The top of the Shard

The Editor discovers some delightfully put together pairings with a view
By Rob Allanson
The Oblix restaurant and its impressive views of London
The Oblix restaurant and its impressive views of London
It’s one of those iconic dining places in London that if someone asks you to dinner there, you ask what time and don’t hesitate.

Sure there are some amazing restaurants in London but not all carry the iconic view of the city that Oblix does, being up on the 32nd floor of The Shard.

The Shard is one of those buildings that totally dominate the London skyline. From the ground the top of this imposing building looks a long way off, some nights the cloud could be low enough it looks like it’s wearing a scarf, according to my daughter. But when you get in the fast lift up to the restaurant, your ears pop. It’s pretty high, and the views are breathtaking.

To cap if off the event was being billed as a ‘food pairing event to end all food pairings’, hosted by Diageo’s inimitable man-about-town Colin Dunn. So, challenge firmly accepted.

You see, Colin is one of those people who can hold a room, is packed full of knowledge having being around whisky for many years, and really does know how to tell a story or two. So already: the making of a magical evening.

The menu arrives and the list of whisky Colin has chosen is stunning. Selected from the Diageo Special Releases, the drams alone are worth the ticket price. The food reads equally as impressive: five courses chosen and put together by the chef to complement, contrast, and enhance the whiskies.

To start any good dining event the welcome cocktail or drink sets the tone, and given the cocktail this was going to be fun. An Old Fashioned is an Old Fashioned, right? I make them at home, classic and simple. But Oblix’s bar manager had decided to push the boat out, by taking the farmyard-laden and sweet nut driven Caol Ila 18 Years Old unpeated and enhancing all the sweetness locked in to it with a banana infusion. The inclusion of tonka bean gives it a base note of hay and added in floral and vanilla. You may be a little sceptical of banana and Caol Ila but it worked just right.

Bar set. So as the midwinter light bathed London and Mother Thames in a golden glow, my dining partner and I sat down to be impressed and have our taste buds astonished.

With full service going on, the event came into its own. It would have been a bad idea for Colin to try to hold the event as a group, so instead you and your dining partner effectively got a mini masterclass in whisky and food from the man himself as the evening went on.

“People want to explore their palates and see what whisky can do with food. This is something that wasn’t happening five or so years ago”

Colin, ever the thoughtful host, went round each table explaining the pairing, the whiskies, and sharing some tales.

The starting dish was a threesome of oysters, each garnished in a different way and designed to be eaten in a different order with the first whisky – Teaninich 17 Years Old.

The whisky itself is full of sweet marmalade, autumnal leaves, salt crackers. Fatty air dried meat, chilli honey and toffee pennies.

Its foil was the three oysters, each with a coating separately of dashi, yuzu and wasabi. The idea was to pour the whisky over the dashi, have it before the Yuzu and after the wasabi.

This kind of tasting you follow the orders. The first was sweet up front, the toffee of the whisky taking centre stage, then the oyster brought out the chill edge. Plenty of spice and then it just pretty much disappeared.

The second, the whisky before oyster, had those huge notes of caramel sweetness tempered with a huge salt brine and spiced element coming from the oyster and cods roe note.

The third option went saline then the spices. Whisky bringing the spice and balancing the wasabi punch.

In a moment in between the courses Colin told me that he has seen the rise of this type of high-end food pairings over the years. He added, “People want to explore their palates and see what whisky can do with food. This is something that wasn’t happening five or so years ago.”

Next up came pork belly, langoustine and rhubarb paired with the Glen Elgin 18 Years Old. Here the whisky, on its own giving huge vanilla fudge, tablet sweetness and salted caramel, really played to the pork’s sweetness but also enhanced the savoury depths of the dish with its slight saline quality and white pepper spiciness.

The rhubarb added a wonderful earthy and bitter element, which when you watered down the whisky, helped the dram give up up waves of flavour. It started to hit you bit by bit.

The main stepped up the game a little with the arrival of the Linkwood 37 Years Old, matched with a loin of venison, poached and grilled pears, and bitter chocolate.

Just as my dining partner and I were digging in, there were squeals of delight from another table. Actually, that is an understatement. It turns out Colin had been asking people to follow his instructions and chew the Linkwood in their mouths for 37 seconds. What this does is turn the whisky almost into a liqueur, giving it a very heavyweight mouthfeel and huge finish. This metamorphosis had clearly overwhelmed one of our fellow diners and they had had, as someone put it, “a Meg Ryan moment in whisky”.

However, back to the pairing; there is nothing quite like getting a meat and whisky pairing right, and this was outstanding. The heavy, gamey notes of the venison became a foil for the Christmas spices and dark toffee of the Linkwood, stripping the alcohol back to leave just the spices. The pears, two ways, brought out the sweetness of the whisky and balanced out the slight sulphury note. The whole dish started to become more meaty, more umami. Finally, the little artichoke chips give an earthy edge to the dish. There was an elegance to this where everything played its part.

When you get to this age its not always about power, it’s all about balance. I really could wear this out on the town as a cologne

So to the final act, and what a closing curtain it was as the whisky was announced as the Caledonian 40 Years Old, or “The Cally” to its friends.

The whisky itself is, well initially…Cognac? But no…it is sweet, marshmallow, cinnamon spice pep, burnt pears, ginger nut biscuits. Seriously syrup notes, long and sweet with bitter chocolate notes, coffee grinds and steamed milk.

Colin filled us in with a little of this great whisky’s background, “This is a veritable whisky. Back in the day, in the early 1900s, this accounted for 10 per cent of all the output of Scotland. When you get to this age its not always about power, it’s all about balance. I really could wear this out on the town as a cologne.”

This was paired with a Mont Blanc, essentially an impressive looking chestnut and cream creation. As I am allergic to dairy, thankfully my fully functioning dining partner was able to take me through the gastronomic effects.

She told me it worked very well, adding, “The pudding was inspired. Both complimented each other with the wood element of the whisky integrated well. The dish and whisky were very good separately but together were outstanding.”

So, a food pairing to end all food pairings? Well I am not going to be turning events down when they come up but it certainly has set the standard impressively high.

I think for me it was as my fellow diner said; separately the food and the whisky were impressive, but together they were pretty outstanding.
Venison, poached and grilled pears and bitter chocolate
Venison, poached and grilled pears and bitter chocolate
Pork belly, langoustine and rhubarb
Pork belly, langoustine and rhubarb