Cool Britannia warming up?Those in doubt are invited to take their thermometers to London's new hot spots. While some chefs continue to play the long-running eject-the-critic game — the latest ejectee is Tim Zagat, whose ratings miffed Marco Pierre White — the temper tantrum is no longer the plat du jour. Humbled by fierce competition and patrons' gripes about high prices and indifferent cooking, savvy restaurateurs are responding with offerings that are more thoughtful, affordable — and friendly. Welcome to the next wave.
EAST END STORY
Five seconds ago Hoxton was "the next Notting Hill"; now London trend gurus are busy divining the next Hoxton. Will it be Noho?Sosho?Meanwhile, Hoxton itself retains the arty, unpasteurized feel that made wandering through New York's East Village in the eighties such an adventure. Only the East Village never had a restaurant like the Real Greek. A romantically obscure location is part of its cultish allure—"no, no, there are two Hoxton Markets!" diners yell on their cells to lost dates. Then there's the laid-back but edgy neighborhood vibe, the United Nations of waitresses with cute cockney accents, and vibrant Greek-revival cooking that out-Greeks the haute-Hellenic kitchens of Gazi or Kolonáki. Eating Theodore Kyriako's food is like seeing the Parthenon for the first time.
Beware of staff bearing mezedes: overindulging on scrumptious grilled lamb tongue, wine-braised octopus, and air-dried salami from Levkás might mean missing out on fagakia (small dishes) like the gloriously messy Greek pasta with chickpea dumplings. For main courses, briny grape leaves and roasted peaches flavor the smoky pork loin; an extraordinarily savory rack of lamb shares the plate with a warm grape salad and an irresistible zucchini-and-cheese pie. Desserts more than make up for years of bad baklava. Should I give you easy directions to the Real Greek?(Clue: Look for the Holiday Inn.) Nah. A meal this good calls for an Odyssey.
The future of Hoxton can be gleaned from the furiously happening scene around the restored Smithfield Market in nearby Clerkenwell. It's hard to believe that only two years ago, the EC1 postal code was considered too risky for banks to give Pascal Aussignac a loan. The young chef from Toulouse still scraped together enough cash to launch Club Gascon, and suddenly le tout London was clamoring for a taste of his foie gras. The good news for those unwilling to book weeks in advance: the space next door is now Cellar Gascon, a wine bar turned into a rustique-moderne bonbon by Sophie Douglas (she designed Momo). The Cahors and Marcillacs on the engrossing wine list dance with nibbles of Bayonne farmhouse ham and an encyclopedia of saucisses, saucissons, andouilles, and rillettes.
Over at Smiths of Smithfield, a virtual theme park of industrial chic dedicated to beef and booze (reserve at the fancier Top Floor), London carnivores finally get a much-deserved break from mad cow—induced terror.To vindicate British beef, the Australian-born TV chef John Torode scoured England for suppliers of organic livestock, all dutifully thanked on the menu's first page. Whether it's Welsh black sirloin or Islay rump, the meat can be ordered with a fantastic béarnaise or biting horseradish sauce; thick, crusty fries; and sugary snap peas. The package also includes interesting wines—grab one of those Allegrini reds—and glorious views. Everything about the place is so on the money, you'll barely notice that the meat is good but not great. Then again, we over-steaked Americans don't exactly have a right to complain.
HIGH AND MIGHTY
What is it that makes you quietly swoon while reading the terse franglais menu at High Holborn?Maybe the lusty promise of "halibut pot-au-feu" or "veal sweetbreads bourguignonne"?Or the quotation marks punctuating French terms—hinting that the Gallic grub will be delivered with a nudge and a wink?Actually, David Cavalier's cooking needs no tricks. His ultra-lush artichoke velouté poured around smoked squab slices and minced squab bundled in cabbage leaves can't be improved upon. Lightly breaded fried pig's trotters in a sharp, creamy gribiche sauce ooze earthy refinement. Classic desserts are reinvented with rose petals, lemongrass, spices, or coconut.
This four-month-old restaurant sits between Covent Garden and the City in a no-man's-land being touted for its rejuvenation potential. Well, Hoxton this isn't, and Wallpaper-worshiping East Enders would wince at the Ikea-yellow walls decorated with LifeSaver-bright glass globes (the swank basement bar is another story). But over there is Sir Trevor McDonald, the Barbadian elder statesman of British broadcasting, surrounded by younger faces from the telly. They look as if they're having the lunch of their lives.
