Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Rebecca Seal and reader Arlene Kessly compare notes on Sea Containers.
Rebecca Seal is a food and drink journalist and presenter on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. Her latest book, The Islands of Greece, is out now.
Arlene Kessly is a freelance health and beauty writer living in Kingston-upon-Thames. Her favourite restaurant dish is salt and pepper squid at Busaba Eathai.
Sea Containers is the flagship restaurant at South Bank’s new Mondrian Hotel. It’s inspired by ‘the golden age of transatlantic travel’, and as such, New Yorker Seamus Mullen’s menu is a marriage of American and English cuisine, with an emphasis on shareable plates (small, large and ‘for the table’). There are five raw fish options including tuna crudo, as well as seasonal salads and meaty mains such as double cut heritage pork chop.
From the doormen to the floor staff, service was smiley without being cloying. We had to wait a while for our waiter to decipher the menu (it wasn’t clear how much one should order), and it was a little odd that despite being told we could only have a 6.30pm booking, the restaurant still wasn’t full two hours later.* I was not recognised.
On arrival we were greeted warmly and led directly to a well-placed table. Busily chatting and taking in the chic monochrome glamour of our surroundings, we kept our understanding waiter from taking our order for a while. Tap water was offered speedily, poured from an iced silver jug and our glasses replenished without the need to ask.
Oddly, considering the amount of investment and thought that has gone into opening Sea Containers, the quality of the food varied wildly. The kale salad was a lovely dish, studded with pecans, avocado and apple; but expensive, given that it’s essentially raw cabbage. Both the house-made ricotta and crab salad were good, but let down by the accompanying bread – chewy bruschetta with the latter, and what tasted like ordinary brown bread toast with the cheese. Main courses were seriously under-powered. The smoked lamb flatbread did have a smoky scent, but didn’t deliver in terms of flavour. Plus, we had to pull apart the green leaf garnish to decipher it as chopped mint. The lamb rump with ragout of beans was lukewarm and came with a meagre portion of beans, considering they’re a cheap ingredient. Dessert was another oddity – blind tasting, I would have struggled to identify the fruit in the blueberry meringue pie’s purple curd. Chef Seamus Mullen is much-loved in his home city of New York, but this kitchen seems over-stretched by the demands of his menu.
We had a selection of smaller dishes, as the menu encourages sharing. The vast bowl of healthy moreish kale salad, with avocado, apple and pecans, was the star of the show – I can’t wait to eat it again. We also relished a crab salad and charred eggplant with sesame and dates. My sole criticism of the smoky lamb flatbread was the over-charring of the edges. I fell in love with a hefty slab of decadently dense, deeply satisfying chocolate and chilli cake – more than adequate when shared between two. Freshness and vibrancy are my overriding memories of Sea Containers: vegans, veggies and omnivores are all spoilt for choice. Smaller dishes and ‘market salads’ are excellent value, but ‘large plates’ call for deeper pockets. As for drinks, the citrus-suffused ‘silver bullet’ cocktail resembled a lily pond in miniature and our waiter’s recommendation, the intriguingly named ‘Kung Fu Girl’ riesling from the USA, was a fitting accompaniment to our food.
The Bottom Line
Sea Containers’ striking dining room doesn’t look like the average hotel restaurant (although serving chips with a mini jar of Heinz mayo was a reminder), and its views out onto the Thames at night are gorgeous. But the kitchen needs to sort out seasoning and portion sizes before I return.
FOOD 5/10; ATMOSPHERE 7/10; SERVICE 7/10; REBECCA’S TOTAL: 19/30
Sea Containers is striking and practically designed, with glorious panoramic views through generous windows, showcasing London’s glorious Thameside architecture. We are already planning our next visit.
FOOD 9/10; ATMOSPHERE 9/10; SERVICE 10/10; ARLENE’S TOTAL: 28/30
Sea Containers Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) Rating:
Sea Containers is proud that the vast majority of produce it serves is British, and all of the meat is free-range, while the lamb and chicken is also organic. Despite having opened only recently, the restaurant has a progressive approach to the environment using surplus food for staff meals and recycling almost all possible items. It would be good to see more water saving measures.
Written December 2014