Restaurant, grill and bar Skylon, with its breathtaking views across the South Bank, is celebrating its fifth birthday. Kerstin Kühn paid a visit
As D&D London prepares for two major new launches in the City of London - the Old Bengal Warehouse restaurants and the South Place hotel - later this summer, its last major opening, Skylon, is celebrating its fifth birthday. Executive chef Helena Puolakka, who has been at its helm since its launch, has quietly turned Skylon into one of the busiest restaurants within the group, serving about 2,500 diners per week.
And it's no surprise. Occupying a large open-plan space in the Royal Festival Hall commanding breathtaking views across the South Bank, it's a brilliant place for a long lunch or special dinner. Divided into the 100-seat grill, 80-seat restaurant and 90-cover bar, Skylon offers a space for any occasion. "We have a lot of guests who come to the restaurant during the week with clients and then come back to the grill on the weekend for a more casual meal with their family," Puolakka explains.
Finnish-born Puolakka joined Skylon in 2007 from her former role of executive chef at Harvey Nichols' Fifth Floor restaurant. Her impressive CV also includes stints with Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris as well as L'Oranger and Sonny's in Barnes, where she was head chef for three years.
In creating the menu at Skylon, she has drawn on her classical French training as well as her childhood in Scandinavia to create dishes that are simple, light and beautifully presented. In the restaurant she serves a six-course tasting menu (£59) as well as the à la carte at £40 for two courses and £45 for three.
On a recent visit, the tasting menu kicked off with a canapé of lobster and pork - butter-poached lobster on a disk of crispy pork skin - a delicious start to the meal that set the tone of things to come.
Next up was ceviche of Scottish salmon, served with a marinade of soya, lemon and hazelnut oil dressing and shaved radish. "I adore salmon in all forms, it's just the most beautiful fish," Puolakka enthuses. "I love its colour and serving it raw makes this a really light and fresh dish."
Much of Puolakka's food showcases her Scandinavian heritage and an ingredient she uses in many different guises is lingonberries. Anyone who's ever experienced the joy of dining at Ikea will be familiar with lingonberry jam, the accompaniment to the Swedish furniture store's famous meatballs. At Skylon, however, the berries take on a much more sophisticated form. Puolakka serves them in a jelly as an accompaniment to pan-fried Scottish scallops, which are then sprinkled with dry liquorice - another typical Scandinavian product.
Meanwhile, a main course of duck requires lots of preparation. "I break the duck down by removing the legs and roast the crown quickly for about four to five minutes. Then I marinade the legs in a mixture of Shaoxing wine and maple syrup for one day before braising them in the liquid, which is then reduced and made into a sweet, aromatic sauce with star anise and cinnamon," Puolakka explains. The dish is finished off with girolles and glazed grelots.
But the pièce de résistance has to be the pear belle Hélène, Puolakka's take on the classic French dessert. Her pastry chef Monika Jazvari makes beautiful sugar pieces in the shape of a pear, which are then filled with chocolate sponge, poached pear and vanilla ice-cream, before being doused in hot chocolate sauce at the table.
Over in the grill, things are busier and the turnover of guests is much faster than in the restaurant, where diners tend to take their time. Popular dishes here include the Skylon burger served with onion rings, chips and Bloody Mary ketchup (£15); salads such as the roast chicken salad with baby gem, cherry tomatoes, focaccia croutons and sherry vinaigrette (£9); and the various steaks, of which Puolakka serves about 800 each week.
With brilliant service led by restaurant manager Alex Fasoli, fantastic views of the Thames and a menu to suit any occasion, Skylon's fifth birthday is no doubt one of many more to come.
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX
020 7654 7800
Sample dishes from the menu
Tart tatin of endive, citrus vinaigrette, Roquefort and walnut salad
Marinated Cornish mackerel, escabèche vinaigrette, micro leaf salad, wafer-thin croutons
Salad gourmand of confit duck, shaved foie gras, summer truffle and French beans, cassis dressing
Pan-fried red mullet, heritage tomato salad, sautéd baby squid, sherry dressing
Red wine braised oxtail pie, roast bone marrow, baby leaves, Banyuls dressing
Châteaubriand, confit carrots and caramelised shallots, gratin dauphinois, barbecue hollandaise (for two)
From the grill
Corn-fed chicken supreme £16
Calf's liver £17.50
Lemon sole £19.50
Rich dark chocolate marquise with frozen espresso and salted caramel sauce
Raspberry mousse, vanilla panna cotta and consommé
Crêpes suzette, flambé Mandarine Napoléon and orange salad