On paper, this week's venue looks appealing. In fact, it looked appealing in this very paper, where I read about it a few weeks back in Anthony Rose's column. Anthony was enthusiastic about the wines of Gary and Kathy Jordan, the South African producers behind Jordan Estates, and was expecting good things from the couple's new London restaurant, a "wine-dining" destination by the Thames.
High Timber has now opened, in a plum position directly opposite the Tate Modern, at the foot of the Millennium Bridge. From St Paul's Cathedral, at bridge-level, it's a glorious two-minute stroll to a riverside stairway that leads down to the restaurant's door. But at river level, where we were dropped on the wrong side of a four-lane highway, it's a struggle to find the place, across pedestrian walkways and down blind alleys.
Once inside, though, the location makes up for it; this really is a room with a view, not just of the Tate Modern and Globe Theatre, but of the passing show of river traffic, from police launches to party boats. There's a small terrace holding a few tables, and a cool, modern dining room, whose flagstoned floors and hushed atmosphere call to mind the tasting room of a well-appointed winery.
Of course, it's the wine that's the big draw here. High Timber's two cellars hold 40,000 bottles, including what the owners claim is the best South African selection in the UK, as well as many fine European vintages. The wine list gives just a taste of what's on offer; the special stuff is all downstairs, and available for viewing. Our guests were just settling in and saying their hellos when a member of staff came over and asked if we'd like to have a look around the cellars. "Er, no," Harry replied, which seemed to take everyone by surprise.
If the wine list spans the globe, the menu stays closer to home. Herdwick lamb and beef, pulled shoulder of Middle White pork and John Dory with cockle vinaigrette all appear in an unpretentious list which includes sausage and mash with onion gravy – not something you would necessarily expect to find in a wine-centric restaurant.
Our starters were hit and miss; roasted scallops with apple salsa showed precision and flair, but a trencherman portion of bloated ceps served on chargrilled sourdough was a rather hefty and one-note plateful. A special of lobster ravioli – served wonton-style in a broth – also lacked finesse.
As at Vivat Bacchus (whose co-founder Neleen Strauss is the Jordans' partner here), grills are at the heart of the main course menu; in this case steaks, from Andrew Sharp in Cumbria, aged for a minimum of 28 days, and served with a choice of sauces, from Bearnaise to Perigord truffle butter.
We tried two of the four cuts on offer – sirloin and rump, at £17 and £19 respectively. Served on wooden boards, they had a good char, but didn't quite deliver enough steaky flavour. There was also a touch of the mixed grill about the trimmings, which included vast, pillowy onion rings that seemed to be all ring and no onion, and a spray of cherry tomatoes roasted on the vine, so that the skins had split unappetisingly.
Of the non-steak options, best was the rump of full-flavoured Herdwick lamb with spiced aubergine. But the roasted leg and breast of Label Anglaise chicken was overwhelmed by one of those super-savoury, ultra-reduced sauces which threaten to stick your lips together.
Despite the owners' promise that diners can "relax in the South African way", there's more than a touch of wine-tour formality about the High Timber experience. The staff may be wearing jeans, but they are prone to nervous hovering, usually mid-anecdote. "Sorry to interrupt..." one of them ventured as a punchline approached. Note to waiting staff: if you ever find yourself saying "Sorry to interrupt" to a diner, you probably shouldn't be speaking.
On the plus side, they don't overfill the glasses or attempt to up-sell the wine; we were extremely happy with the one wine we sampled out of their 40,000, the Jordan Estate Merlot (£29), a "succulently juicy Margaux-meets-the-Cape blend of blackcurrant with a capsicum whiff" (thanks, Anthony). It served us well, from the pre-starter of asparagus velouté through to a hard-to-match chocolate tart with blood orange sorbet.
We paid around £50 a head before service, and left with some mixed feelings. Clearly this would be a great destination for a wine-lover, and the Thames-side location is spectacular. But although the food is decent enough, in truth, a couple of weeks after our visit, I'm struggling to remember too much about it. If I'd had our Anthony there to hold my hand, I would probably have got a lot more out of the High Timber experience. But as someone who chooses restaurants for the food and atmosphere rather than the wine, I'm not sure I'll be making a return visit.
High Timber, 8 High Timber Street, London EC4 (020-7248 1777)
About £35 a head, not including wine and service
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