The venture is hugely ambitious in scale, 130 seat restaurant, private dining room, another 60 seats outside, a bar and a deli. For someone who went into administration back in 2008, it represents a mighty comeback and he's clearly found financial backers with deep pockets to bankroll what must be a contender for Canary Wharf's largest restaurant.
Clearly Aiken has two brands running parallel, the fine dining brand (Tom Aikens Restaurant) and the brasserie brand (Tom's Kitchen) where they clearly state 'Tom's Kitchen serves comfort food favourites in a relaxed and informal environment'. The outcome is that Canary Wharf folk still have yet to get a fine dining restaurant that is capable of winning a star, and Tom's Kitchen is yet another restaurant serving up comfort food in the Wharf pitching it in the same bracket as so many other nearby offerings.
Of course, Tom's Kitchen would argue they do it better and in fact, at the margin, they do. However, for this small uplift in quality, expect to pay big bucks. If you want cheese straws to nibble on at the table ahead of your meal, that will be £4.50. Macaroni Cheese is served as a starter and costs £7.75. In the restaurant, have it as a main, and it will set you back £12.80. Have macaroni cheese as a bar snack main and it's charged at £15.50 (why it's more expensive in the bar we don't know). Macaroni cheese then costs more than the beefburger and chips. Goodman Canary Wharf meanwhile charge £5 for their Mac and Cheese, truffle sauce and Parmesan as a side dish giving some sense of the extra margin Tom's Kitchen must be making on this dish. I actually couldn't resist ordering it as a starter just to see whether a £7.50 Macaroni Cheese would take me all the way to heaven. It didn't. At first I thought it was even a little bland but by the end of the plate, thought that it was a nicely executed dish. But £7.50, really? The other starter was a Caesar Salad (£7.80) where they were clearly trying hard to elevate the dish a little and did a fair job. Also on the starter menu (not tried), chicken liver & foie gras parfait (£13.50) and pan fried foie gras (£15.30) seem more Michelin than brasserie and not for the last time we wonder what this restaurant really wants to be, and who it is aimed at.
For the mains it was a steak sandwich (£16.75), together with fishcakes (£14.50) and triple cooked chips (£4). In the attempt to differentiate themselves here, the steak sandwich is open, buried under greens, with the flavours of the steak lost in balsamic or whatever it was dressed in. Rather than a steak sandwich, it was more of a steak bruschetta and made us think that if you are, as a goal, looking to serve comfort food, don't gussy it up like this and so lose the point all together. It comes with a home made tomato ketchup which also leaves us wondering why? Another case of trying to show how clever they are when in reality, most people would prefer Heinz? Fish cake and triple cooked chips is quite nice and broadly delivers though again, at £18.50, it really should.
Service was attentive and keen though the fact that the restaurant is new and they are still settling in is apparent. They did however genuinely come across as a team that want you to enjoy the meal and the above observations on the steak sandwich, when shared with the waitress as feedback, not a complaint, were taken very seriously by the restaurant and saw the dish taken off the bill.
Tom's Kitchen is we guess more of a lunchtime than a dinner spot, for during the lunch service, it has a captive Canary Wharf audience. Early on a Friday evening, the restaurant was only sparsely populated though drinkers filled the bar round the other side of the building. We can't help but suspect however that a strategic error has been made here. It is not a fine dining restaurant which would really have differentiated it, and that's where the bankers spend the big bucks and where they have their expensed lunches. We would imagine that most diners here are likely to be dipping in to their own pocket and that means they will want value as well as quality and it's not clear that £15 macaroni cheese delivers that. Despite the rumour, in Canary Wharf, the streets are not lined with gold.
Our conclusion then: competition in the quality restaurant market might be slim in Canary Wharf, and the place is full of rich bankers, but to benefit from that, a greater coherency to the offering is needed in our view. Not fine dining enough for the seniors, not cheap enough for the juniors. And it's a very big restaurant.