Lasdun, London: excellent food, soul-nourishing architecture
It’s not often that I deliberately turn up half an hour early for a review, just so I can stare at the building. But Lasdun, a new venture by Jon Rotheram, Tom Harris and John Ogier (also of The Marksman) is something quite exceptional. It’s in the National Theatre on the South Bank and, while I’ve never concealed my kink for British modernism, I worry that my very particular obsession with this example might cloud my judgment.
Everyone, from HM the King to a bus driver passing over Waterloo Bridge, gets to have an opinion on Sir Denys Lasdun’s masterwork. Most of them conclude that it’s a stack of concrete bunkers, ugly and “brutalist”, while whiffling something about inhuman scale and Stalinism.
The smart move, though, is to turn up at the embankment level main entrance to see what it’s really about. The front doors look out upon the glory of the Thames over what was originally a main concourse in the Festival of Britain — a phenomenal celebration of national pride and recovery on land that had been bombed flat during the war. Looking up at the underside of the massive “blocks” you see a light, waffle-like tracery that simultaneously reminds you of the vaulting of magnificent religious buildings and sets up a secondary “grid” for the entire structure at a 45 degrees skew. Viewed in plan, half the walls are at unexpected angles. It’s an entirely different, soaring and uplifting image from down here. To a zealot like me, it’s a celebration of humanity’s collective potential that’s every bit as inspiring as any great cathedral is in celebration of God.
Though there’s a convenient outside route, you can enter the restaurant through the main entrance of the theatre so you’ll see how it “hangs” as if suspended from the vaulting, a large glass pane overlooking the bustle of the foyer below.
The interior could not be more beautiful. It’s a single long room, the foyer window at one end mirrored by a view over the Thames at the other. A promising-looking bar runs along one side and the lighting is low and rakes the surface of the walls. This brings out their texture, which is the imprint of the rough wooden shuttering Lasdun used to cast the concrete. It cradles you as surely as some rustic wooden cabin. God, it’s breathtaking. “Brutalism” was never the pejorative most people presumed it to be but referred instead to béton brut, or raw concrete, a style pioneered and perfected by Le Corbusier. At this close, it is warm and humane.
The food, to my utter delight, operates in tune with the architecture. It’s pointedly British but with inspiration from Europe. It’s austere but elegant and it honours its materials rather than obscuring them with decoration. There’s black treacle sourdough and salted butter to start. There’s a snack menu featuring the justly famed beef bun from The Marksman — bread dough wrapped around an intensely flavoured mince, rolled to about the size of a billiard ball then steamed and baked. It has qualities of bagel and bap, but is unique and a generous act of self-care.
Initial gnawing hungers assuaged, it was time to lean back in the rigorously modernist armed chair and examine the wildlife. Though the place had been nearly empty when I arrived, it was now occupied by a sort of hyper-aesthetic ethnographic cluster. Very white, skewing towards retirement, sympathetic and expensive haircuts making best advantage of grey and some highly designed eyewear. All suggested “serious” theatre, comfortable wealth and a hint of the proprietorial. I had the subtle feeling that I was sitting in a private club at which, though tolerated, I could never be considered for membership.
My plan to view the room while empty had been quickly thwarted by the pre-theatre rush, so I consoled myself first with examination of the light fittings, and then the Norfolk leeks, asparagus, goat curd and hazelnuts. All poached and served cold (except for the light fittings), and dressed with the same impressively tasteful and costly restraint as the diners.
Terrines trouble me. I yearn for the looser texture of a rustic pâté and bread on which to smear it, but here I’m presented with something more structurally significant, cast as if in a mould and to be eaten with utensils. The guinea fowl and Tamworth pork combine sublimely, a burnt pear purée gilds and brightens, but I’m still stuck with the sensation of slicing Spam and eating it with a fork.
I feel on more comfortable terms with a lobster. I am on record as someone who considers lobsters to be widely misused in London — they usually taste like they’ve been cooked a while ago, with their exact time of death wilfully concealed by grilling and garlic butter. This one was so damn fresh it tasted like it had swum up the Thames and been walked across the South Bank by a friendly KP. It was cooked as close to sashimi as legally permitted. The chips were hand-whittled and the mayo abundant.
These are early days for the team at Lasdun. Though I exaggerate a little about the pre-theatre crowd, in a way their needs did impair my experience. There were one or two minor lapses in service as the crew tried to deal with the entirely predictable, cashmere-swaddled pitch invasion.
They will get better at it, though. The auspices are all there, so you should definitely go. Go for the excellent food. Go for the soul-nourishing architecture. Go later when the rush has passed, go in through the main entrance and go half an hour early.
Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1 9PX; lasdunrestaurant.com