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Tall story: Oblix at The Shard

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Oblix restaurant, bar and lounge is the latest and very original creation from Rainer Becker, chef and restaurateur, at London’s iconic Shard. He talked to Jackie Mitchell about developing the concept

“When I first visited the Shard, I was instantly struck by the view,” Becker says. “It had that NewYork feel about it somehow and that followed on to my idea of a grill restaurant. I have been opening Japanese restaurants for many years so I wanted to do something different but still with components I like.”

A dedicated lift transports you swiftly to Oblix on the 32nd floor of the Shard skyscraper, the tallest building in London at 308m (1,012ft) and described as Europe’s first vertical city. Oblix is divided into two areas – the restaurant and the bar lounge. An atmospherically low-lit passageway leads to the restaurant. Flames from a gas fired deck oven can be glimpsed at the end, giving the first hint of a kitchen. Emerging from the corridor, you walk between the cold kitchen on the left and the hot kitchen on the right, with chefs at work. Suddenly the spectacular view of London hits you – a bird’s eye view of Southwark and St Paul’s Cathedrals, the BT Tower and the London Eye. No wonder the inspiration for Oblix came from this view.

As architect Claudio Silvestrin says: “I’m most proud of my revolutionary idea that allows customers to enter the dining space through the kitchen, experiencing colours, sounds and aromas before being seated. The two areas – formal dining and the bar lounge – are united by a tunnel. This has, intentionally, a cave-like perspective with soft lights leading, in contrast, into the restaurant zone bathed in light with dramatic views.”

Timeless luxury

For Stephen Arnold FCSI from Humble Arnold Associates (HAA) the dramatic open kitchen entrance to the restaurant is one of the highlights of the project. “On a bright day the impact of the view as you walk through the kitchen is awesome,” he says.

Working with Silvestrin and Becker, HAA has designed the kitchen as well as the bar. Inside the restaurant, the décor is simple and understated with a ‘library’ section and its backdrop of books. There’s a sommelier’s station, where customers can taste wines and select their dinner choice. Silvestrin adds: “Natural materials were selected – raw, brownish, yellowish and reddish sand stone and porphyry for floor, walls and counters, copper and bronze liquid metal, marmorino, tan leather upholstery and ebony wood. This gives the restaurant a distinguished image of solidity, permanence and timeless luxury.”

Arnold has enjoyed a long relationship with Becker, dating back to the 1990s when Becker was executive chef at the Hyatt Carlton Tower (now Jumeirah Carlton Tower). “We became parents around the same time,” says Arnold.

Becker adds: “HAA worked with me on the original Zuma in London in 2002, so we have a great relationship. I was very pleased. They not only executed my vision for Oblix as I saw it, but also improved it. The challenge was to create a very functional kitchen, but also a showpiece as customers walked in.”

They will be working together again at a new branch of Roka in London’s Aldwych in 2014.

Technical achievements

During the construction process of Oblix, which started in September 2012, the biggest hurdle was the transportation of all materials and equipment up 32 floors in a service lift. In addition, the owner of the Shard, Sellar Property Group, had rules governing the weight and size of equipment. This meant that large pieces had to be packaged in a compact way. “Everything had to be structured and pre-advised,” says Arnold. “Nothing could just ‘turn up’ with a delivery note – the owner needed to know about everything that was being delivered.”

“By far the biggest piece of equipment, in terms of sheer size and weight, was the bespoke Bonnet Maestro cooking suite, measuring 4.2m long and 1.5m and weighing 1,350kg,” adds Arnold.

There are two other restaurants above and below Oblix – Aqua Shard on level 31 and Hutong on level 33, as well as the Shangri-La hotel above. This meant there were restrictions on several services such as drainage because of other tenants’ space. “We had to ensure there weren’t too many holes in the floor and that we weren’t going into spaces that weren’t ours,” says Arnold. “There were only three drainage points – that was a huge challenge. But of course all this work is hidden, so people don’t know about it, but we feel immensely proud of these technical achievements.”

Sharing the good vibes

HAA has optimised every centimetre of space in the hot and cold kitchens, says Arnold, ensuring the working aisles weren’t too big. “If there’s too much space between the cooking zone and pass, it’s less efficient for the chefs as they have further to walk in between pieces of equipment.”

Becker thinks the kitchen design complements the vision for the restaurant. “It makes for an enjoyable working environment, creating a better guest experience, making them more part of what we do. And the layout simply creates better chefs; they can’t lose their temper because they are in full view of our guests. They find a better way to work together, which makes for a better team.”

Key pieces of equipment include the pizza oven from Clay Ovens, Labesse Giraudon rotisseries from Bonnet and the Josper charcoal oven.

Becker says: “Rotisseries are really great for slow cooking, however the Josper cooks things at a really high temperature and still retains the tenderness of the meat. The Josper is essential for big cuts, and I like the way you can control the smoky flavour.”

The Bonnet bespoke cooking suite includes areas for the cooked meat from the rotisserie to rest before serving, adds Arnold. The suite includes multiple surface induction hobs. “Heat emission is so much lower with induction and improves the working environment. It also minimises the extraction flow and this means the size of fans are reduced, as well as the related ductwork.”

 Shards of ice

Oblix bar and lounge also provides a buffet table at lunch time, dinner menu in the evenings and brunch at the weekends, as well as live music.

HAA worked with Claudio Silvestrin to create a 11.5m long curved bar, made from white porphyry stone. The aim of the design was to highlight the ice blocks that Becker first introduced to London in 2002 with the opening of Shochu Lounge. Each block, weighing 27kg, is made from purified water and bar staff use an enormous knife to carve it.

The glass-like ice takes much longer to melt, thus not diluting the drink, only chilling it.

Jackie Mitchell