Originally posted 26th November 2012
You celebrate the good times – and you know what, sure as shit celebrate the bad. Last weekend, a few of us decided to do both; beginning with a few forkfuls of glorious stodge and pitchers of Camden lager at the Red Dog Saloon; the restaurant which – after the last visit – my mind loves, and my stomach hates. The day was a long-overdue chance to catch up with a couple of mates, one of which of late, has been having a tougher time than Freddie Starr’s fiancé.
Turns out he had something to celebrate as well – something that, at the time of writing – hasn’t quite arrived so we will flick away the details. And to be honest, he told me as I was halfway through the Devastator and frankly my mind was elsewhere. It soon became clear that the day was not going to end with the bill at Red Dog. After a quick pit stop at the reliably decent Bluu Bar on Hoxton Square, we made haste, in the dying sun, to ascend the Heron Tower.
I can see the Heron from my apartment, where it sits alongside its two neighbours, Tower 42 and the 30 St. Mary Axe. Tower 42 may be a rapidly aging relic of the Gordon Gekko era, but it exudes a certain charm in its uniqueness (did you know its footprint is in the shape of its original tenant, NatWest?). At night, Tower 42 is crowned with vibrant blue neon – and was topped with various Olympic logos over the summer. 30 St. Mary’s Axe dared to be different; confrontational and according to many – sexual as well – but whatever consensus people reach, there is no denying that it makes a statement.
Despite ascending two hundred and thirty metres to become the tallest building in the city of London, the Heron neither reflects an ostentatious zeitgeist like Tower 42 nor possesses a gherkin-y horniness similar to 30 St Mary Axe. Instead, it sits amongst its peers –tall and striking yet disappointing dull – a wonderful example of that featureless architectural style known as ‘Modern’. It is therefore perhaps deliciously apt that the principle tenant of the Heron Tower is a dreary old law firm…
Look harder though; the Heron is beautiful on the inside. The lobby is home to an aquarium – correction – the aquarium is home to a lobby, as this particular fish tank contains seventy-thousand litres of water and is home to over a thousand residents. Backing onto this masterpiece is a little bar called The Drift, self-styled as an ‘Island of calm in the heart of the city’. The Drift is nice enough; if you haven’t been there, imagine wooden tables, flowery cushions and a few organic identifiers thrown around an industrial-looking room – but the management really shouldn’t kid themselves – after 5pm on a school night, no bar in the City is an island of calm. I went there once, but soon found a reason to never go back again.
That reason lies at the same address as The Drift, albeit thirty-eight floors up – and that’s where we were hurrying to. A well-disguised entrance on the Bishopsgate side of the Heron Tower leads in to a tiny lobby, a lift and a man. I said to him;
We were ushered into the elevator and pushed the button for floor thirty-eight. The ride would have been uneventful if it wasn’t for the fact that this particular lift is glass, and hangs on the outside of the Heron. I eventually succeeded in prying my mates’ gaze away from the news on the in-lift telly (seriously?!) and encouraged them to take in the panorama of London – now bathed in darkness, but no less spectacular. The dome of St. Pauls shone out in white light, and the inky ribbon of the Thames was still unmistakeable. As my ears popped, the City of London opened up beneath us – despite is being a Sunday, there was a constellation of light in the windows, but by now I didn’t really care – the only glass I was interested in were the ones containing cocktails at SushiSamba.
SushiSamba is a small restaurant group that was founded in 1999 in my spiritual home of Manhattan, founded by Shimon Bokovza, Danielle Billera and Matthew Johnson; three restaurateurs with seemingly endless colour and vision – at least if you go on what their bios say on the website;
“…Johnson has his finger on the pulse of progressive”
“…an eye for trendsetting concepts combined with administrative and financial savvy make (Billera) one of New York City’s most successful restaurateurs”
“…(Bokovza’s) visions set trends in the dining world”
Jesus Christ. Any more creative buzz words and my laptop screen would disappear up its own arse.
SushiSamba in London was the first international opening for the group, soon followed by Duck and Waffle, directly above, on the fortieth floor. To a certain extent, the website talks the talk and walks the walk; when SushiSamba opened, it was very different and quirky. Like Bubbledogs, the name suggests mad combinations and shouts
“Get your arses in here, we’re down with the crowd and dare to be different!”
In ‘Samba’s case, ‘different’ equals a fusion menu which combines Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine – a concept that so far, has not been well-received this side of the pond. SushiSamba’s restaurant has been widely derided by critics as being over priced, with Time Out placing the sushi offering as “…near London’s dearest at around £2 per mouthful”, and meals for two (with not much booze) coming in at an alarming £150 upwards. It would be too easy to insert a joke along the lines of ‘sky-high dining, sky high prices’ or something like that and be done with it; that is, if the food was worth the disbursement.
I have little inclination to dine here as it appears that is isn’t.
