A Natural Selection? | Darwin Brasserie at the Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street London EC3M 3BY
When the email came round at the day job that the Walkie Talkie (or 20 Fenchurch Street to give it its proper name) was opening up its top three floors to the public, there was a real buzz. My colleagues all rushed to book their time slots to wander around the Sky Garden, set over the 35th, 36th and 37th floors of London’s newest skyscraper. Within this garden is the Sky Pod Bar – a cocktail bar set in a vast hanger like space, Darwin Brasserie and Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill – a more refined dining experience, all under the “rhubarb” catering group’s umbrella.
While everyone clambered for a weekend slot, we found that sneaking in on a Monday evening was a better option. Although sneaking up to the 35th floor is the one thing you won’t be able to do. Security is tight, first there’s the door man, who shows you to reception. Then reception checks your reservation and gives you a pass card and shows you to security. At security (about two metres away) they take your pass card, your belongings are passed through a scanner and you walk through a metal detector – just like at an airport. But instead of boarding a plane, you board an ear-popping express lift to the top floor.
When the lift opens you are confronted by a huge open space, not dissimilar to a futuristic spaceport. It looked a little like the set of a sci-fi movie or, as a friend pointed out, a James Bond film (think modernised Moonraker). But what gives it the real wow factor is the uninterrupted views along the Thames. London all lit up on a cold, clear night is spectacular, from Canary Wharf to Tower Bridge to the London Eye. What we loved most was the peacefulness and the views of our beloved Shard, standing proud on the opposite side of the river.
We were early so snatched the chance to look at the Sky Pod‘s cocktail menu, not a bad selection and from £11.50, not too expensive (especially compared to other hi-rise bars). Be warned though, it was cold and most customers and staff had their coats on, but it was cosy with lanterns flickering, hot cocktails on the menu and you can snuggle up with cashmere blankets.
I bet in the summer the opposite will be true, it’ll be like a giant tropical greenhouse but we hear there’s the promise of boozy ice-cream shakes and deck chairs. The actual Sky Garden served its purpose, not exactly a public park as promised, but it offers brilliant views – just don’t expect to be able to roll up and have a picnic. The sloping ‘garden’ reminded me of a pimped up version of the first Center Parcs when it opened in Sherwood Forest 25 years ago (yes it really did open in 1987) with a big of Vegas thrown in.
Time to drag ourselves away from the views and go eat. The Darwin Brasserie is basically a large box that overhangs above the Sky Pod’s Bar. If your suffer from vertigo best ask not to be seated by the ceiling to floor widows, but then again if you have a fear of heights you won’t be up here away!
Decor is smart and functional – natural stone tiles on the walls and bleached oak flooring blend well with the muted brown and cream colour scheme. Simply set tables were filled with suited businessmen and tourists alike, whilst the random jazz playlist blended with the diner’s chatter to create a relaxed atmosphere. We skimmed the wine list, the cheapest bottle of red is a Domaine des Pourthié Cabernet Sauvignonand £27, as per usual went for the cocktails.
These cocktails are all Charles Darwin themed as is the clever design of the drinks menu, with its little sketched diagrams of the ingredients. Saff’s Survival of the Figgest £11.50, was served up in a cute white ceramic fig. This was by far the sweetest of the four cocktails that we tried. And when I say sweetest, I actually mean the least acidic, I described them as ‘twisty’ and Saff knew exactly what I meant. For just one sip causes your head to involuntarily turn and the taste buds on your tongue to go into spasm. My Millionaire £11.50 was a prime example of this, first there was a hit of cherry followed by a wave of sharp, bitter lemon juice. Luckily I love sour drinks, I’d take this over a sweet fruity punch any day.
The evening menu just the right length to showcase their seasonal, home-grown ingredients (Darwin is also open for breakfast and lunch). Saff’s a sucker for a retro starter and ordered the Prawn cocktail with a Bloody Mary dressing £13.50, it was packed full of huge juicy plump prawns (including one with its shell still intact, but loosened to save any de-shelling agro) and soft-boiled quails eggs. Saff felt that there wasn’t enough of the sauce and too much shredded iceberg lettuce padding out the bottom of the iittala bowl. I chose the Ham Hock and Parsley Terrine £12.50 – a thick meaty slice of dense terrine served with a little pot of sweet crisp piccalilli and a couple of slices of lightly toasted sour dough. Both starters were possibly a little over-priced considering the portion size and quality of the main courses that were to come.
I just had to try the Braised ox cheeks £17.50, served with creamed potato & roasted roots (i.e. two baby carrots). The three cheeks were fall-apart tender and packed a rich meaty punch aided by the ‘I’d lick it off the plate if could’ sauce. The creamed potato was light and well seasoned and I loved the little chunks of pancetta, chopped button mushrooms and tiny sweet onions that all added texture to the meal.
Saff ordered the Goodwood Estate pork belly £15.50, that came with crackling, Puy lentils, heritage carrots and apple purée. The meat was a little dry in the parts, but the crackling was spot on. We ordered a couple of sides too – the Steamed spinach £5 was OK, but it’s hard to get too excited about spinach unless you’re Popeye (or Saff), plus it was a bit steep at a fiver. The super thick and chunky Chips £3.50 were winners, perfectly crisp outside and fluffy in the middle.
We always take an extra interest in desserts, as some restaurants treat them as an after thought. Have a brownie, try a fudge cake etc, Darwin has made a little more effort. My rich Chocolate pavé £7.50, with its crisp biscuit base and a banana and salted toffee ice cream was everything I want from a dessert. Saff ordered a Lemon tart £7.50 served with a big dollop of thick cream drizzled with blood orange marmalade.
Darwin could have easily just been a tourist trap, serving average food at ridiculously inflated prices – it isn’t, it offers good cooking and excellent service. Yes, the starters were expensive but the main course and desserts were fairly reasonable. Just pretend that the extra £5 or so you pay for the starter is the ‘admission’ fee for the stunning views over London. Our top tip – find out what time sunset is and book a table an hour before so you watch the sun go down and London light up, absolutely beautiful.
20 Fenchurch Street, London EC3M 3BY
Telephone: 0333 772 0020
Book a table online
Opening hours: Monday to Friday: 7am – 11pm
Saturday: 9am – 11pm Sunday: 11am – 6pm
Nearest station: Monument (3 mins walk) or Fenchurch Street (6 mins walk)
We ate as guests of the Darwin Brasserie, this does not affect our review in any way. We always write with complete honesty.