Due to celebrate its 18th birthday in September, Le Pont de la Tour has taken big strides forward since Lee Bennett took the reins in January 2008, while not belying its classic roots. Tom Vaughan reports.
Here's a thought: the head chef of Le Pont de la Tour was a wee 11 years old when the iconic London restaurant first opened in 1991.
The marriage between highly-promising chef and 18-year-young restaurant has been a good one these past 15 months, with Lee Bennett admitting that, while his modern touches have dragged the site into the 21st century, the expectations of veteran customers have tempered any initial cocksure desire to revolutionise the offering.
"I changed a lot of the menu into a more modern style at first," Bennett says. "But then I came to realise what Le Pont de la Tour stood for and what people came for. So now I've reverted to a lot of classic dishes alongside more modern interpretations. It's the best of both worlds."
Perched in the Victorian Gothic shadow of London's iconic Tower Bridge, Le Pont de la Tour has been a jewel in the crown of D&D (formerly Conran) Restaurants over the past 18 years, encompassing a large space in the prestigious Thames-side area. Over the years it has managed a vast offering; à la carte through to a bar and grill menu, a Sunday lunch menu, a private dining menu as well as a children's menu. "You get one finished, move on to the next and by the time you've rewritten them all, it's time to go back and rewrite the first again," Bennett says.
It makes the operations side of the site a big ask of a chef. Luckily, in Bennett they've found a very capable head, even if he's still yet to hit 30. Years spent in the Gordon Ramsay Holdings Group, including time in the Dubai and Paris restaurants, culminated in him heading up the Savoy Grill for a spell, an operation almost as wieldy as the 100-cover (160 in the summer) Le Pont.
The à la carte is well-balanced medley of classical and more modern dishes priced at £39.50 for three courses. And, as before, there is a heavy emphasis on seafood. Vintage dishes such as boiled-in-the-shell fruit de mer sits alongside a more contemporary interpretation of hors d'oeuvre maison, featuring spiced jellied oysters, a prawn cocktail in a shot glass with lettuce cream, potted crab, gravalax belini and a scallop tartare on a teaspoon.
On the main courses, Gressingham duck breast, is the newer invention, served with a small pie of confit leg, pistachios, Madeira jus and shallots, and garnished with peas now they are in season. The more classical-based is the "through-and-through Michelin dish", as Bennett describes it, of poached halibut with English asparagus and a Noilly Prat velouté.
The bar grill has seen the biggest transformation during Bennett's tenure. What was previously a sort of poor man's à la carte is now much more of a bistro concept, rethought in the past six months to offer value for money, with rib-eye swapped for rump and more emphasis on cheaper cuts. Dishes on the bar and grill menu start at a very reasonable £3.50 for leek and potato soup, moving up to main courses of calves' liver and sauce diable for £12.50 and a pavé of salmon with sauce bois boudran for £10.50.
If Bennett's use of cheaper ingredients on the bar and grill menu is clever, then his Sunday lunch menu is exemplary. "What I cook Monday to Saturday on the à la carte is what I was trained to do," he says. "What I cook on Sunday is what I love to eat." With prices at £26.50 for three courses in the restaurant, or £18.50 for an only slightly less luxurious offering in the bar and grill, the Sunday lunch is amongst the best in London. Intelligent use of the week's produce is what keeps costs down and truly exemplifies the offering. With the kitchen buying whole ducks in the week for the duck breast dish, it means the duck legs pile up, so Bennett uses these to make a duck rillete with foie gras mousse, made from foie gras off-cuts in the week. And while midweek there might be 12 or 13 chefs on per shift, Bennett keeps numbers low on Sunday because its all in the preparation.
There's so much to Le Pont that there's not the space here to cover - the commendable move of having a children's menu in a fine-dining restaurant, the excellent desserts courtesy of pastry chef Joanne Todd, the stunning new crustacean bar, the private dining. On this showing, they'll be another at least 18 years to come from the site.
ALSO ON THE MENU
- Roast and confit Dombes quail, remoulade, wild mushrooms à la grecque
- Cornish crab, jellied tomato consommé, green asparagus salad
- Foie gras ballotine, fine green beans, Sauternes jelly (£4 supplement)
- Steamed sea trout, dandelion, radish and ratte potato, sauce au pistou
- Châteaubriand à l'anglaise, grilled mushroom and tomato, straw potatoes, sauce béarnaise (for two, £15 supplement)
- Assiette of new-season lamb, ragoût of broad beans and flageolets, rosemary jus
- Griottine clafoutis, crème fraîche
- Hazelnut and vin santo torte, Jivara chocolate ganache
- Minted cantaloupe, water melon, with chilled melon and Midori soup
Le Pont de la Tour,Butlers Wharf, 36d Shad Thames, SE1 2YETel: 020 7403 8403