It’s tempting to dismiss restaurants such as Skylon. With 180-degree views of the Thames, the allure of simply cashing in on its pole position appears to be irresistible. Like the fraudsters who serve oceans of dross in Europe’s most heavily touristed cities, Skylon’s owners have little reason to try. The punters would flock regardless, even if the signature dish was microwaved lasagne, served sans beef.
Yet the old adage about books and covers is my enduring memory of lunch at Skylon. The package sells itself – stunning views, a slick setting, attentive service – however, Skylon places its culinary art front and centre. Executive Chef Helena Puolakka returned to Skylon in September 2018, and has clearly learnt a great deal from her stints at Michelin-starred restaurants Pierre Gagnaire and La Tante Claire. Her cooking treads that fine line between sophisticated and delicious, which is no easy task.
We began our lunch at the central bar, gazing up at fluffy cloudscapes which hovered above our glasses of Nyetimber, English sparkling wine at its finest. That, combined with Skylon’s floor-to-ceiling windows and spectacular views over London’s Southbank, ensured we were in a very forgiving mood.
However, our forgiveness was not sought. Each course was a testament to Puolakka’s philosophy of using only fresh, locally-sourced produce. There’s a Scandinavia riff on some of the dishes, but generally her cooking focuses on precise, clean flavours without veering into tricksy, experimental territory. Chichester wood pigeon with beetroot crème fraiche, chestnuts and kale offered a heady combination of gamey flavours and the scents and textures of a foraging trip through her native Finland. The competition was hand-dived scallops, cauliflower and capers sitting atop a Champagne velouté, another triumph of winning textural contrast. Any individual who masters the fine art of scallops, a dish routinely overcooked by even budding chefs, has my utmost respect.
Similarly, how many chefs can honestly claim they’ve mastered the art of a perfect risotto? Well, Puolakka’s version came damn close. Partially submerged in pungent, rich stock, the pickled squash and chestnuts were nice additions but ultimately superfluous – the pleasure came from experiencing that rare counterpoint between firm and soft, rich and crunchy; an al-dente plate of cooked rice to make any Italian proud. Brixham fish pie served with winter greens was a textbook example of how to provide ample pleasure and sustenance in the same bite.
But forget nutrition when you arrive at the dessert menu. Skylon is obviously blessed with a very talented pastry chef, as the bitter chocolate tart with raspberry and pistachio ably demonstrated. This was a fine dish, the pastry delicate, the filling’s sweetness balanced by the distinctive flavour of pistachio. The sticky toffee pudding and caramel ice cream spoke for itself: good for the physique? No. Exquisite? Oh, god yes.
After three hours of this glorious decadence, we stole one final look at the view and left the Royal Festival Hall. In fact, the only downside to Skylon is that it’s housed in one of London’s perennial eyesores. I used to believe that only culture vultures could find reasons to return to this soulless building month after month. But I was wrong. Skylon provides ample excuse, even if you shudder at the thought of Beethoven on tap.
Royal Festival Hall,
London, SE1 8XX
020 7654 7800