SushiSamba’s menu seems all style and no substance, described by Hardens as “pretty”, but very much the “supporting attraction” when considering the views. This is all by the by as sadly, most of the money makers in the City would be content– as the Viz once wrote – with “a Super Chef wanking onto a lettuce leaf, serving it on a big plate and charging a hundred quid for it”
The marginally more cost-effective way to enjoy SushiSamba’s star attraction – the views – is to visit the bar, and that is exactly what we did on that mild Sunday evening. Unlike the restaurant – which requires reservations – one can just sidle up to the bar and have a leisurely evening without the fuss of million-pound sushi or brainfart gastronomic fusion. Mondays to Fridays follow the trend at The Drift and friends, with ‘Samba’s bar becoming a bit of a riot, but at the weekend, while the City sleeps, there is just enough business to keep the place ticking over, with a few seats always available.
That you are able to park your ass at all is pretty remarkable really. Whereas the restaurant area is pretty large, the bar is not; consisting of the a few cushioned benches squeezed in underneath a staircase and against the south-facing window, affording spectacular views of Central London, framed by the neighbouring 30 St. Mary Axe and Tower 42. In the centre of the room there is a rather fetching – albeit deserted – sushi counter, and beyond that lies the north-facing bar terrace, with lots more seating (if weather permits). Seeing as it was a mild night, that is where we headed, claiming a few wooden benches surrounding an open fire.
The views from the terrace are nothing compared to the south-facing view (or the east-facing view in the restaurant – offering unlimited views all the way to Olympic Park and Canary Wharf), but sitting out here is spectacular nonetheless. Somehow, everything feels so peaceful 190 metres or so up, and very ‘zen’, aided in no small part by a large (fake) orange-hued tree in the centre of the outside bar, complimenting the largely orange and red SushiSamba colouring that peroxides all areas of the restaurant. Aside from that, the rest of the decor is more functional than fanciful, but who comes up here to look at hip chandeliers anyway?
Our gaze across the metropolis was halted with a cursory perusal of the drinks menu. To be honest, whereas there is a fine beer, wine and sake selection on offer (sake being a drink du jour – sales have been declining in Japan since the Nineties but skyrocketing around the rest of the world) the second best reason to visit SushiSamba is the monumentally exciting cocktail menu. For better or worse, it replicates the W.T.F. of the food menu but the concept fits drinking far better than eating.
Time was pressing so we stayed for one round. One of my friends had “work to do” and although we were trying our best to keep him away from sensibility, we’re not monsters. Between us we tried a Chu-Cumber, a Libre-Corn and the Inca Swizzle. Classy as you like!
The Chu-Cumber is a coupette filled with a vibrant green mixture of Hendrick’s and Shōchū (a rice-based Japanese distilled spirit), cucumber water, lime and turmeric. I found this to be sock-knockingly refreshing – but then if it contains Hendrick’s then it is not going to be anything other than awesome.
The Libre-Corn was a sugary twist on a Cuba Libre, afforded its sweet tooth with the use of rum infused with popcorn (how and why, I don’t really care, but kudos!) and slow-cooked clarified butter. The taste was still unmistakeably rum and cole, but the added glucose made things a whole lot smoother. The Inca Swizzle, I had tried before, but couldn’t resist ordering it again; a complex and mental mixture of dry chocolate liqueur and tequila, muddled with lemon juice and served tall over ice. It is one of those things that needs to be tried – suffice to say that it’s refreshingly yet after-dinnery, sweet-yet-sour, with everything comes together easier than Massa and Hamilton… well, I haven’t talked about F1 for a while.
One is hard pushed to find a bad drink on SushiSamba’s cocktail list; other stars include the fragrant Chamomile Gimlet, the Pablo Piscobar, made with Pisco and yuzu and finally a spiced-up Bramble, obviously called the Samba Ramble.
One drinks well at SushiSamba, which is fortuitous seeing as they charge top-dollar for the privilege. Drinks come in at around ten to twelve quid each, not including service (the servers are stunning and I guess it takes cash to keep them that way). So on that note, we were about to leave when we were interrupted by a South African lady who insisted on buying us a round of teuila shots, which facilitated a laboured conversation about orange socks, double barrelled first names but withholding enough personal information in case she tried to find us afterwards…
Our friendly South African was a comparative of the SushiSamba bar itself; she was a gourmand, clearly knowing her shit about eating and drinking. In the same vein, SushiSamba has an arsenal of expensive, authentic drinks and foodstuffs to craft a great evening. She was pleasant enough, and fun. SushiSamba is as well; it’s chilled, relaxed and peaceful. But both have something missing; for the woman, it was manners; the way she spoke to the server was embarrassingly rude and ignorant; for SushiSamba, it’s a lack of replete-ness. The night never feels wholesome; like it’s somehow all stale and carries only a smattering of substance. The saving grace? The view; easily one of the best in London.
So after we had our fill of the company, we finished drinking our drinks (and drinking in the vista), and made our way back to the magical glass elevator. Karma is Karma; it had been a good night so far, and now we were a little drunk. Go home? Well, as my housemate often says,
“Go big or go home”
We went ‘big’, and headed to a fridge…