Anyone with a working knowledge of London restaurants over the past 30 years will have chanced upon Le Pont de la Tour on the South Bank, formerly owned by Terence Conran. At one point in history, “going down Le Pont” was synonymous with low-key luxury: it was a reassuringly expensive French restaurant in a converted tea warehouse, serving lobster thermidor and, more importantly, offering on-the-ball, high- caliber French-style service. This was a rare treat in those days, because, for almost the entire 20th century, the British idea of front-of-house involved a woman with a Rothmans kingsize in her mouth lobbing a pork-tongue ploughman’s in the general direction of your table .
So, it was interesting late last month to hear that Le Pont had expanded and opened an exciting new bistro next door that offered more pocket-friendly versions of French classics such as comte gougeres, duck confit with peas à la française and day of the day such as rabbit parmentier and ray wing au poivre. Escoffier recipes at Ivy Brasserie prices, it seemed to say.
The huge restaurant chain that owns Le Pont was not very forthcoming with details of this grand refurbishment, but suffice to say we should all get down there sharpish to eat steak frîtes while savoring fabulous views of the lovely Thames. And, despite the fact that the Thames is, in fact, filthy and the last lovely thing that happened there was the Great Frost Fayre in 1683, I booked a table for Sunday lunch, not least because I love it when good rejigs happen to old , tired, unfashionable places.
The alarm bells started when we walked the length and breadth of the walkway outside Le Pont de la Tour looking for the bistro. Was I at the wrong address? It wouldn’t be a first. I asked the restaurant staff, who pointed me to a drab doorway leading to the bar area. “That’s the bistro? ” I asked.
“Yes,” they replied. “The bistro is the bar area.”
“Ah,” I said, and it suddenly all became very clear: there is no “brand new” Le Pont Bistrot. It does not exist. It is an imaginary bistro. Food is merely being served in the recently annexed bar area, which needed modernizing a decade ago, with all the scabbled leather seating, mottled mirrors and damp bathrooms with broken soap dispensers knocked out and hurled into a skip. Instead, it looked like all of 7p had been spent on this particular “refurbishment” – that being the cost of the ink to print out the new menu.
We were led to an unclean leather banquette at a wobbly table. Our server brought a bottle of water that skidded about on its surface. “This table is wonky,” I said. “Can we move over there?”
“Oh, I think those are wonky, too,” she said, taking my order for salad cressonnière, a lesser-spotted classic out of the Escoffier cookbook, because someone, somewhere did at one point intends this place to be brilliant. The cressonnièreit must be said, was rather pretty, featuring duck egg, ratte potatoes and a gribiche dressing of egg yolks, pickled cucumbers, parsley and chervil. However, by the time Charles’s asparagus mimosa appeared – a forgettable arrangement of spears with a fringe of chopped egg – our small table was rather crowded.
Mains were less successful. Charles chose the £ 26 Sunday roast, and was given the crusted end of a Cumbrian beef rump that had, for the whole time, been curling under the heat lamp, and that came with some unlovable potatoes, green beans and a thin jus. We are truly in an age when the best place to eat Sunday lunch may well be at home.
My grilled plaice was overdone to unbearably mushy, which made it impossible to pull the skeleton from the soft, wet flesh. On the plus side, it came with a caper beurre noisette that had definitely been given some care and attention. The three unseasoned purple potatoes alongside were, however, upsetting.
Past this point in the meal, service all but evaporated, despite there being only two other tables to deal with. Regardless, I did demand a pet pot au chocolate. Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed that I have had several aborted attempts to order something sweet of late – staff shortages and general flakiness have turned pudding into something strictly for those willing to stand their ground – and, thankfully, a plate of long, thin , buttery, egg white and caster sugar chat languages biscuits appeared (as I’ve already mentioned, someone, somewhere does have some standards) with a ready-made chocolate pot that was absolutely inoffensive and sweetened me up when someone else’s cocktails were added to our bill.
For a bistro that does not wholly exist – or at least not in the manner expected – Le Pont still managed to prise £ 112.93 out of my purse, including £ 13.43 for service. I had hoped it would break my recent run of slapdash dining experiences, mais plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Le Pont Bistrot 36D Shad Thames, London SE1, 020-7403 8403. Open all week, lunch noon-2.30pm (3pm Sat, 3.30pm Sun), dinner 5.30-10pm (10.15pm Sat & Sun). From about £ 45 a head à la carte, plus drinks and service
The next episode in the third series of Grace’s Comfort Eating podcast is released on Tuesday 28 June. Listen to it here.