After a busy Monday night’s service, Lee Bennett emerged from the kitchens looking remarkably fresh. As he chatted to diners, a genuine sense of satisfaction was evident. Indeed, there was much to be proud of, having taken the cooking of this iconic restaurant to levels not reached under previous stewardship. In the past, the great and the good often came to Le Pont de la Tour to be seen, showing more interest in the chic surroundings and magnificent views than the quality of the food. Why else did Tony Blair bring Bill Clinton here in 1997?
Not that the setting of Le Pont de la Tour is unimportant. Nestled in the Gastrodome of Butlers Wharf, on the south bank of the Thames, in the shadow of Tower Bridge, its unrivalled location remains the envy of most London restaurants. Celebrities still come, but now their dining experience is at a distinctly higher level.
Certain attractions, however, have not changed since the restaurant’s opening in 1991: al fresco dining on the delightful terrace; the balustrade and large windows, giving diners the impression of being on an ocean liner; the stunning views of Tower Bridge, floodlit at night; and the long, low ceilinged dining room. The Restaurant – as opposed to the more casual Bar and Grill – has a more formal ambience. With tables smartly set with white napery, comfortable burr oak furniture and framed lithographs of early 20th century Parisian cafe society, it is one of the most elegant dining rooms in London.
The buzz and excitement which has always been part of dining at Le Pont de la Tour now extends more fully to the food. Under D&D ownership since 2006, and Lee Bennett’s arrival as Executive Chef in 2008, Le Pont de la Tour has turned more towards fine dining. This is hardly surprising given Lee’s impressive CV which includes working in the kitchens of Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse. His talent and hard work were recognized by his appointment as head chef (under Marcus Wareing) at the Savoy Grill, where he oversaw two restaurants, private dining and the chef’s table.
Such wide responsibilities, coupled with passion and skill, helped Lee win the Craft Guild Restaurant Chef of the Year in 2007. At 27, he was the youngest person to do so.
The wide range of Lee’s seasonal, impeccably sourced menu is impressive. Whilst seafood is much in evidence – an asseitte de fruits de mer, grilled lobster and Dover Sole with beurre noisette being best sellers – other dishes show the versatility of Lee’s cooking. Great respect is shown for top quality produce, avoiding excessive garnishes which can overwhelm the main ingredient. From a classical French base, he has created a stylish range of starters, mains and desserts which will accommodate most tastes. At £31.50 for three courses for lunch and £44.50 for dinner, the prices are a relative bargain. Sunday lunch (three courses £27.50) is more traditionally British, with Lee’s take on Roast Beef taking centre stage
Fine Dining Guide visited on a Monday evening in late November. Given the embarrassment of choice on the menu, it was at the discretion of the chef to compose a short tasting menu with matching wines chosen but the sommelier.
Aperitif: Champagne: Tattinger Brut NV
Lobster bisque was the first signature dish offered. Poured over a generous portion of lobster meat at the table, this highly refined, deeply flavoured soup was rich and velvety smooth. Enhanced by the moderate addition of fennel and dill, it was served warm to maximize the taste. This was an impressive start to the meal Wine: Charles Hours Cuvee Marie, Jurancon Sec, 2008 France
Next came a trio of cold seafood. Gently smoked salmon with a caviar garnish came on well made soft blini. Oyster en gelee would have benefitted from an acidic lift. However, the cocktail of crab was excellent: a jellied tomato consommé was layered with utterly fresh crab mayonnaise and topped with a light lettuce foam. Wine: Torbreck Semillon “Woodcutters” Barossa Valley, 2008 Australia
As a main course, Essex Middlewhite pork was served in two different ways: the slow cooked braised belly was properly unctuous and melting. It takes a brave chef like Lee to serve pork fillet pink, in the traditional French style. This brings a fuller flavour, avoiding the dry stringiness that can result if cooked to a more typical British taste. Curled crackling strips added a crisp contrast, whilst a not over-sweet honey sauce succeeded in bringing the dish together. A bouquet of buttered chantenay carrots was the perfect simple accompaniment. Wine: Almaroja “Pirata” Aribbes Castille y Leon, Spain 2007
The substantial main course meant there was only room for a tasting of three cheeses chosen from an impressive range of English and French varieties. . The Mont d’Or and Chambertin, especially, were in peak conditon Wine: Dettori “Muscadiuddu”, Sardinia
Of the assiette of three desserts, the Morello cherry sorbet was a model of its kind in terms of smooth consistency and fullness of flavour. Its intensity proved an excellent foil to the mild Jivara milk chocolate mousse. Somewhat surprisingly, in the context of the meal, the hazelnut financiers lacked the essential softness beneath their crisp exterior. Wine: Disnoko Tokaji, Aszu 5 puttonyas 2002 Hungary
Other aspects of the evening; the bread, the coffee and petit fours were all first rate, showing skill and attention to detail in all aspects of the kitchen. Service, under the efficient direction of Frank Moser, (with Duncan Pitfield as General Manager), was helpful, unobtrusive and utterly professional. Special mention must also go to the impressive Bart Williams whose understated selections from the restaurant’s extensive collection of fine wines made the dining experience complete.
Le Pont de la Tour has improved its position amongst the destination restaurants of London. Despite being open for nearly twenty years, it has not rested on its laurels, but has successfully worked hard to reach new heights of achievement. This is due to the enthusiasm of the current team which is palpable and infectious. The passionate dedication of Lee Bennett and his colleagues to their craft will ensure the continued success of the restaurant.