London's Evolving Food Scene
Published: July 2011
By Paul Levy
London’s food scene is more dynamic—and varied—than ever.
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.
In scuzzy-for-generations Leicester Square, nose-to-tail champion Fergus Henderson has created St. John Hotel, whose dining room is a smaller, more austere version of his cult spot near Smithfield Market. This new offshoot, in the beating heart of London’s theater-land, is open from breakfast to 2 a.m. At early supper my wife and I had small, sweet native oysters; superbly fresh langoustines; a dish of tiny brown shrimp with globe artichoke sections and a perfect soft-boiled egg; and slices of veal tongue and mustardy potato salad. Our favorite main course was a slice of rare beef roasted with caramelized onions and creamy horseradish sauce, followed by a wibbly-wobbly blood-orange jelly and a rich prune burned custard.
The most senior pop-up chef of all, Pierre Koffmann, so enjoyed his sojourn in a tent on the roof of Selfridge’s department store back in 2009 (yes, really) that he has opened a permanent restaurant in the very hotel where he once ran a Michelin-three-starred kitchen, the Berkeley. At Koffmann’s, I lunched on grilled mussels, cassoulet, tripe à la mode de Caen, and dark chocolate tart, all as Frenchly traditional as you can imagine, as delicious and refined as these agrestic recipes allow.
Farther afield, in Clerkenwell, after eight years in Australia, Bruno Loubet has opened his curved, 85-seater, Russell Sage–designed Bistrot Bruno Loubet in the chic, modern Zetter Hotel. The food is robustly classic, but playful: “revised Lyonnaise salad and Beaujolais dressing” means batons of golden, deep-fried, sticky, piggy bits—hints of trotters, tails, and ears—with rashers of crisp pancetta, curls of pork rind, a poached egg, and some crunchy plus bitter salad leaves on the side. Main courses included a hearty hare concoction as well as artichoke barigoule.
If you can find the tricky entrance to the circular Park Plaza Westminster Bridge London hotel, then you’ll have no trouble navigating to its Brasserie Joël, where Joël Antunes is another returning Frenchman, this time from Atlanta. In a dark wood room with pretty red and white table linens, the food exemplifies the new heartiness—a warm salad of tender octopus tentacles; a substantial Devon crab salad; main courses of pork cheeks with crisp, fried pig’s tail and lentils; a generous helping of suckling pig shoulder from the wood-fired grill; and stupendous desserts of whiskey mille-feuille and popcorn custard.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for classic British food (with a cheeky twist), in Soho, opposite the Groucho Club (London’s hangout for media folk, writers, artists, and the more intellectual sort of actor), is the Dean Street Townhouse Dining Room. Red-leather banquettes and a louche atmosphere remind you that in the 1930’s the building used to be the Matisse-decorated Gargoyle Club. The menu includes brawn with piccalilli (headcheese with a cooked vegetable relish); fish-and-chips with mushy peas; pan-fried ray with capers, parsley, and lemon; nicely moist roast chicken; and Welsh rarebit, as well as steamed suet puddings such as jam roly-poly.
With Dock Kitchen, another pop-up prince, Stevie Parle, has settled down. On the Grand Union Canal in West London, this well-traveled alumnus of the River Café thrives on the tension between keeping his food seasonal, simple, and generous, and the respect he has for the authenticity of foreign cuisines. A lunch menu might include an Anglo-Indian fish moilee of meaty Cornish brill with coconut, tomato, and curry leaf, or a Persian barberry-, pine-nut-, and rice-stuffed Kent Down shoulder of lamb, perfumed with rosewater and dried limes. Dinner is a themed set menu such as an exquisite grand aioli with all the Provençal requisites—salt cod, artichokes, and fennel, with a bonus of wild asparagus or hop shoots; or a menu from Sri Lanka, Karnataka, or Oaxaca.
You have to be a bit lucky—or plan well in advance—to book a place at the 16-seat communal (and sole) dining table at the Loft Project, an East London Friday and Saturday night experimental restaurant (in Kingsland Road, London’s Little Saigon, which is filled with Vietnamese places). Run by Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes and his partner, Clarise Faria, like an art gallery with constantly changing exhibitions, Mendes gives the kitchen over to a single chef or sometimes a chefs’ collective, like the (all-British and headed for fame) Young Turks last April (sample menu: razor clam and sorrel, pheasant egg, ramps and snails, beetroot and goat’s milk, sea kale and crab, chicken and grains, lemon and bergamot). Samuel Miller, an engaging young Brit who works with René Redzepi at Noma, in Copenhagen, cooked my dinner, which consisted of dishes with sci-fi looks, a few foraged ingredients, and intense flavors.
