High Timber is that rarity in London, a restaurant with a genuine river view. It is near the Millennium bridge, and if you walk down from there it is easy enough to find. However if you, as I did, just got off at Mansion House tube and tried to follow a map, then you end up in a maze of concrete underpasses, bridges and finally dead-ends to the river that resemble Hampton Court maze. I am directionally challenged at the best of times, so eventually gave up and phoned for help: the staff were terribly nice and a waiter was despatched to rescue me and take me in through the back entrance. The moral: go to the Millennium bridge and don’t try and think you can take that tempting short-cut. The dining room is a boisterous, noisy, masculine affair (I counted three female diners on this packed evening in an 80 cover restaurant), and the menu caters to the carnivorous, city clientele. The key feature of the meal was 28-day aged beef from Cumbria from Sharp's Farm. Chef Justin Saunders used to cook at Duke’s Hotel in Mayfair.
The wine cellar here apparently houses 40,000 bottles (the owners are the South African Jordan wine estate) though the list is surprisingly short. Examples include Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2008 at £39 for a wine that costs around £15 retail, Foundry Viognier 2007 at £29 for a wine that costs around £12 to buy in the shops, and the excellent Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 at £44 for a wine that will set you back about £17 in the shops.
A delicate little amuse-bouche of chicken and mushroom mousse seemed slightly incongruous and badly needed more seasoning (11/20). My starter of scallops with apple salsa, sweetcure bacon and basil cress read well on the menu, but what arrived was a scallop sliced into three thin pieces (note to restaurants: scallops are best left whole), and unfortunately stone cold. It was cooked fairly well, and the bacon tasted good, but this was a pretty basic error (11/20 given the other elements). Better was English asparagus with an enjoyable Parmesan crusted egg and Hollandaise, though a pan-fried foie gras with poached rhubarb was rather overwhelmed by the rhubarb.
For the main course, the servers managed to mix up our orders for the steaks, but both rump and sirloin tasted quite good. In the UK beef is grass fed, so you never get the deeper flavour of corn-fed beef that you see in the USA or Japan, but as English beef goes this was fine. It was served with a basic peppercorn sauce (in my case), dull onion rings and some thin hand-cut chips that were not very crisp (12/20 to 13/20 based on the beef rather than the accompaniments). The best dish was Gloucester Old Spot sausages which had lovely flavour, peppery and full of taste, served with mash, crispy onions and gravy (15/20).
Desserts were a mixed bag. The chocolate fondant with salted caramel ice cream was genuinely good, the fondant with a delcious liquid centre, the ice cream very well made; salt may sound odd in a dessert, but it can work very well indeed, as it did here (comfortably 15/20). Yet my lemon tart was very ordinary indeed, the pastry not really cooked through, the filling not quite set, the balance of the dish upset by there being too much raspberry sauce relative to the tart (barely 11/20 for this). Service was friendly though distinctly disorganised, and indeed this is an area that can surely be improved with an experienced front of house manager.
I found this a difficult meal to mark, since there were touches that were genuinely good (the sausages, the fondant) combined with some pretty basic errors (cold scallops, poor tart, under-seasoning of the savoury courses). The lovely view and the good South African wines certainly helped compensate for the ups and downs in the food, and I can see why this venue has become clearly very popular even in the teeth of a recession.