To anyone old enough to remember the Coronation, “Swinging London,” or even the Beatles before they split up, the idea of London as the center of the foodie universe seems ludicrous, if not perverse. I’ve been eating out in London since 1962, and professionally (as one of the people who first noticed and labeled “foodies”) since 1977. I’ve had objects on my plate that you wouldn’t care to look at, let alone put in your mouth—from gristly pork pie in tooth-resistant pastry and thickly battered, grayish fish with limp chips to salads consisting of bruised butterhead lettuce and slices of unpeeled cucumber and pickled beet, all dribbled with sweet, white “salad cream.” Yet by the time I became the food critic for this magazine in the 1990’s, London was the good-food, good-news story. Of course there were mad excesses. I remember in 1972 that first inkling Londoners had of the French nouvelle cuisine: scallops served with a raspberry coulis.
Now what happens on London plates is noteworthy not for its nastiness, but because the trend will soon turn up on a table near you. Though let’s hope one factor does not cross the ocean: the exorbitant cost of eating out in London. The city is now so expensive that even Londoners paid in sterling are shocked at the cost of taxis, restaurants, and a simple pint in a pub. A more welcome aspect of the evolution of eating out in London is a happy trend toward simplicity. Once-proud towers of food are flattening, as the picture on the plate goes from 3-D to something that looks more like dinner.
As restaurateurs, like their customers, become more conscious of the carbon footprint what we eat leaves behind, the British are becoming more alert to seasonal foods: asparagus, strawberries, oysters, and especially game. Alongside this awareness is a revived interest in British food itself. Our regional food traditions are feeble compared to those of France or Italy (and, I’d argue, America). But a few old dishes are being rediscovered, as chefs follow the lead of Fergus Henderson at his St. John Bar and Restaurant and use the whole animal, nose to tail. Often these are robust comfort foods, more at home in the pub than in fancier surroundings. Probably the most impressive sign of London’s foodie ascendancy is the huge number of gastropubs (a term that would once have contained an internal contradiction) now in evidence.
Paris and Tokyo may have more Michelin-starred restaurants, but big-name chefs seem to think London is now the gastronomic capital of the world. Alongside the homegrown Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, the French contingent regards it as de rigueur to have a go at cracking the London culinary nut. The Pourcel twins have tried and failed: their hyper-lavish W’Sens is now Divo, a hilarious bad-taste Ukrainian mess hall for too-rich Russians. Joël Robuchon opened an excellent example of his Atelier formula in 2006, and Pierre Gagnaire’s breathtakingly expensive Sketch has survived since 2002. One star-spangled French chef has made a spectacular comeback—but more of him later.
The Old Guard
Two revamped fish places are glistening examples of the keep-it-simple creed. Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, near Piccadilly Circus, is handy for theatergoers; Scott’s, in Mayfair (around the corner from the Connaught, which reopened in December after major renovations), is more in upscale-shopping territory. Bentley’s Irish chef and owner, Richard Corrigan, can occasionally be seen sitting at one of the red leather-upholstered stools at the sumptuous, marble-topped, wood-paneled ground-floor bar, which also has a few (desirable) tables. Exquisite, plump, briny British native oysters are $37 for six, and rock oysters a good deal less. The clubby feeling is maintained in the upstairs restaurant with blue and white William Morris fabric on the walls and blue leather chairs; and the menu is simplicity itself. I lunched on oysters followed by the freshest steamed haddock, filleted at the table, served with a green salad and thick, crisp french fries.
At Scott’s, the oyster bar in the center of the oak-paneled space has a 10-foot-long display of crustacea, and the room is hung with some choice contemporary paintings. The menu, now overseen by Kevin Gratton, has many of the virtues of Bentley’s. Great oysters, and starters of superb Salamanca ham, smoked mackerel, or asparagus. Personally, I eschew the more elaborately prepared dishes and follow on with beautifully fresh fish, lobster, or a roast game bird when in season, and skip dessert in favor of a “savory,” such as soft roe (herring milt, to be technical, which comes from boy herrings, as opposed to the actual roe of the girls) on toast. Add a glass of champagne and you’ve got a recipe for bliss.
