When the Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951, Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous British conductor, predicted that no one would ever go there, as it was "South of the River", where no one of quality would be seen. Times have changed, and the South Bank complex with its three concert halls and the National Theatre with three stages - not to mention the Old Vic Theatre - is a magnet for the culturally inclined. The area is not hugely endowed with restaurants and although music may be the food of love, even the most pallid aesthetes need building up a little.
Occupying a prime position overlooking the river, with one of London's finest views, the People's Palace restaurant is a spacious, light and airy 200 seater. I found it relaxing with a hum of conversation rather like that of a busy senior common room.
The cooking is what is now called Modern British - the consultant chef is Gary Rhodes one of the UK's top media star chefs, who has done much to rehabilitate British cookery through the example of his work at the Michelin starred The Greenhouse and his TV series and books -Rhodes around Britain.
The People's Palace does not set out to be a haven of haute cuisine, but it's yet another first rate example of style, quality and value for money that is establishing London as one of the best eating places of the world. The front of house team of Nico Pannevis and Sion Parry came from the Ritz Hotel and head chef Stuart Busby was souschef at the The Greenhouse which belongs to the same owners as the Peoples's Palace.
There's a two course table d'hote lunch for a modest Stg 10.50, alongside the same carte as in the evening. For concert goers who want sustenance before the overture, the restaurant opens at 5.30pm, and you can still order from the table d'hote until about 7.00pm.
As we arrived just before 8.00 pm, we ate from the a la carte menu which is concise but good and changes every two or three weeks. Everything is prepared in-house from breads to ice-creams. Since many diners are pushed for time, the dishes have to be capable of being prepared quickly and it would be all to easy to re-heat tarted up pre-cooked stuff, but such an easy but downhill route has been carefully avoided.
From about six possible starters we chose a rillette of smoked and fresh salmon (Stg 4.50) and foie gras and chicken liver parfait (Stg 5.00). The salmon had the proper texture of rillette with a good smokey flavour. The foie gras was beautifully creamy and smooth and not overpowered with chicken liver. Both portions were large, and would make a jolly nice snack to have before a show - you could come back afterwards to complete the meal! Other starters I might well have chosen included grilled goat's cheese with marinaded aubergine and courgette (Stg 5.50), and chorizo lardon crouton and mustard seed salad (Stg 4.50).
From about eight main dishes on offer we chose the chargrilled calves liver (Stg 15.00) which came on a bed of creamed potato with a sage and bacon vinaigrette. The piquancy of the sauce was a perfect foil for the richness of the liver, and although it was another vast portion, I cleaned my plate! We were recommended to try the roast pork belly with apple sauce and mustard grain salad (Stg 8.50). We probably wouldn't have chosen this particular dish unprompted, but I'm glad we did. It illustrated perfectly how professional chefs can transform a simple homely dish into something really outstanding. First source your raw materials - the meat itself was superb - then finish off the crackling to perfection. Pork crackling that good is to die for!
Other dishes I was tempted to try included grilled tuna fish with spiced couscous salad (Stg 13.00) and baked mushroom and shallot tart (Stg 7.00).
For pudding, I asked for a melange of desserts, outstanding was a pavlova filled with pear apple and plum compote, and the ice creams. The passion fruit sorbet was a model of how good sorbet should be, with none of that sticky, syrupy texture. This one melted to fresh pure fruit. The cheese platter was a little under ripe for my taste. Puddings and cheese are all Stg 4.00.
Given that many pre-show diners may not want to send themselves to sleep by drinking too much wine, we thought we'd try some wines by the glass. We started with a nice crisp glass of champagne (Stg 6.50), then a fruity Cotes du Rhone (Stg 3.50 ) and a really excellent glass of 1987 Rioja (Stg 3.50) whose oak and fruit had melded to a velvety finish.
From the number of diners on a Thursday evening in January I concluded that restaurant goers have discovered that the People's Palace is a good place to go even if you are not attending a concert or a play.
Conclusion: For those who enjoy good cooking without unnecessary elaboration or massive choice, the People's Palace offers excellent value for money. Service is professional and unfussy. Nicholas Pointon, January 1996
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