The roof of Selfridges is a glorious spot to eat on a warm summer's day in London. OK, those may be as elusive as a debt agreement, but if you can get a table, just say … maybe.
Vintage Salt occupies the regularly changing space, whose previous residents have included a crazy golf course and a Swiss ski chalet. The present incarnation is inspired by a Cornish fishing village and it's a pretty crowded one.
This isn't the finest fish restaurant in London. But it is the best one on the roof of a department store on Oxford Street. (There is a terrestrial version in the City of London: It's housed on the ground floor of an office block near Liverpool Street. The views are less impressive.)
Back on Europe's busiest shopping street, there's a muted "welcome" from a greeter in the elevator. She probably told her careers officer she wanted to travel and hadn't meant up and down in a lift. Things improve when you reach the restaurant: You receive a cheery welcome and the service doesn't falter.
A good way to start the meal (and finish it, and to hang around afterward) is with Monte del Fra Chiaretto, an Italian rosé at 35 pounds ($54.43). It's fruity without being sweet and puts you in a good mood—unlike the three overpriced Moet et Chandon Champagnes on the otherwise acceptable wine list.
The food is uneven and is pretty much what you would expect for a place feeding so many diners so quickly. The best thing I ate was the fried cod, which costs 15 pounds and came with chips and mushy peas: real ones, not guacamole substitute. The batter, made with Camden Hells beer, was light and golden. The fish was soft and moist.
If this were Wimbledon, that fish would be the No. 1 seed.
But the chips were chewy, as if they had been originally chipped from ice. The Heinz ketchup and the Sarson's vinegar on the side looked the part but did little to help.
A starter of London particular fritters was surprisingly appetizing for what is essentially a play on a ham-and-pea soup. The crispy breadcrumb coating gave way to a light-textured mix whose flavor was led by the sweetness of the peas. The Colman's (mustard) dressing was too insistent, like a drunk trying to make a point.
Other dishes were less interesting. A starter of spiced tuna tartare, avocado, and pickled cucumber was mushy. It was expensive, too, at 13.50 pounds. A main of Cornish shrimp burger was puckish: not ethereal, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but firm, as in hockey.
The one thing in short supply at Vintage Salt was, oddly enough, salt. Most of the dishes could have used a little more sodium.
For desserts, you don't really need to look further than strawberries and cream, which was artfully presented. (No extra salt needed.)
Vintage Salt is the brainchild of the chef Des McDonald, who has spent three decades in restaurants, including at two long-gone grills in the City. He went on to head Caprice Holdings, the owner of J Sheekey and Scott's.
McDonald knows his fish. But even Captain Birdseye might struggle to feed the multitude on the roof of Selfridges.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.
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