I found myself invited to two very different terraces on the Thames Embankment yesterday. The Royal Horseguards Hotel, near Hungerford Bridge, is offering a Wimbledon-themed afternoon tea for the whole of this year’s Wimbledon fortnight – just the ticket for those of us who don’t like tennis, but who do like patisseries. And just off Waterloo bridge, a few hundred yards upstream, the terrace at Somerset House has been transformed for the summer into an open-air restaurant fronted by Tom Aikens, with a spectacular bar and summer-casual menu.
The Royal Horseguards is one of those super-swanky, highly polished, five-star hotels, all harpists in the lobby and marble floors. Doormen and concierges line the halls, and a customer visiting for tea is treated with as much care as one staying in one of the most expensive suites. We were there to visit the very pretty terrace café, shaded by a line of plane trees along Victoria Embankment.
The Wimbledon tea is only running for a couple of weeks, so you’ll have to get in there quickly – and then you can sit back and be spoiled for an hour or so while you work your way through a very generous and gorgeously presented high tea. Proceedings open with a strawberry and grenadine Bellini, to glug your way through while you listen to Big Ben clanging away in the background before a big silver pot of tea arrives.
We were served (underarm) a long glass tray packed with pretty little patisseries, two glasses of a strawberry and Pimms consommé and a bucket of white chocolate truffles masquerading as tiny tennis balls – totally charming, tooth-hurtingly rich, and utterly addictive. Joanne Todd, the hotel’s new pastry chef, is behind this very frivolous and very romantic (seriously – take someone you want to impress, because those tennis balls alone will work wonders) outing; she’s only been at the hotel for a couple of weeks, and if this tea is anything to go by, there will be other good things in the Terrace Café’s future. The little cupcake with the logo was delicately scented with elderflower; that’s a perfectly squishy strawberry macaroon with a perfumed rose ganache hiding behind it, and a strawberry vacherin. The little truffles come with three fillings: champagne, strawberry and a fresh, creamy mint that I could have kept eating all afternoon.
It’s just as well I didn’t, because a tray of scones came out next, two plain and two with fruit and spices – along with a ball of clotted cream so enormous you could have played tennis with it. The Terrace Café runs non-Wimbledon afternoon tea for the rest of the year, from £28 for the Champagne tea (finger sandwiches, pastries, a cream tea and all that good stuff) down to £13.50 for the Westminster Tea, a straightforward cream tea. It’s well worth a visit if you’re having a day out. I spotted one of the new intake of MPs and an actress I shall not name because she was obviously trying to have a private moment (not with the MP) while I was scarfing my scones. If you don’t have a date to take, head on over with your Mum to impress her with the crowd you mingle with.
I barely had time to get started on digesting tea before heading over to Somerset House to meet Tom Aikens and sit down for a meal at Tom’s Terrace, a pop-up restaurant overlooking the river. Tom’s Terrace opened at the end of April and will only operate for 22 weeks over the summer, closing in September – it’s packed out every evening, so you’ll need to book ahead. I hate to get all Enid Blyton, but food really does taste better outdoors, and Tom’s Terrace has been designed to make the most of the unpredictable English summer, with architectural covers over the tables, sculptural heaters (not used on the night I visited, when the weather was positively balmy) and coloured lights punctuating the restaurant.
The menu is short, outdoorsy, unpretentious and simple, full of good ingredients prepared well. There are beautifully selected charcuteries; a whole clutch of summery salads; grilled chicken; a burger cooked to a perfect medium-rare. (You can see the whole menu on the restaurant’s web site.) There are fat, truffle/parmesan chips, parboiled then fried twice to a shattering crisp outside, with fluffy middles. The coronation crab salad pictured here was sweet, fresh, and perfectly balanced – a dense, marie-rose-type sauce lifted with a very subtle dose of curry spicing, diced mango and toasted almonds had me swiping the inside of the empty glass bowl with my fingertips and sucking them. To top everything off, you’ll find a really interesting range of cocktails (and a short but well thought out wine list), which you can enjoy either at the table or at the bar area at the other end of the restaurant. It’s refreshing to find a bar that pays as much attention to non-alcoholic cocktails as it does to the boozy ones; ultimately, I couldn’t work out whether I enjoyed Tom’s Tequila or the virgin blueberry cocktail, made with floral syrups and fresh juices, more.
This is great summer’s evening stuff, pre- or post-theatre, or for sharing with friends. The staff are great – our table found itself sparking off competition between two bartenders over who could produce the best drink, and the service staff will bend over backwards to explain the menu and make suggestions if you get stuck. I could have stayed for hours longer, bibbing blueberries and ordering more mango rice pudding; I left at 10.30 to get my train with the greatest reluctance.
Many thanks to both restaurants for the invitations, and here’s to a great summer.