The first time I visited one of Tom Aikens’ restaurants (Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea) was not that long after the debacle where the talented enfant terrible of London’s kitchen scene was alleged to have held a hot palette knife to a junior chef’s cheek in a fit of anger. With this story still fresh in our minds, my friend Johanna and I almost expected to walk through the doors of the establishment and hear screams in the kitchen Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and we had a lovely brunch. But as much as I liked it Chelsea is one of my least favourite bits of London to visit – it’s massively undersupplied with tube stations and it is clear across town from where I live, so in the intervening nine years, I have not been back. What happy news, then, to learn that there is now a Tom’s Kitchen in Canary Wharf, which is a mere hop, skip and DLR ride from my house.
I visited on a weekday evening and always, the walk from Canary Wharf station to the restaurant showed me bits of the Wharf that I had not noticed before, like the pretty Cabot Square garden with its tinkly fountain on the way to Westferry Circus. Although the restaurant’s address is on Westferry Circus, the entrance is actually in the courtyard in front of Credit Suisse so on sunny days you can dine al fresco too. The interior is very similar to the Chelsea branch, with white tiled walls and warm, simple wooden furniture. Staff were very friendly, despite our taking an age to order as we were too busy chatting over drinks from the extensive gin menu of 16 unusual gins. Mine was a Hayman’s Old Tom (£9.50) – a Victorian style of gin with intense botanicals and a hint of sweetness, perfectly complemented by a slice of lime and some elderflower tonic.
To start, my friend Valentina ordered the spicy crab cake (£11.00), which was properly spicy deliciously crisp and not at all greasy. It was also of a substantial size and served on a fresh, chunky tomato & cucumber salsa to complement the spiciness. I could not resist the house-smoked beef carpaccio with rocket, walnut pesto and confit tomatoes (£11.00), and I was not disappointed. The beef was nicely marbled with fat and had a subtle but evident smoky flavour that really made the dish for me. The confit tomatoes and rocket worked well with it but the walnut pesto was not very evident – still, a very good twist on a classic.
For her main, Valentina went traditional British and chose the beer-battered haddock & chips with crushed peas, tartare sauce and lemon (£16.00). We both loved how this was presented, on paper printed with the Tom’s Kitchen logo – presumably in a nod to fish and chips served in newspaper – with separate bowls for the peas, tartare sauce and chips. The fish itself was a delight – not the usual whole fillet, but a substantial chunky piece (maybe loin?) which retained its juicy flakiness inside the light and shatteringly crisp batter. My eye, however, had been caught by one menu item almost as soon as we sat down and I could not resist ordering it: 300g Cumbrian braised short rib of beef with a Jack Daniels glaze and pickled red cabbage (£20.00). Can there be any finer slow-braised cut than rib of beef? This one came as a dark caramel-coloured sticky, shiny, glorious pile of meat, setting atop the vividly-coloured pickled red cabbage. The meat was fork-tender and I loved the slightly bittersweet flavour that the bourbon glaze imparted, which was balanced by the flavour of the pickle. It was sheer, carnivorous delight. On the side, I had some very good triple-cooked chips (£3.50) and we shared some green beans (£3.00).
We were both fairly full after our mains, but as with my beef rib, something on the dessert menu had caught my eye early on and I could not get it out of my mind. (C’mon, I’m not the only one who reads the dessert menu before the starter menu, am I??). In the end, to satisfy both our curiosity and our desire to feel virtuous, we shared the dessert in question: a chocolate and peanut butter fondant with salted caramel ice cream (£7.00). Imagine the love-child of a chocolate fondant pudding and a Reese’s peanut butter cup and you will begin to understand the awesomeness that is this dish. It arrives looking all demure in its little cocotte, but dig your spoon in and below the surface is a lava lake of dark chocolate and swirly peanut butter. It’s warm and sweet and savoury and nutty all in one mouthful. The salted caramel ice-cream was excellent too with a rich caramel flavour and a good dollop of salt, which is sometimes lacking. It’s one of those desserts that’s worth crossing town for, if you’re not as lucky as I am to live close by.
This is not the Michelin-starred cooking for which Tom Aikens because famous – this is a far more accessible (and affordable) experience. The menu is manageable (it fits on a page) and prices range from about £6-16 for starters and £16-30 for mains, while desserts hover around the £7.00 mark. Nothing here is particularly outré – just proper (predominantly British) comfort food made with proper British ingredients. I was very impressed with the staff and was thrilled to discover that the manager on the night we visited came from my hometown in South Africa (an accent I can pick up a mile off!). If I worked in Canary Wharf, this would be on regular rotation as a lunch or dinner venue – and although I work in the City, I’m definitely going back for that dessert!
Cost: About £100 for 3 courses + bottle of wine for 2 people
Closest Tube: Canary Wharf
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Tom’s Kitchen but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.