Aqua Shard is not going to reinvent the London restaurant, but it may well give it a lift.
It was Superman's problem. The friend I had brought with to eat at Aqua Shard, one of the restaurants on the 32nd floor of London's new hypsolith, was talking about her dissatisfaction as a physicist with Man of Steel, the new Superman film. How, she asked, could he accelerate on jet packs through space when space is a vacuum and jet packs need something to push against? Each action, she said, has an equal and opposite reaction.
This is my issue with much of the London food scene at the moment: the equal and opposite application of flavours, by which I particularly mean the combination of sweet and savoury. Aqua Shard's Dover sole was an example of this, covered with jamon iberico, cuttlefish, broad beans and a Luscombe Devon Cider foam.
I ascribe it to teething troubles that the sole arrived with foam after I had asked them not to put it on – why ruin a perfectly good Dover sole with apple sauce? – but afterwards they quickly re-presented a foamless fish. (I at least hope the kitchen cat got to eat the removed sole.) Despite being suspicious of the jamon iberico, it added a salty intensity to the fish.
The other trend in London's kitchens is to produce the most heart-attack-inducing mashed potato. Aqua Shard's, with whey butter and beef jus, was a delicious, oddly meaty entry in the competition and went well with my sole, but lags in the artery-stopping stakes behind Brasserie Chavot's. (This is a good thing, of course.)
Of course, the food is not the first thing you notice when you're halfway up the Shard. The view is as spectacular and unimpressive as you'd imagine: you can see for miles, Canary Wharf to your right, the Olympic Stadium peeking out from Stratford behind a blue-grey building, yet you also realise quite how ugly London from above is. We have a surfeit of low-ish unimpressive buildings, and with no grid to the city, you get a uninspiring jumble.
Once it goes dark, however, the matter is different. Those ugly edges are elided and all you see are office buildings patterned with shining rectangles, Canary Wharf's tip, nearby street lamps and far-off mega-illuminations. London becomes dumbfoundingly romantic when you can't see it. It almost makes me think that the nights now starting to draw in is to be welcomed.
When we first arrived, we got to drink in the view with a cocktail from a distinctly overwhelming list, where there are plenty of temptations. I, of course, managed to choose the wrong one, a Finsbury Punch, which had overtones of Toilet Duck with none of the bacteria-killing side effects. There were also more ingredients in it than on my entire drinks trolley: Belvedere vodka, Stone's Ginger Wine, Americano Cocchi, jasmine Silver Tip tea cordial, plum bitters, peach bitters, fresh grapefruit.
My friend's Stinging Tommy's was much nicer, 'a double margarita', in the words of the PR, with stinging nettle agave nectar.
Inside, Aqua Shard looks rather a lot like a Hong Kong nightclub
When we had left the gaping atrium, which stuns with its size, for our table on the Gin side of the building (inspired by the ships which brought gin to London Bridge; the other side is Tea), I was not initially impressed – you move from a smart, sharp space to one which is a little too much like a Hong Kong nightclub, purple crushed velvet chairs and symbolic bottles of gin in wall niches.
There are plenty of mirrors to keep the dark-panelled room light, although my friend objected to the way the ladies' toilet cubicles were mirrored on four sides. (The men's merely have highly polished ceramic tiles.)
My friend's starter was the superior: grilled octopus and Scottish mackerel in chunks around a tomato sorbet and crispy-potato three-leaf clover. It was refreshing and artfully presented. Heritage carrot salad was less flavoursome, although the goat's curd went some way to correcting that. Quite where the 'foraged greens' had been foraged from in the middle of London Bridge is unknown.
Dessert was the most successful course. The milk chocolate and orange mille-feuille was nowhere near as heavy as I had imagined; it was, in fact, a delicate reinvention: instead of slabs of pastry, there were a couple of thin layers of sesame and biscuit, with a light mousse. By its side was a plum compote, cooked in sherry, which gave an unexpected sharp kick to the dessert.
I feel that if you choose more carefully than I did, and are less fussy about the sweet-savoury tendency, it is possible to have a first-rate meal at Aqua Shard. It's not going to reinvent the London restaurant, but it may well give it a lift.