Ingredients are front and center at Bocca di Lupo, in Soho, where Jacob Kenedy turns out gutsy, regional Italian small plates meant for sharing. I loved his Roman artichokes alla giudea, huge stuffed olives from Le Marche, unusual pastas, and house-made luganega, thin sausages from Veneto spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. Nearby, Hix serves quintessential Brit food, and there’s a great basement bar that makes it a natural hangout for local chefs and their mates.
A few streets away in Mayfair, the foodie set is making a beeline for the brand-new Pollen Street Social. Jason Atherton may have an orthodox pedigree (a stint at El Bulli; protégé of Gordon Ramsay) but he’s turned the white-tablecloth experience on its head at his new establishment, which, he insists, is the sort of restaurant he wants to eat in himself. At the 45-seat bar, you can have just a drink and order from the menu. There are eight small-plate appetizers (we loved the full English breakfast: a soft orange-yolked egg with micro-bacon and mushroom bits) and the same number of main courses (flaking halibut with paella, flavored with smoked paprika, is a must). Diners are encouraged to mix and match dishes to create a personalized tasting menu.
Of two French-inspired favorites, the first has the ideal location to match my own interests. Around the corner from the English National Opera’s Coliseum, in Covent Garden, Will Smith and Anthony Demetre preside over their stunning re-creation of a Paris brasserie, Les Deux Salons, where standouts include warm salt-cod brandade with sauté of squid and parsley kromeski; a slice of British rose veal wrapped, ravioli-fashion, around fresh goat’s-milk curd; and a gorgeous bavette of Scottish beef from the charcoal grill. And in Spitalfields, East London, at Galvin La Chapelle, Jeff Galvin turns out thoughtful French food made with top British and French ingredients, so that the Mediterranean fish soup has its rouille, Gruyère, and croutons, but fish from British waters.
My really hot tip, though, is Zucca. There’s little else to take a visitor to Bermondsey, south of the Thames, but this modestly priced, serious modern Italian restaurant takes you back to the first days of the River Café (the chef’s yet another graduate of that kitchen) in its foodie enthusiasm: carefully cooked zucca fritti, puntarelle salad, cardoons, pasta, cima di rapa, game in season, and vast veal chop (still a rarity in London). The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys ventured as far as Bermondsey in 1664 and wrote in his journals that, when he left it, he was “singing finely.” Order one of the sensibly priced fine Italian wines from Zucca’s list, and you might well feel the same.
Bar Boulud 66 Knightsbridge; 44-20/7201-3849; dinner for two $148.
Bistrot Bruno Loubet 86–88 Clerkenwell Rd.; 44-20/7324-4455; dinner for two $105.
Bocca di Lupo 12 Archer St.; 44-20/7734-2223; dinner for two $115.
Brasserie Joël Park Plaza Westminster Bridge London; 44-20/7620-7272; dinner for two $140.
Dean Street Townhouse Dining Room 69-71 Dean St.; 44-20/7434-1775; dinner for two $131.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal 66 Knightsbridge; 44-20/7201-3833; dinner for two $162.
Dock Kitchen 344 Ladbroke Grove; 44-20/8962-1610; dinner for two $115.
Galvin La Chapelle 35 Spital Square; 44-20/7299-0400; dinner for two $148.
Hix 66-70 Brewer St.; 44-20/7292-3518; dinner for two $110.
Koffmann’s Wilton Place; 44-20/7235-1010; dinner for two $148.
Les Deux Salons 40–42 William IV St.; 44-20/7420-2050; dinner for two $131.
Loft Project 315 Kingsland Rd.; 44-79/5620-5005; dinner for two $394.
Pollen Street Social 8-13 Pollen St.; 44-20/7290-7600; dinner for two $123.
St. John Hotel 1 Leicester St.; 44-20/3301-8069; dinner for two $98.
Zucca 184 Bermondsey St.; 44-20/7378-6809; dinner for two $67.