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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

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.

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