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London's Oxo Tower Restaurant fails to live up to it landmark location
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The Independent Culture
This is a story about a pounds l00 bottle of Dom Perignom. Next to where we sat at the Oxo Tower Restaurant was a sleekly designed trolley bearing an aquarium of ice in which sat other people's bottles of wine. We'd been given the wine list, lifted it, felt its weight and - ever the cheap date - asked for two glasses of house white. The sommelier came over and could hardly bring himself to repeat the words, so we completed the sentence for him.

Meanwhile, the half-empty (to us optimists, half-full) bottle of the Dom sat there. I reached out to touch it. The double-daters next door must have ordered it as a knicker-loosener. Either it had worked too fast or not at all, for they left pounds 50-worth behind; by now it had our names on it.

"Nice try," said the waiter when we pointed this out. We turned to see another waiter whisk the bottle out of the water, pour out a glass, swirl it around. And drink it. The remains of the Dom quietly flowed back into the kitchen along with an unfinished bottle of red. Good party, guys?

When they weren't swigging the leftovers, they were neglecting to offer us bread, bring our bottle of water, change the ashtray, remove pudding plates or wait until after pudding to bring coffee. There were plenty of them: greeters in natty black suits, managerial types wearing ties, others in white jackets with epaulettes; a whole uniformed hierarchy, with the ranks as confused as an army in retreat.

Starters arrived promptly enough: terrific charcuterie made from a pig which wasn't actually named - though its diet (acorns) and minority status (black) were noted - with a fig of Lawrentian succulence; a mound of crab meat with cubes of chewy dried pork and glass noodles into which bean sprouts had regrettably been slipped, was stingingly garlicky and swamped by a dressing of Thai fish sauce, though the holy basil gave it an aniseed tang.

John Dory and olive oil mash would have been preferable without a dousing of balsamic vinegar. And we might have been told that the kidneys were already sitting on spinach before we ordered a separate portion which was silver-served by an affable NCO onto each plate. The kidneys, with a fine and faintly cheesey herb crust, were gorgeous, notwithstanding the addition of beetroot.

Dim, blueish light from the sensational hi-tech ceiling of half-open metal gills blurred the distinction between the night sky outside and the swanky interior, but made it hard to see the food clearly. Was that more beetroot around the fruit tartare? Stranger things have been known when there's blue cheese bavarois with poached pears for pudding. Closer inspection revealed them to be cubes of blackcurrant jelly. A smooth slice of chocolate and orange with crystallised orange peel rather put the Terry's in terrine.

If this sounds critical, it should do, of the price and the lavishness of the design. Our starters were pounds 9 each, mains around pounds l3, the veg another pounds 2.50 apiece, and all puddings pounds 6.50.

The restored Oxo Wharf is an otherwise utopian combination of craft workshops and low-rent housing, but the eighth-floor place to eat is run by Harvey Nichols, which so successfully gave over its own Fifth Floor to the provision of food and drink that it acquired a taste for doing it elsewhere.

But the cooking and the service in the Oxo Tower don't yet live up to the prices, or the glorious restoration of the riverside landmark that spells out the red-letter shorthand for gravy. Reached by a lift that significantly doesn't stop at the flats in between, the restaurant seems magically disembodied. Though not vertiginously high, with the City seen over the river through a vast angled wall of glass, it feels like you're floating in space. But our fellow cosmonauts, not, for the most part, people I'd want to spend time stuck in a capsule with, were the most conspicuous sort of consumers.

After paying pounds 86 for two including only two glasses of house white, we eased ourselves out of the blue leather tub seats with relief. Past the bar and pouting red lip chairs, and through a giant glass door, we could look down on the river from the outside terrace and into the next-door Brasserie. Far cheerier and cheaper, this shares the glass wall, fabulous view and pounds l1.95 house wine, but is all wiry Bertoia chairs and bare tables. Customers were 20 years younger and, at the end of the evening, pounds 20 better off than those leaving the restaurant. We'd rather have spent the evening with them.

Oxo Tower Restaurant, Oxo Tower Wharf, Barge House Street, London SE1 (0171-803 3838) All major credit cards accepted. Lunch and dinner, daily. Lunch pounds 23.50. Dinner average pounds 28 (three courses before drinks); Brasserie l0am-11.30pm daily. Pre-theatre menu pounds l5.50. Average pounds 20 (three courses before drinks)

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