A birthday is as good an excuse as any to enjoy a dinner out. As it happened, my 30th trip round the sun brought around several such occasions in rapid succession. Firstly, a fantastic dinner at the reliably brilliant Upstairs at Trinity in Clapham and the very next evening, a night of hilarious opulence and classic hospitality at Otto’s. So it’s the 10th of June and we’re two for two. Then we get to Sea Containers.
Sea Containers has long been on my radar as a middle of the road, inoffensive, somewhat reliable restaurant on South Bank – an area where there are surprisingly scant options (without going east into Borough or deeper south into Southwark).
With friends though, reliable and inoffensive are highly desirable qualities. A catch-all restaurant that guarantees even the fussiest Freddie can enjoy their meal without too much ado? Sign me up.
As such, I was expecting an unfussy meal of decent quality, perhaps erring on the slightly more expensive side of reasonable. This restaurant though, now in its 8th year, seems in fairly urgent need of money, as they’re apparently so keen on taking lots of mine. Sea Containers is housed inside a fairly swish hotel, so I wasn’t expecting a bargain, but this was absurd.
The first inkling of this desire for our hard-earned cash was a portion of watery, over-mayonnaised, under-seasoned crab on barely-toasted bread. It was a limp-wristed, frankly appalling way to start any meal, costing an abhorrent £18. I once had the same dish, but executed to a far higher standard, for £9 at the excellent Andrew Edmunds of Soho. I’m fully aware we can’t compare the two restaurants, but what is it the kids say, ‘hashtag just sayin’?
Breadcrumbed testicles served with their former contents were next up. The menu insults any virtuous Caribbean flavours by calling these banal balls “Jerk Pork Croquettes” with “Coconut Yoghurt” but don’t be fooled. The ethics advisor for this chef must have just resigned in disgust because this was an odious breach of the diner-restaurateur code of conduct. The pork was so unappealingly dry and lacking any kind of fatty, piggy flavour I was beginning to wonder if it was indeed pork and not air dried beaver testis. And the yoghurt? A cooling coconut-cream, slightly funky yoghurty thing? No. A terrible ejaculate of over-spiced nothing. Take equal measure of ASDA own brand mayo and blended scotch bonnet chilli and one can recreate the garish experience at home for a fraction of the cost – although the cost to one’s soul is of course immeasurable. The penalty for this punishment is £13. At 13 pence it would be overpriced.
The seabass ceviche tacos were fine. Here be the catch-all inoffensive food I was expecting. But when a restaurant’s best dish (by a fairly long way) can only plumb the depths of mediocrity there are serious issues. And a towering £16 for a few bites of mini-tacos? I was beginning to suspect I was the target of some cruel birthday prank; Ashton Kutcher is about to jump out, camera crews leaping forth from the tables – everyone was in on it, just a hilarious overzealous stunt. I should be so lucky.
Now, dear reader, I take this next part rather seriously. And I make no specific allegations of any wrongdoing on the restaurant’s part, however the three of us shared a plate of six (distinctly average) oysters and two of us were horribly sick within 72 hours.
Squatting on the throne 15 times a day really gives one the time to reflect on one’s life choices. Indeed if karma does exist maybe this experience was merely the universe balancing things out. After all, I ate exceptionally well at Trinity and at Otto’s, just days before. So now, this.
Upon revisiting the menu and the website I can’t see any specific advice from the restaurant, however I would encourage any brave potential future diner at Sea Containers to sell a kidney, perhaps a child, or maybe remortgage their houses in order to afford the ruinous prices. A sharing steak will set two of you back around £80, a roast chicken is £50; one could easily expect to pay around £38-£45 for a main dish. If it’s Mayfair, that’s to be expected. If it’s Exceptional or World Class in The Good Food Guide – fine. But here? We opt for what transpires to be a lame duck of a dish – a whole seabass which arrives under-seasoned and lazily (read: badly) de-boned.
Sides at £6 are not entirely unreasonable if of course they are, what’s the word… good. At this rate we’d settle for “edible”, yet astonishingly the kitchen managed to serve a Mac and Cheese under a BP oil slick, a cast iron dish of rubber pellets (I’m later informed these were in fact new potatoes) and a slug of watery, bland green beans. Yuck.
The wine list fails to offer any redeeming qualities as a relatively inexpensive bottle (for this list at least) of Chilean Chardonnay, still comes in at £49. Available from online retailers for just over a tenner, we’re into 450% mark-up territory here. Once again I find myself dreaming of Andrew Edmunds and their eternally affordable wine list. In fact the very minimal, highly money-grabbing list of Sea Containers has just 3 bottles priced at under £40. Andrew Edmunds has over 50.
Still holding out hope somewhere deep in my heart for a candle and a pie to the face, that it was all a ruse. Sadly, no such luck as dessert arrives. The flavourless mille-feuille does nothing but increase the bill further, given the requirement for emergency dentistry thanks to the vast quantities of unrefined sugar screaming from this dish. The pastry, which should be gossamer thin, yet ethereally structural, is an overly dense thug of a thing, consuming far too much of the plate and, subsequently, my arteries.
The hotel guests here at Sea Containers must unite and demand better. I’m deeply concerned that after spending several hundred pounds a night to stay upstairs they’ll stumble into the dining room after a night on the town, forget, or simply not know, they’ve already missed out on a thousand better restaurants elsewhere, and part with a significant portion of their children’s inheritance, only to be left with a searing void of deep unbridled regret. A birthday to remember? Unforgettable – but not exactly for the right reasons.
*It should be noted that I have since raised the potential food poisoning incident with the restaurant, who have employed a third party to investigate the matter.
20 Upper Ground
by Mike Daw