The New Guard
A recent opening that shows the same passion for British ingredients as the old guard is Rowley Leigh’s Le Café Anglais. What sets it apart is its classic French bourgeois cooking and—not least—a carpeted floor. Noise-shocked Londoners, as well as New York veterans of, for example, Babbo, will want to murmur hosannas for this encouraging trend that makes it possible again to have a conversation while eating. The enormous 175-seat room is enchantingly comfortable, made up of leather banquettes, booths that can squeeze four, and decently spaced tables for larger parties. In one respect Le Café Anglais is revolutionary. It is in a strange part of West London, next door to (but culturally adrift from) Notting Hill, on the second floor of the vast Whiteleys shopping mall. It was formerly one of London’s largest McDonald’s. We have no difficulty forgetting its McHistory, thanks to the new entrance with its dedicated elevator, the sexy bar area, and the two colossal rotisseries on which rotate, boasted Leigh, everything edible that flies (and is legal to shoot) in Britain, along with really superb big chickens and great joints of meat. I even saw some lobsters slowly spinning there. The menu is the best document of its sort I’ve ever read—exciting ingredients, simply listed. You just want to eat everything on it, from the gently priced, generously portioned hors d’oeuvres (mackerel teriyaki with ribbons of cucumber; Parmesan custard with anchovy toast; fresh sardine escabeche, fried then marinated), through the first courses of oysters, pike boudin, or beef carpaccio with white truffles.
Leigh and his longtime head chef, Colin Westal, formerly worked at a London institution, the noisy, brash—and fun—Kensington Place. Theo Randall used to be head chef and co-owner at another London culinary landmark, the River Café. The menu at his namesake restaurant at the InterContinental hotel, steps from Hyde Park, is refined, sophisticated seasonal Italian. In Theo Randall’s soothing, buff-colored dining room with etched-glass panels and Peter Blake prints, best bets are the unfussy Devon crab salad with Amalfi-lemon mayo, the carpaccio of Angus beef, any of the elegant, straightforward pastas (in proper small servings, so you can eat one as a primo), the wood-roasted pigeon, the plate-filling char-grilled Limousin veal chop, a simple frittata made moist with ricotta, the Meyer-lemon tart, and the equally intensely flavored blood-orange sorbet.
Perfect for Pretheater
Chris Corbin and Jeremy King (formerly of the Caprice, the Ivy, and J. Sheekey), proprietors of the Wolseley, bring their perfectionist standards of service to bear on St. Alban, on Lower Regent Street. The restaurant has widely spaced tables, with startlingly fuchsia-colored banquettes, in a style that reminds me of the 1950’s but that others find very 70’s—the main feature of which is superlative etchings and line drawings (by Irish conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin) of ordinary household objects, such as a pepper mill, a bunch of keys, a wineglass, a lightbulb—all the same size, so weirdly out of scale. On the Mediterranean menu are a couple of minimally manipulated dishes, such as the crazily named “octopus salami au torchon,” a rectangle of barely opaque thin slices of tender tentacles with a slick of paprika-infused dressing, and the Iberian Jabugo ham with a selection of homemade pickles. These, and the uncomplicated desserts, are the best dishes in a place that’s not really about food but about watching the passing scene while having a good evening out.
Arbutus is easy to love. On Frith Street near Soho Square, chef Anthony Demetre and front-of-house Will Smith dish up ingredient-driven, hearty fare. The simple place settings, rich wood floor, and absence of Muzak all contribute to a feeling of well-being, as do starters involving beetroot and dandelion and the squid-and-mackerel burger with sea purslane, the English asparagus with fried duck’s egg, and the butch braised pig’s head. Bavette, the chewy but flavorful cut of steak the butcher keeps for himself, is frequently on the daily changing menu, but it all depends on what’s in the market—shin of veal, Elwy Valley lamb, rabbit. A similar menu is served at their new Wild Honey, near the shops and galleries of Bond Street.
