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.