wlc heads to Skylon on London’s Southbank to test-drive its new menu, devised by Finnish-born chef Helena Puolakka, gorging on cured salmon on rye, fresh pappardelle in a smoked tomato sauce with creamy goat’s cheese and a heavenly chocolate tart.
The concept: Skylon is a riverside restaurant on London’s Southbank offering 180 degree views of the Thames from the first floor of the Royal Festival Hall and named after one of the original structures built for the 1951 Festival of Britain. With its tourist-friendly location, it attracts a mixed crowd of theatre-goers, tourists that pour in from nearby Waterloo and Londoners alike, but its fare is far from focused on entertaining the masses. Flying somewhat under the radar, a concise, clean and innovative menu, refreshed last month by incoming executive chef Helena Puolakka, awaits those in the know. A place to dine, no doubt, but one that also offers a spacious and buzzing bar, with excellent views to boot, for a liquid pitstop.
Chef Helena Puolakka (a regular on Masterchef, Ready Steady Cook (Finland) and BBC’s Saturday Kitchen) took over as its new executive chef in September of last year. Her experience includes time spent at the three Michelin-starred restaurant Pierre Gagnaire at the Hotel Balzac, in Paris, and a stint at Pierre Koffmann’s three Michelin-starred La Tante Claire in London.
She joined D&D London in 2007 as executive chef at Skylon, where she stayed for six years. This was followed by a move to Cirrus Inns, where she was culinary director, and the Royal Opera House, coming full circle by returning to D&D London, and Skylon, in 2017. Last month, a brand new menu was launched to herald her return, which also brought with it a revamp of its decor, and a doing away with the previous grill/restaurant split that had seen two menus offered across dining space. Now, the same menu is offered across the entire restaurant, taking its offer up a notch and making it an all together more formal, but not stuffy, affair. A brunch and pre-theatre menu is offered during the day and early evening.
As well as being executive chef at Skylon, Puolakka is also chef patron at D&D’s French-Nordic restaurant Aster in Victoria, where she also curated the Aster Chef Series, a series of dinners in collaboration with some of the world’s best chefs, including Angela Hartnett, Tom Kitchin and Niklas Ekstedt – a concept she hopes to bring to Skylon.
The decor: Coinciding with Puolakka’s return, Skylon’s decor has been given a much-needed refresh, bringing the high-ceilinged space up to date with a more contemporary, laid back feel. A central bar meanwhile is is an artfully-lit by a fluffy cloudscape that hovers high above, creating a comforting and creative centrepiece. However Skylon’s big draw is its spectacular views, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a panoramic vista of London’s Southbank from which to take in the river front and bustling embankment.
The food: Originally from the south-west coast of Finland, Puolakka spent her summers “foraging, fishing and living off the land”, which she says prompted her ambition to become a chef, and informed a philosophy in food that she follows to this day. That is, working with fresh, locally-sourced produce. Her latest menu, while concise in its composition, is filled with British ingredients that have been given a Scandi twist, while influence by her French culinary training, such as a starter of slow cooked Chichester wood pigeon with beetroot crème fraiche, chestnuts and kale (£11).
Highlights include the cured var salmon, dill pickles, sweet rye toast (£10), which presented as a generous slab of salmon accompanied by a thin finger of rye toast. A plate of North Atlantic halibut carpaccio meanwhile came piled high, strewn with Lilliput capers and a fennel and lemon dressing (£12). A new addition to the menu is the Cobble Lane cured charcuterie platter, featuring British meats cut, cured and smoked in Cobble Lane Cured shop in Islington, a nod to Puolakka’s preference for locally sourced produce.
On to mains, meat eaters are well catered for, but vegetarians and vegans are also given careful consideration, with four dishes offered (one vegan). Thick ribbons of silky smooth fresh pappardelle (£15) arrived strewn with miniature peppadew peppers and roasted tomatoes, topped with a quenelle of soft goats cheese. A warming Brixham fish pie with winter greens (£19) was a well executed classic; comforting on a drizzly Thursday evening. A side of tender stem broccoli in lemon oil (£4.50) and a green salad with mustard vinaigrette (£4.50) completed the line up.
Other options include the Pot au Feu of ox cheeks with slow cooked winter roots, horseradish tartar (£21) and free-range chicken breast with fingerling potatoes, lemon rosemary salt (£19). Grill options include 42-day aged rib eye steak (£34) and grilled native lobster with smoked potato salad and lobster bearnaise (£21/£42). New sharing dishes include Highland venison wellington with braised red cabbage (£54) and a Chateaubriand with slow cooked endive, Roscoff onions, sage with madeira sauce (£64).
If you make it as far as dessert, expect British classics such as sticky toffee pudding and apple pie. The bitter chocolate tart with raspberry and pistachio comes recommended (£9).
The drinks: Beverage manager Alfonso Cimmino is the man in the know when it comes to drinks. The smiley sommelier, a Napoli native, strives to offer not only the classics, but lesser-known wines from undiscovered regions and indigenous grapes, with a necessarily patriotic slant on his home country of Italy.
Formerly a sommelier at Gary Rhodes’ restaurant, and later Jason Atherton’s City Social, Cimmino joined Skylon two years ago, which he says requires a higher level of adaptability compared to his previous posts. His customers sway from casual theatre-goers and day-tripping tourists to high-spending business diners with a company credit card. His wine list reflects a need for balance, with a healthy by-the-glass offer, starting from £5 and rising to a lofty £24.50 for a Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Burgundy. By the bottle, highlights include big hitters including the Super Tuscans Ornallaia (1990, £395) and Tignanello (2011, £380), as well as gems from Spanish trailblazer Alvaro Palacios and Rolland Michel’s Argentine estate Clos de Los Siete.
“The list is always changing, but I always have a balance between well known producers and lesser-known regions and grapes,” said Cimmino. “My main target is to offer my customers something that they have never tasted before.”
Indeed, the more adventurous imbiber will find plenty to excite in the form of a Greek Kotsifali from Domaine Lyrarakis from Crete (£39), a 2017 Greco di Tufo from Campania (£55) and a 2011 from Domaine de Bargylus in Syria (a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot blend), at the ambitious price of £99.
A broad selection of English sparkling wines and Champagne are also available, somewhat limited by the glass, but with bottles available from the likes of Krug and Drappier to Nyetimber, Hambledon and Gusbourne.
Don’t leave without: Gazing wistfully at the view, especially at sunset. There are few restaurants in London that offer such a setting, where you don’t have to book long in advance or take out a mortgage to afford a meal. What’s more, it’s perfectly located for a quick getaway via Waterloo, for when you’d rather not fight for a table in Soho or transverse the hell that is Oxford Street.
Last Word: It’s tempting to discount a restaurant that has such an unappealing frontage as the Royal Festival Hall, which, despite its rich cultural benefits, is an ugly building. Its saving grace is its prime location, overlooking the Thames, which makes you forget that you are sitting in a grey, drab, uninspiring box of a building with little charm or character. But one mustn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s what’s inside that counts. For Skylon, that means stunning views, a slick setting, innovative menu and an attentive team. It’s a little on the pricey side, admittedly, but not so much that you feel ripped off. And the quality, in my opinion, justifies the cost. Don’t expect any change from £100 for a three-course meal for two with wine, but for its location, presentation and panache, you could do worse than Skylon – an overlooked gem. We left with our bellies full and our eyes open.
Skylon, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX; Tel: +44 (0)20 7654 7800