London: Oblix non Oblige

Run, your life may be at risk! Do not walk but hasten to the nearest pub if by some fickle finger of fate you find yourself at London’s Oblix Restaurant almost half way up the one-year-old Shard’s 72 floors of glass, steel, escalators, and whizzing elevators….that is assuming you can find your way out, across, under, up, down and through the maze that is the passageway of the already legendary Renzo Piano building and its ‘this-way-tourists’ restaurant Oblix.

To provide the context in which I experienced Oblix and its reputation for being booked two months in advance, I’ll explain how several amusing situations coalesced to land me there at the end of June.

Wonderful friends who moved to London primarily to be near their children and grandchildren (who like most of their ilk promptly decamped) invited me on the spur-of-the moment to join them and their very cool nineteen-year-old godchild at dinner at the Shard. The godchild was returning to DC after a NATO summer internship and my friends were happily fulfilling their godparental functions with a dazzling array of visits to museums, theatres, and now the Shard.

I too had a familial interest in seeing the scene as my fourteen-year-old American grandson will be making his first trip to London this month and like many boys his age is fixated on skyscrapers….their height, location, place in the skyline, cost, etc.. The Shard at the moment is the tallest building in the EU. Were I to return home with pictures and able to say that I had been to the restaurant, that is at least almost half-way up the building, I would have my ‘cool’ reputation enhanced.

Several years ago when I showed D. a colored lithograph of Renzo Piano’s endlessly-in-progress renovation of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard and said that I had met him, an audible ‘cool’ rang out. It was time to update my poor-man’s Auntie Mame reputation as it takes a lot to impress a fourteen year-old particularly if you do not play video games or know the batting averages of the Red Sox. In London, D. has the Shard, the Cucumber, and the Cheese Grater at the top of his list of the latest towering additions to the landscape.

What pulled everything together and has led to this long tale is a review of Oblix in the Sunday Times Magazine (June 23) which I had clipped to convince D’s parents that no matter how tempted they might be to provide him with the ultimate eating cum viewing experience, they should resist. The title of Giles Coren’s Eating Out column was: ‘I asked them to move the table a bit. Three seconds later, I received a full body slam from the waiter.’ The review went downhill from there.

Once I had enthusiastically accepted my friends’ kind invitation, I should not have mentioned this nasty review. Correct? I struggled with what I knew would have been proper manners, but while en route in the taxi, sadly I lost and succumbed to repeating the memorized title. They better mannered than I laughed wholeheartedly, their enthusiasm undiminished.

Schadenfreude lay just ahead. Within ten minutes of being seated out of nowhere, so it seemed, a waiter hit me with a full tray of drinks.  I was in the Giles Coren seat! Leaping up reflexively as my left side was soaked and an open tote bag I had left on the floor was afloat, I summoned whoever would hear me. The culprit had not stopped. When several staff leapt in to help, my three co-diners were laughing uproariously…my bad manners had induced a pre-ordained disaster. It got worse. Some time later I couldn’t find my bag and became anxious….’everything’ was in it. One of the many Ted-Baker-designed grey-uniformed young women hastened to the table and assured me it had been taken off to be dried (if not drained.)  Shortly afterwards, the beautiful young woman who had perpetrated the deadly deed, returned to apologize profusely.  I kept reassuring her that she should not fret.  All was well, and we were still laughing. The dousing was certainly more exciting than the food.

Getting to the table had been quite a feat.

The taxi left us off but there was no discernible front entrance. Perhaps the real grand entrance is hidden from view and can be recognized only by the Qatari Royal family who provided the ₤1.5 billion for the construction of the Shard.

I imagine the new young Emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamsin had read the review as one of his first obligations to protect the family’s investments. Changes at Oblix had been made promptly.

None of the staff’s snobbishness detailed in acidic detail by the Times was any more in evidence. Everyone was polite, and we made it to our table being handed from one matching young woman to another along a dark passageway through the kitchen and into the light (I’m sure a planned symbolic journey…birth? the Pyramids and Tutankahmen? Or just Voila!)

The ceilings were startlingly low but the noise was not…much like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, except this was 6:30 on a Sunday late afternoon. I would not be surprised to learn in the near future that dozens of cocktail glasses had shattered simultaneously one evening when a particularly bibulous crowd raised the db level to 100. It can’t be far from that on an ordinary night.

The view though memorably impressive was familiar….the one you have when the captain says we’re descending into Heathrow Airport and then suddenly announces, “unfortunately heavy air traffic makes it necessary that we remain in a holding pattern until further notification.” That’s the sense of the height. ( For a more accessible view I am recommending that the grandson have dinner at the 8th floor of  Oxo Tower restaurant, a glorious art deco building (1928) on the South Side of the Thames with compelling views and good food but alas the very same decibel level. My back still aches from ‘leaning in’ to hear the conversation at both.)

As for the food…alas. One of my hosts reported”I had a very rubbery fish”. I ordered a lobster and scallop ceviche that had been reviewed by Coren as bland. The rapid- post-review revision was over spiced ..jalapeno, coriander and chilis, the delicate flavors of the fish lost. The corn soufflé was inedible…thick, glutinous, unpleasant. It went back to the kitchen minus only one forkful. Two others at the table really enjoyed their steaks cooked in a Josper oven (“Best I’ve had in London” said the experienced eater) but he added looking forlornly at his side of baked cauliflower, “You know how much I like cauliflower….any kind of cauliflower..but this sodden mess….” For starters, both he and his wife had ordered a childhood favorite, iceberg lettuce, blue cheese, and pancetta, hers without onions, please. Both came with onions. The cost: £9 (approximately $14) to relive your childhood memories.

The metaphor for the meal sat forlornly in the middle of the table ordered by the host for all to share: an etiolated, would-be baked potato that had been steamed while waiting for us. It sat under a coat of melting sour cream untouched by anyone. Nothing could have looked more dispirited.

The dessert..one with four spoons, please was vanilla and chocolate ice cream with brownie bits. My three companions were very pleased, particularly the college sophomore. She adored the steak, the dessert and heard every syllable uttered at the table. Clearly this is a spot for cool teenagers with intact eardrums.

I thought that the dessert concoction cried out for a pitcher of warm chocolate sauce to bind all the flavours.  But then I thought..what if the waitress slips again and the chocolate sauce misses its target?? I shut up.

I am already nostalgic for the event. The coincidence of Giles Coren’s experience with my dousing made dining at the Oblix an event that my friends and I will look back on with lots of laughter long after better restaurants with more human-scale views will have been forgotten. Thank you Oblix!

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