MEANWHILE, IN THE WEST END
If there was a single restaurant that defined nineties London, it was the Ivy. But news of its sale to the Belgo Group, and the recent retirement of legendary impresarios Chris Corbin and Jeremy King sent London showbiz aristocracy searching for a successor—Madonna's visits notwithstanding. Enter chef Nico Ladenis and his very Ivy-esque Incognico, opened just a stage whisper away. The Ivy is a hard act to trump, but Ladenis and designer-of-the-moment David Collins are seasoned pros: by crossbreeding a Parisian brasserie (distressed mirrors, frisée aux lardons, waiters with Truffaut noses) with a gentleman's club (dark oak paneling, kidneys in mustard sauce), they've created a place that virtually demands that you dine here three times a week.
The food, mostly stripped of sauces and garnishes, has the classy, modest humanity of an Alec Guinness performance. Grilled baby Dover sole arrives seductively naked on a simple white plate; skate in caper butter has the same ravishing plainness. For heartier appetites there's a soulful, burnished osso buco and an expertly handled moist confit of duck. The cappuccino is as good as anything you'll sip in Turin. Whether over time the restaurant will fall prey to pin-striped City blokes or even post—Les Miz hordes, for the coffee alone, Ladenis deserves a standing ovation.
HOTEL DINING: HOT TO HAUTE
So here's Mr. Michelin-All-Star exporting his notions of American fusion to a London hotel via Paris. And wait till you see the baffling menu—it implores you to "zigzag through the different columns and create the unthinkable"—at Alain Ducasse's branch of Spoon+ in Ian Schrager's Sanderson hotel. That's if you manage to convince the petite bouncer that yes, you did book, and can avoid being trampled by bright young things guzzling mojitos at the Long Bar. Been to a Schrager-Starck restaurant before?Expect more of the same, plus a sprinkling of mid-century accents. As for the food, when you finally devise your main + sauce + side scheme, you're catapulted to a late-eighties moment when ideas and ingredients winged in from all over the globe. Lobster in banana leaves + macaroni and cheese + tarragon reduction. Bubble-gum ice cream for dessert.
It would be easy to dismiss Ducasse's menu as a joke at the diner's (considerable!) expense if the iced tomato soup + jolt of crab ceviche + tomato-and-apple sorbet didn't add up to a masterpiece and if the saddle of lamb wasn't such an unapologetically great piece of meat. When you order coherently and the kitchen hits its mark, Ducasse's neoclassical rigor shines through. When it misses, you get mushy langoustines, and truffle essence wasted on an aggressively salty risotto. The word in London is that you must eat at Spoon+ once. By the time all Londoners have done so, Ian + Philippe + Alain will be on to the Next Big Thing.
"Ma'am…it's pronounced 'foh-li-aahj.' " Clearly, the maître d' at the spiffily refurbished Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London wants you to know that Foliage is a tony joint. To drive the point home Adam Tihany designed a glossy expense-account setting, recycling the butterscotch leather chairs you coveted at the Las Vegas Aureole, the vaguely Orientalist geometry of Jean Georges in New York. Habitués of luxe hotel restaurants will find plenty of déjà vus on the appetizer menu: lobster medallions gussied up with caviar, the inevitable foie gras, pleasantly if predictably accented with this or that fruity flourish. But don't snooze yet. The delicious main courses are as attention-grabbing as the view of Hyde Park. Chicory, crisp pancetta, and an adorable beet Tatin create drama without overpowering a beautiful piece of cod. Rabbit loin rests on a flaky pastry shell, creamed corn, and a blizzard of chanterelles. And you won't find such gentle prices at other expense-account restaurants. Gotta love a place that puts on a grand feast and sends you off with enough quid to raid Harvey Nicks, which awaits you right across the street.
Real Greek 15 Hoxton Market; 44-207/739-8212; dinner for two $75.
Cellar Gascon 59 W. Smithfield; 44-207/600-7561; drinks and appetizers for two $28.
Smiths of Smithfield Top Floor, 67—77 Charterhouse St.; 44-207/236-6666; dinner for two $120.
High Holborn 95—96 High Holborn; 44-207/404-3338; lunch for two $116.
Incognico 117 Shaftesbury Ave.; 44-207/836-8866; dinner for two $130.
Spoon+ The Sanderson Hotel, 50 Berners St.; 44-207/300-1400; dinner for two $170.
Foliage Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London, 66 Knightsbridge; 44-207/201-3723; prix fixe dinner for two $110.