At first glance, The White Swan looks a lot like your average City boozer, albeit a nicely decked out one with its impressively wide, old-fashioned brass-topped bar, and it is full to the gills of a Friday evening with crowds of suited and booted bankers and lawyers. Look a little closer, however, and you can find a real hidden gem – tucked away upstairs, The White Swan’s first floor dining room serves refined, modern British cuisine in an elegant yet relaxed setting. Since it is just round the corner from my dining partner’s new office, it seemed a perfect place to stop for a Friday evening treat, and presented a great opportunity for me to write my next restaurant review.
On arrival, my dining partner and I were shown promptly to our table in the far corner of the small dining room. From here, we had a great view of the other tables and the rather imposing looking bar, with a well-stocked wine rack and rows of sparkling wine glasses suspended above it. We were brought some delicious flavoured bread rolls which we nibbled on while perusing the enticing looking menu. To start, I would probably have been most tempted by the scallop dish that was listed as a daily special. Unfortunately though, an apologetic waitress told us that they had already run out of this, and one of the special mains, something I found surprising as well as disappointing, as it was only 7.30pm. There was still plenty on the menu to choose from though, and my dining partner was thoroughly impressed by his rich and decadent starter of salt cured foie gras, smoked duck breast, pickled carrot, and Pedro Ximénez jelly. I was equally delighted by my own, beautifully presented choice of sautéed cod cheeks, glazed Old Spot pork belly, pickled turnips, cauliflower and nasturtiums. I had picked it out of curiosity really, having never before seen fish cheeks on a menu. Beside the fact that the pieces were round, and so in shape reminiscent of cheeks, they were really just like any other cod I’ve had before. They were, however, quite delicious, soft and flaky, and they went surprisingly well with the succulent pork belly. My favourite bit of the dish was actually the bit I struggled to identify – wafer thin slices of something that looked and tasted quite like apple dressed with a delicately sweet cinnamon sauce, but that I assume was something else since apple didn’t feature in the menu’s description of the dish. Whatever it was, the slight crunch and spiced sweetness it brought to the dish provided an excellent contrast to both the meat and the fish.
Moving on to main course, it was another animal’s cheek that took my dining partner’s fancy – an incredibly tender braised Cumbrian veal cheek, served with Savoy cabbage, glazed beetroot, soft polenta, and braising juices. I on the other hand, gave into curiosity once again – this time about the unusual combination of ingredients in my dish, pan fried fillet of wild, line-caught Guernsey sea bass, crisp chicken wings, Swiss chard, potato rösti, and a red wine jus. Fish with chicken wings, I asked myself? With a red wine jus, I wondered? Could this possibly work? In fact, while each element had its own appeal, and the Swiss chard and potato rösti would have been good accompaniments for either one, I wouldn’t have said that the chicken wings and the fish particularly complemented each other. The thick slab of sea bass was wonderfully fresh and cooked to a perfect flaky, texture with a brilliantly crisped skin that made a satisfying crunch sound as I took my knife and fork to it. My only criticism was that it was exceedingly salty, to the extent that the taste of the fish itself was almost entirely masked. The jus was very sparingly distributed on the plate, and I got the impression that any actual red wine had long since been cooked out of it. Luckily, the other elements of the dish didn’t suffer from such flaws. The bite-sized chicken wings had been carefully de-boned and were supremely succulent, while the potato rösti was a satisfying accompaniment and the slight bitterness of the Swiss chard cut through the richness of the rest of the dish. The starter and main course portions at The White Swan are on the generous side, so a side dish is definitely an optional extra, but my dining partner and I were tempted to try another interesting flavour combination in the form of leek and chestnut mushroom gratin. This particular one was a clear winner, a refined form of comfort food – the tangy, slightly oniony flavour of the leeks contrasted well with the nutty, earthy mushrooms, and were brought together beautifully by the creamy, cheesy sauce.
Although by now we were both fairly stuffed, neither my dining partner nor I could resist The White Swan’s dessert menu. My dining partner’s choice of Espresso and Tia Maria parfait with espresso caramel was perfectly balanced between bitter coffee and sweet liqueur. It was just a slight shame that the cold parfait was served on a slightly warm plate, so that it was already starting to melt by the time it was brought to our table. My dessert of Forced Yorkshire rhubarb meringue tart, poached rhubarb, and rhubarb ice cream was an incredibly vibrant creation, the almost neon pink of the forced rhubarb a real treat for the eyes. It was also a fair treat for the taste buds – while the flavour of the rhubarb was a little overwhelmed by a lemony taste in the ice cream, it came through beautifully in the jelly-like topping to the meringue tart. The meringue itself was delectably light and fluffy and the granularity of the biscuit base provided a great contrasting texture. Despite this baking genius, my favourite part of the dish was the simplest – the poached rhubarb had an intense sweetness tempered by just a hint of vanilla. It had been only lightly poached so it still held its structure and retained a slight crunch which I found immensely satisfying.
The White Swan’s wine list is extensive to say the least, offering over 50 whites and over 60 reds by the bottle, ranging from entry level prices (under £25) to some higher end vintages (over £100). While 11 wines of each colour were offered by the glass, only 2 were priced under £8 for a large glass and I would have liked to see more of the entry-level wines made available this way. My dining partner went for a glass of the 2011 Côtes du Rhône, Les Galets, Vignerons D’Estezargues, France (£8 for 250ml), a well-balanced, medium-bodied red with hints of vanilla on the nose and a great fruity palate. I enjoyed a glass of the invigoratingly fresh, clean and minerally 2011 Picpoul, Domaine de Montredon, Picpoul de Pinet, France (£8.50 for 250ml) whose delicate nose of white flowers was a real delight. Having only had a glass each with the meal, we decided to treat ourselves with dessert. My dining partner enjoyed a glass of Burmester tawny port (£11), while I savoured every last drop of my glass of sticky, floral 2009 Tokaji Late Harvest (£11).
Service at The White Swan was somewhat lacking in personality – the various waiters and waitresses who served us throughout the meal seemed keen to engage with us as little as possible. It was nevertheless smooth and efficient, and the minimal interaction we had with the waiting staff left us free to enjoy each other’s company. As for how much a meal at The White Swan will set you back, be prepared to spend a fair whack. The White Swan is part of the tastecard scheme, so if you’re a member and book ahead as I did, you can get 50% off your food bill. But once you add on drinks and service, you’re still looking at over £45 per head (it would have been about £65 without the tastecard discount). With its slightly secret setting and innovative flavour combinations, The White Swan is definitely a good option for an enjoyable evening in the City. The food is, however, not without its flaws and it does feel a touch pricey. Overall then, we think The White Swan deserves a respectable three and a half Forks-Up.The White Swan 108 Fetter Lane London EC4A 1ES T: 020 7242 9696