City Social: British food without gimmicks

High old time

Lisa Hilton finds Jason Atherton’s City eyrie flirty, sexy and a little bit louche

Eating Out

A friend who had recently returned from New York called me from his home in Moscow. “What a completely crap city!” he groused. “Nothing works, everything’s a hassle, it’s hideous, the food is disgusting…”

“I used to like the polar bear in Central Park”, I ventured.

Maybe the cleverest thing that Russia ever did was pretend it lost the Cold War. Consider: a vast geographical territory governed by an unstable demagogue, where the two-thirds of the population who have never left the country are fed a constant diet of propaganda which assures them that they live in the greatest nation on earth. Shamefully low rates of literacy, shamefully high levels of poverty and infant mortality. A legislature enslaved to a vast military-industrial complex with pretensions to world domination, a crumbling and outdated infrastructure, a Byzantine tax system, one of the highest rates of income inequality among developed countries. Where are we?

It astonishes me that anyone can still use the phrase “American Dream” with a straight face, yet it remains as linguistically sacrosanct as the adjectives inevitably tripped out to describe New York. “Buzzy”, “vibrant”, “energetic” are required and duly repeated because to suggest otherwise is heresy. Maybe, if you come from Holesville, Utah, NYC still looks like a big thrill but it’s a provincial’s fascination. Stripped of the clichés, New York is just another big city, whence the people who made the edge for the people who made the money are long since fled. 

Jason Atherton, whose Social Company has grown from the opening of his first London venture Pollen Street Social in 2011 to incorporate more than ten restaurants worldwide, opened City Social five years ago. Situated on the twenty-fourth floor of London’s Tower 42, the restaurant has often been compared to a New York dining experience, which demonstrates no more than the persistent reflex of “tall building equals Manhattan” as the food is far better than anything I ate when I lived there. Aside from a rather unpleasant surprise of a “tomato bruschetta” served as an amuse bouche which turned out to be a tomato sorbet on toast — flavourful but a bit shocking to the unwary tooth — dinner was absolutely faultless.

The luxy gold and black vibe of the space was reflected in the colours of our starter of lobster tortellini with squid ink and fennel, plump, plutocratic parcels of crustacean in a velvet bisque tinged with yuzu, the sharpness of citrus and the aniseed notes of the fennel really amping up the flavour contrast with the meat. Squid ink can often be a bit dense and monotone but its use was so sure-handed that it enhanced, rather than enveloped. 

The Deco interior is a bit archly Eighties but it riffs successfully on a Bonfire of the Vanities, Master of the Universe feeling

Mains of venison with celeriac, carrots, black garlic and cep were everything one could wish from autumn game — bloody and bosky, with a hint of smokiness from the garlic to temper the soothing, elusively nutty note of the celeriac. The confidence of the menu’s pairings continued into a white chocolate mousse with “textures of strawberries” and an astringent twist of sorrel.

Atherton has built his reputation on serving British food, and City Social shows how effectively indigenous ingredients can move beyond the obvious without resorting to gimmickry. It won its star within six months of opening, and while the quality of food and service in the formal restaurant is correspondingly excellent, the real joy of eating there might be the long, expansive bar space. There’s an Olympian drinks list and a brilliant selection of bar snacks, including truffle arancini and goat’s cheese churros, fantastically priced at £6, as well as some solid full-plate classics such as fish and chips and chicken salad, at an accessible £16. 

As a means of enjoying the view and the decor I can’t think of anything more intelligently cheerful. Sipping a proper Old Fashioned alongside a serious steak might make you feel you’ve been transported to the Rainbow Room in its heyday. Atherton has got the pitch of the service just so — formal where required, without being stuffy — and a particular nod goes to the lovely waiter who carried my macchiato all the way to the bottom of the tower and waited to return the cup so I could have a fag. 

City Social is definitely buzzy and vibrant; it’s also glamorous, spectacular and democratic. The Deco interior is a bit archly Eighties but it riffs successfully on a Bonfire of the Vanities, Master of the Universe feeling. This is a place for operators, for serious players who want to have fun, which in these times is enough to give it just the right amount of dirty. It’s a long time since I’ve eaten in a restaurant which actually felt sexy, but City is flirty and seductive and a little bit louche. Maybe like New York used to be.

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