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London's Evolving Food Scene

Chef Fergus Henderson’s offal-centric 
St. John Hotel, in Leicester Square, offers such dishes as snails with pig cheek and lovage.

Photo: Laurie Fletcher

London is a fickle food city—if French is up, Italian is down; as Sichuanese soars, Cantonese runs aground. I’ve been eating out professionally in the British capital since the 1960’s, the dawn of Foodie London. Today, my adopted hometown has become one of the world’s most genuinely exciting places to eat. Ambitious young chefs positively pulse with energy and ideas. Obsessed with the quality of their ingredients, they are rediscovering the connection between nurture and nature, which they now know counts for as much as their culinary skills and the appeal of the spaces in which they serve their creations.

As one of the first restaurant critics for a newspaper in the U.K., I remember championing the Swiss chef Anton Mosimann when his Dorchester Hotel restaurant was the only high-stakes game in town. In the early 1980’s, if you wanted a fancy meal, you automatically thought of a hotel. Oddly enough, there’s a trend back to hotel dining rooms. But that’s not all. Last year’s “pop-up” phenomena have morphed into brick-and-mortar sensations. And the cult of the ingredient, having moved on from French chefs smuggling foie gras in their suitcases, migrated to Italian restaurants and is now once again leaning toward Paris.

This year’s biggest news is in Knightsbridge. At the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park you’ll find an unexpected hybrid: Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin-three-starred Fat Duck at Bray crossed with a traditional restaurant. A meal at the Fat Duck is many things—entertainment, art, magic—but dinner it isn’t. The gastro-wizard has made his intentions clear. At Dinner by Heston Blumenthal you can eat a meal—in the normal three-course sense—at a surprisingly gentle price.

The twist comes from the menu, for which Blumenthal did extensive historical research and reconstruction. The “meat fruit” starter (circa 1500) is a chicken-liver parfait coated in a simulated “orange” skin so that it looks, tastes, and smells like a tangerine. Salamagundy (circa 1720) is not the undisciplined mess of poultry and vegetables found in old cookery books but a wonderful salad incorporating chicken oysters, bone marrow, and horseradish cream. Many main courses rely on sous vide preparation, so that “beef royal” (circa 1720) is Angus short ribs of beef, cooked in a low-temperature water bath for 72 hours, served with smoked anchovy and onion purée and slivers of ox tongue, and has the un-chewy texture of filet—which I dislike. Though the beef flavor was rich and intense, the mouthfeel of “powdered duck” (circa 1670), crisp confit-lacquered duck legs with silky meat served on a smoky fennel purée, was more my style. But nobody could fault the fantastic desserts: tipsy cake (circa 1810) is more a cream-filled brioche with a caramelized top, served with slices of the pineapple we saw grilling on a giant spit roast, installed at a cost of some $410,000.

The interiors of Dinner (like those of Bar Boulud) are by Adam Tihany, who has given expression to Blumenthal’s fancies—the giant clockwork that turns the spits, the jelly-mold lighting fixtures, the Tudor rose–shaped wooden chandeliers—with luxuriously far-apart tables and views over Hyde Park. Daniel Boulud has an in-house charcutier (courtesy of Gilles Vérot in Paris) that makes this spacious ground-floor eating-place with its separate street entrance and long zinc bar feel more like a rambling Lyonnais bouchon than a London nosh-house. Petite aioli, with its quail eggs and prawns, like the small charcuterie board, was an adequately delicious lunch serving for me, whereas the justly much-acclaimed burgers needed deconstruction to eat politely.

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