piles of green leaves – it has a bit of everything including nuts, croutons, tomatoes and (for a surcharge) you can even add biltong! Our dessert, sadly not pictured was (of course) Don Pedros all round!
I have also had the pleasure of joining Neleen and her team for New Year’s Eve celebrations. On this occasion it was a set menu of 6 courses plus a glass of Champagne for £95 – here’s what we had. After kicking off proceedings with a glass of Moet & Chandon, we started with crab & smoked salmon cannelloni with lemon, avocado, & cucumber. This was a clever dish of crab rolled inside some smoked salmon to create a “canneloni” and the richness of the seafood was nicely balanced by the lemon gel and crunch of the cucumber dice. Up next was one of my all-time favourite things – duck rillette on toast with prune preserve and beetroot shoots. The rillette was perfectly rich and creamy and a good match for the prune preserve. This was followed by a palate cleanser of lemon sorbet with lime leaf mousse before we moved on to the main event: sirloin of Cumbrian Beef with Anna potato and Black Winter Truffle. The steak was beautifully cooked – juicy, flavourful and tender, and the rich truffle jus was heavenly when mopped up with the potato. The dessert consisted of poached pear, almond crumble and cinnamon ice cream – nice clean flavours and neither overly sweet nor overly rich. The final flourish was coffee and petit fours consisting of an Amarula ganache truffle and a vanilla macaron, before we headed out onto the terrace, Champagne glasses charged, to await the New year’s fireworks over Westminster. Because of the bend in the river, your view is somewhat obscured by buildings, but you still get a flavour of the display and standing on the terrace, glass in hand, before retiring to the bar for a nightcap is a lot more civilised than jostling with the crowds on the South Bank. I’ll be back!
If your idea of fine dining includes foams and smears on the plate, then you are unlikely to be a huge fan of High Timber where the focus tends to be on proper food prepared without too much fuss. There is nothing ground-breakingly novel going on here menu-wise, but the quality of the food is consistently high, and for South Africans like me the touches of home (biltong, Don Pedros) are a delight. Neleen is almost always on the premises, overseeing proceedings, greeting guests and making spot-on wine recommendations – and as I have said many times, there is no substitute for a firm hand running front of house. I am also always struck by the number of customers who are regulars, which is a testament to the fact that High Timber is doing something very right – in a city with as many restaurants as London, repeat custom is a rare and beautiful thing.
If you enjoyed the restaurant photography in this post, why not sign up for one of the two workshops I am running in Spring 2015 with my fellow-blogger Meeta? I will be teaching camera basics and low light/restaurant photography in Vienna on 17-18 April, and in London on 1-2 May. There are still a few spaces available so register now!