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High but not mighty

8 Jun 2013 by Nick Lander

The Shard, which now towers above the renovated entrance to London Bridge station, divides opinion as to its aesthetic merits. It is visible from any point in the city and is the result of an unusual troika: Londoner Irvine Sellar, Italian architect Renzo Piano and financing from Qatar.

Later this month, Hutong, a Chinese restaurant will open on its 33rd floor followed by a hotel run by the Shangri-La group. But for the moment the building’s reputation for hospitality rests on Oblix restaurant and bar on the 32nd floor which is the result of an equally long-standing partnership, that between German chef, Rainer Becker, Venetian Alessandro Marchesan in charge of the wines and financial backing from Indian-born Arjun Waney.

So far, this team has not put a foot wrong. Zuma, their initial success, was followed by Roka, both inspired by Becker’s years cooking in Asia. At Oblix they look west, not east, for inspiration from the grill restaurants of New York. And while the views are stunning, the food is rather less so.

Although certain reasons for our less-than-memorable meal are specific to the restaurant, I suspect that the most important factor is not. In fact it is a common denominator in the disappointing meals I have experienced in several of the newer, larger London restaurants over the past 18 months.

What unites, regrettably, those experiences at Balthazar, Chavot, CUT, The Delaunay, The Gilbert Scott, Sushi Samba and Duck & Waffle is that their respective chefs and restaurateurs are failing in one critical aspect of their role: to edit their menus to play to their kitchen’s strengths, to offer and to ensure the customer does not leave disappointed.

It is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of my job that I have to listen to so many chefs and restaurateurs complaining about how difficult it is currently to recruit and retain good cooks and then to be handed menus that are tediously long and relate to a bygone era when labour was far less expensive. Why should there be on Oblix’s menu a baked potato at £5.50 (cost price 20p) particularly as on the way out past the open kitchen there was at 10pm a pile of them, pre-cooked but unsold, looking most forlorn?

There is no doubting Becker’s enthusiasm for Oblix. During the course of our dinner I watched him standing opposite his chefs (several of whom have more extraordinary views from their workstations than any chefs in the world) quietly urging them on. While I was waiting in the noisy bar for my friends to arrive, Campari and fresh orange juice in hand and my mouth agape at the views down to Tower Bridge resplendent in the sunshine, I had bumped into him so that a swift tour behind the scenes ensued.

This involved squeezing past the cooks in the narrow prep kitchens that link the bar and the restaurant while listening to Becker’s reasons for opening here and then choosing its name. 'The developers approached me and I initially turned them down. But then I subsequently realised that as the Shard will be so conspicuous from wherever I was going to be in London, I would spend the rest of my life kicking myself for not taking this opportunity, so I changed my mind.' he explained.

The name Oblix, I learnt, derives from Becker’s love of the Asterix comics and in particular their last page where the hero sits round a communal table with his mates, and his henchman Obelix, eating, drinking, talking and putting the world to rights. Legal discussions over seven months led to Obelix becoming Oblix.

But experience, enthusiasm and aspirations aside, Becker faces new challenges to creating the convivial atmosphere he envisages here, challenges that actually begin on the ground floor.

The entrance lobby is cold, the walls exposed brick, and on the night of our visit this lack of warmth and welcome was accentuated by a blunt young woman with a strong eastern European accent quizzing you as to why you have chosen to stand by the lift that stops only at the 32nd floor. Surprisingly, she has neither a reservations list in her hand nor any way of communicating with any of the young women who guard the main entrance to the restaurant and bar, and iPads in hand quiz you again.

The overlong menu contains several dishes that just seem like padding. A yellow-tail salad was the best of the starters, while ceviche was much less refined, the aubergine caviar disappointing, the roast beets alongside the goats’ cheese ‘woody’. A rotisserie cooks the chickens and ducks, overly so in the case of the latter, and a Josper grill is the vehicle to add flavour to various cuts of meat, of which the tenderloin was the most impressive.

Marchesan has done an excellent job with the wine list and we drank a fascinating bottle of Barboursville Cabernet Franc 2010 from Virginia, USA, for £60. (My bill for four, two bottles of wine and two desserts was £330).

But the cocktails in the bar, and the wine in the restaurant which underpin Oblix’s business model also accentuate another reason why this restaurant is far from Becker’s vision: the acoustics are terrible. Claudio Silvestrin, who has designed the Armani stores and Princi, Soho, has been given a free rein and there does not appear to be a soft, sound-absorbent feature anywhere.

Oblix, Level 32, The Shard, 31 St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY, tel 020 7268 6700, www.oblixrestaurant.com

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