The restaurants on the south side of the Thames at Tower Bridge have been bustling for 20 years, pulling in tourists like trawler nets snaring cod. The north side, by contrast, hasn't seized a similar opportunity, despite the presence of the tourist nirvana that is the Tower. The land just beside the Tower is owned by the Historic Royal Palaces, who leased it for ages to a café. Their catering partner, Ampersand, has now summoned a creative agency and a catering consultancy called Truffle Hunting; between them they've launched Perkin Reveller, tucked into the elbow formed by Tower and Bridge.
The name comes from Chaucer. Taking their cue from the fact that the great Geoffrey had a hand in building Tower Wharf in 1390, the new owners have plundered The Canterbury Tales, looking for a name. The Knight's Tale? Too stiff. The Merchant's Tale? Too sexy ("Gan liften up her smocke and inne he throng…"). The Miller's Tale? Too much farting. Eventually they chose the slightest of the tales, the unfinished, 58-line Cook's Tale, because of its main character, an apprentice chef called Perkin, who's a sort of medieval headbanger. "At every wedding party he would sing and dance… when there was any procession in Cheapside he would spring from the shop towards it… and he would gather to him a crew of his own sort, to dance and sing and make such fun."
Does Perkin sound a bit of a trial to you? Does he sound like the bloke outside your window at 4am, singing "Teenage Dirtbag" with his zany chums? In that case, Perkin Reveller may not delight you. It's pretty much designed for a Medieval Fayre. Many of the tables are banquet-size, long enough to accommodate a small army of varlets and mead-swilling serfs celebrating Lammastide with earthenware beermugs…
It's not really as crass as that. There's a cosy bar area that resembles a chapel with original stone pillars, white tiles, flickering wall-sconces, zinc tables and squashy cushions. In the main dining room, the old features have been overlaid with wood panelling and crammed with stripped-pine furniture. In the evening, when it's almost empty, it looks a bit… staff refectory. Very much not a couples place. The outside terrace is wonderful, though, with the wall of the Tower beside you, the vast, blue-lit majesty of the bridge to one side, and the grotesque spike of the Shard obscured by trees. I can imagine visitors and Londoners alike fighting to get a table out there. They even provide you with rugs, and a sailor's chest of games to keep you amused.
The food and drink are much better than you'd expect in such a touristy haven. Dominic the cocktail waiter does a fabulous vodka martini, and, for the ladies, a Seasonal Shrub: your date takes a spoonful of marinated cherry-and-blackcurrant jam on her tongue, then has a gulp of gin-and-lemon juice. It's very bracing. The menu is – what did you expect? – very English Heritage, but full of nice touches. Queen scallops are given a peck on their white cheeks by some lovely chorizo. A salad of ham hock with English peas benefited from the ham being served warm in a soft croquette. Smoked eel fishcake with crispy bacon and endive lettuce filled the mouth with flavour and added thick tranches of actual smoked eel as a contrast to the cake.
Forbidden, by reviewers' rules, from trying one of the Sharing Plates (I yearned for the rib of beef with bone marrow, red wine sauce and Béarnaise), I had slow-cooked lamb with fennel, artichoke, tomato and basil. It came as a troika of lamb-iness: roast leg, curiously blanched but wondrously succulent, a circlet of slow-roasted breast and a little envelope of shoulder. Roasted fennel is a fine dance partner for lamb, but the butch aromas of breast and shoulder overwhelmed everything else. A side order of 'broccoli with boiled-egg dressing' flattered to deceive; instead of bits of egg, it was just flecks of boiled albumen. Angie's Cornish fish stew had been constructed with generosity and love: seabass, black bream, monkfish, cockles, crab and clams, cooked with saffron potatoes in what tasted like lobster bisque from a jar, rather than fish stock (but there's no harm in that).
Puddings seem limited to the nursery: milk chocolate and hazelnut mousse, egg custard tart, stuff like that. My alarmingly pink strawberry trifle featured no sherry, and jelly instead of custard – pah! Trifle for four-year-olds. Eton Mess was better, delivering a good proportion of fruit to meringue.
I was relieved the food is good at Perkin Reveller. So much money and effort have been spent on bringing the place to life in this prime location, they could easily have cut corners and served catering-firm nosh. But chef Andrew Donovan deals in stylish and satisfying cooking that will please the grog-quaffing revellers on the terrace for years to come, or my name's not Wyllarde the Wobegonde.
Perkin Reveller, The Wharf at the Tower of London, London EC3 (020-3166 6949)
Around £100 for two, with wine
Ambiance (inside) **
Ambiance (outside) *****
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
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