I’m trying very hard to like the Ivy Cafe chain; I want to like it. In theory it should be perfect: a famous, indeed iconic, name; the attraction of grand, sumptuous cafes of the Parisian kind serving great food. In practice, I never fail to be disappointed. Some of my friends love them and can’t understand my negativity; others hate them and even refuse to go on the basis they’re overpriced and the service is awful; there’s a polarised division much on the scale of Brexit. Jay Rayner of the Observer isn’t a fan, calling them ‘a clumsy branding racket’ but you’ll find plenty of enthusiastic reviews too.
Thus it was with a little misgiving that I suggested to my friend Chris last night that we eat in The Ivy Tower Bridge. But as we were going to The Bridge Theatre to see A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Martin McDonagh’s play about Hans Christian Andersen, starring Jim Broadbent, and the theatre is bang next door to The Ivy, then why wouldn’t one eat there?
Both theatre and restaurant are right by Tower Bridge – hence their names – so there’s the promise of good views as you arrive. The location is a bit out of the way though compared to the West End (nearest Undergrounds a 12-minute walk to London Bridge or 13-minute walk to Tower Hill), but this area of London is undergoing major regeneration and more and more shops and restaurants are opening up.
The entrance lobby to the restaurant – which is actually huge inside – was quite small; my welcome tepid, which made me feel a bit annoyed even before I sat down. I was shown through to my table in a heaving part of the restaurant. I was struck by the loud and busy decor, which wasn’t as sophisticated as other Ivy cafes I’ve been to. However, there was a great view out of large windows across to Tower Bridge, now lit up in the dark and looking splendid.
Despite the uncertain start, the service turned out to be excellent. Poor service at this chain has always been my major complaint (Covent Garden, Richmond), but I have to say that last night’s was efficient, attentive and friendly. So 10/10 for service. Then it went downhill.
The lunch and early evening fixed priced menu is £16.50 for 2 courses; £21.00 for 3. It’s available from 11.30am to 6.30pm daily. There were 3 starters and 4 mains to choose from, plus 3 desserts (though we didn’t have those). There was a small separate wine list as well as the main one, listing wines available by the glass. We both chose Côtes du Rhône (175ml for £8.50).
We also both chose the same food, beginning with Gravlax – cured salmon, dill-pickled cucumber, wholegrain mustard and dill dressing, granary toast.
Not quite what I was expecting as it was put before me. The toast was overgenerous – we thought the first rack was to share. The slices were too thick though and no butter came – which we had to ask for to make it edible; who wants to eat thick dry toast?
As for the salmon – when I order Gravlax (which is one of my favourite things, but so simple you wonder how anyone can get it wrong), I expect fairly thick slices of cured salmon and a nice thick, almost mayonnaise-like, mustard and dill sauce. The salmon was so thin it could have qualified as carpaccio – you could see through it; the barely cured cucumber slices so thick, it was totally inappropriate as an accompaniment. And what a lack of any kind of sophistication to put them on top in the way they did; it looked so amateur. The dressing was mild and thin; not that nice tangy sauce you usually get with gravlax. So … it was OK … just … but for a restaurant claiming the Ivy name, very poor indeed.
For mains we ordered Hoisin-glazed crispy duck leg with pak choi and coriander mashed potatoes, sesame seeds, steamed broccoli and red wine sauce.
It was OK. That’s really about the best I can say for it. Plenty of duck but a meagre helping of sauce and mash (and the pak choi addition might be stretching the description a bit); the broccoli didn’t qualify for an al dente description, it was so underdone I had trouble cutting through the stalk to eat it.
The bill came to £56 for the two of us, with wine, and including service. If the food had been great, that would have been a fair price but there are much better pre-theatre meals available for less.