by Douglas Blyde - Friday June 26, 2009 4:54 am
30 St. Mary Axe, London. EC3A 8EP
Whenever I take the lift to one of these high-rise hospitality pens, two images come to mind. They both involve the Twin Towers of ‘9/11’ infamy. As I feel my ears pop, the first is of Philippe Petit, brave lunatic genius who dreamt of walking a wire between the towers even before foundations were sunk. He finally realised his lofty ambition on a breezy August morning in 1974, achieving eight crossings over 45 minutes. After being arrested (and stealing the policeman’s watch) Petit declared that if he had lost balance, he would have died “doing what he loved”. Shudder. The other concerns a photograph so sinister that some media banned it. Jonathan Briley, an employee of the ‘Windows on the World’ restaurant, was identified as ‘the falling man’. He sought salvation from heat, smoke, and hopelessness in a short rush of air. Free at last from the shackles of service.
As you would accurately surmise, I prefer my food without a side order of vertigo. But having heard that the cooking of Michael Lynch (who survived Richard Corrigan’s training) could rival the view, I found myself foregoing fear to sample his fare. Despite not being a member, without a trace of deceit, I politely blagged my way into bagging a table at ‘40:30’, the bar and restaurant at the top of the ‘gherkin’ (30 St. Mary Axe, London).
To allow for the beautifully latticed dome under which one dines/does business/does the business of dining, the main lifts stop at floor 34, where another, propelled from below, darts to 39. This design ensures no heavy-duty machinery eclipses the view. Unlike rival, ‘Rhodes Twenty Four’ at ‘Tower 42’, which rises in parallel like a razor blade, the gherkin’s glass panels are big with relatively slender frames. But despite a curvaceous exoskeleton, it features just one pane of arched glass - the lens at the top.
After sipping some fizz at the panoramic bar, we were ushered to the restaurant. Chrome chairs on glossy black marble represent a modern take on the classic ‘Thonet’ version of brasserie fame. Apart from the odd Tweetie Pie coloured sunflower and blue tongue table centrepieces, the room’s colours (or lack of them) clearly signal this as a project of architect, Lord Foster. But a sharp, grey building built for grey suited occupants did not mean monotone food.
Each course is ‘headlined’ in a word. I started with ‘Trout’ – a coral pink ballotine nudging a pressed stack of disembowelled cockles and cubed potatoes, licked by clam vinaigrette. This was wispily topped with acerbic coriander and earthy cress. Considering the setting in which it was served, the dish appeared appropriately architectural and tasted pristine: urgently appetising.
Expecting ‘Pea’ and mint soup, my father looked startled when he received almost bare crockery (albeit by Thomas Keller). He soon relaxed when this was flooded at table with chilled, softly textured liquid that captured the verdant spirit of an English garden. It came with a crusted tuille of polenta and fresh, yielding Parmesan custard, served separately. Inspired and invigorating
Attempting a kind of financial de-tox, £25 bought the cheapest bottle from a sheer priced list. Edgy, with scents of bitter-berry and forest floor, the four year-old Loire Pinot Noir was drawn from an ice bucket on my request (I like light reds cool).
To follow, ‘Salmon‘ fillet was carefully seared, served with a remarkably complimentary slab of gracefully smoked foie gras, as tender as sweetbreads. Other components comprised sprightly fennel, cosseting apple, fresh noodles and a caramelised shard of bacon. It bathed in frothed Sauternes. A stylish medley.
On sending him a photo later, ‘young gun restaurateur’, Charlie McVeigh described my dessert as a ‘thing of beauty’. An Elderflower jelly carried a fleeting paraffin whiff, and captured crisped, petrified flowers. It nudged a gooseberry sorbet with the aroma of Sauvignon Blanc and a brittle almond biscuit.
The agile wine had dissolved my vertiginous thoughts. Pitched against a remarkable view, Lynch had won our attention, coaxing more flavour than I thought possible from tenderly treated ingredients. Should there be another lunch, I won’t be troubled by a fear of heights, but fear of finance. 40:30’s £1000 a year membership is enough to make non expense diners dizzy…