In the warren of small Chelsea streets, Tom’s Kitchen is chef Tom Aikens’s (with his twin brother, Robert) second place, done up like a fantasy Edwardian country-house kitchen. The food is plain, simple, and delicious—like the enormous wooden slab of charcuterie: pork terrine, chicken liver parfait, almost transparent slices of ham, smoked duck breast, slices of salami, toasted pain Poilâne, and a couple of pots of chutney. Or the best burger in London, the beef coarsely chopped by hand; the big pot of moules marinières; or house-made vanilla yogurt with churros, a stunning dessert even if, like me, you suffer from vanilla fatigue.
Aikens has in common with Gordon Ramsay a bad-boy image and now, at Ramsay’s new gastropub the Narrow, a style of eclectically British eating. In an old dockmaster’s house on a bend in the Thames (with a vast terrace and plenty of tables for sunny days), Ramsay offers potted Cromer crab, chunky country pâté with turmeric-yellow piccalilli (chopped spiced vegetables), firm grilled Dorset mackerel (an underfished, underpriced, and absolutely delicious species) with potato salad, soft herring roe on toast, deviled lamb’s kidneys, savory braised Gloucester pig’s cheeks, and a fantastic beer list with some bargain prices as low as the amazingly reasonable cost of the food.
The Grand Finale, as Promised…
Alain Ducasse was unlucky: he rolled out Spoon in the Sanderson Hotel in 2000. Its mix-and-match formula never really caught on, and it is now the Malaysian Suka, run by New York chef Zak Pelaccio. But Ducasse has treated himself to a second bite of the apple and opened, in a historic room, a restaurant with obvious aspirations to live up to his Monte Carlo and Paris flagships.
Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester inhabits the space where, in the 1980’s, a young Swiss chef named Anton Mosimann shook well-heeled London diners to the core of their Manolo Blahniks by introducing French nouvelle cuisine. We’d never seen such Japanese-y presentation before—indeed, we expected silver service by bored waiters, and weren’t used to the chef plating our food at all, especially not when the portions were smaller, the ingredients fresher, and the sauces flour-free. Except for the odd bar mitzvah, the Terrace room, where Mosimann launched Britain’s food revolution, had remained more or less dormant until Ducasse’s expensive refit this past November. Two walls are covered in clusters of thousands of green silk buttons that echo the trees and shrubbery just beyond the large windows, which look out over Park Lane and Hyde Park. Far-apart tables (there are a maximum of 80 diners) are set with napery, cutlery, and china that whisper luxury. There’s a sculptural fiber-optic curtain of light where the diminutive dance floor used to be. And if you can get to see the kitchen…it’s a thing of beauty.
Still, the food, presided over by Jocelyn Herland, who has come from Ducasse’s Paris restaurant at the Plaza Athénée, manages to take precedence over the surroundings. Ducasse’s self-confident menu does offer the elaborate freebies we’ve come to expect, but I especially liked the I-want-to-eat-it-all bread and small plate of crunchy baby crudités with a runny riff on anchovy paste. What follows is blissfully restrained, contemporary French cuisine, with a relish for good British ingredients. Among the beneficiaries of this approach are the squid bonbons with crisp green vegetables—thumb-size portions of pearly squid encompassing a deeply satisfying stuffing that includes its tiny tentacles; a perfectly poached breast of Landes chicken in spectacular sauce Albufera, which gets its smoky note from the incorporation of foie gras; and his famous dessert star of fresh raspberries, edible silver, and chocolate.
Ducasse is serious money, a minimum $150 for three courses—but there is a $70 prix fixe lunch, and if he happens to be in the kitchen himself (a rare occurrence—after all, the man’s got 14 Michelin stars to look after), you might think it worth taking out that second mortgage to pay for your dinner.
Paul Levy has been writing about food for the past 30 years. He is based in Oxfordshire and London.
Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester
Park Lane; 44-20/7629-8866; dinner for two $300.
63-64 Frith St.; 44-20/7734-4545; dinner for two $130.
Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill
11-15 Swallow St.; 44-20/7734-4756; dinner for two $150.
Le Café Anglais
Whiteleys, 8 Porchester Gardens; 44-20/ 7221-1415; dinner for two $182.
44 Narrow St.; 44-20/7592-7950; dinner for two $143.
4-12 Lower Regent St.; 44-20/7499-8558; dinner for two $248.
20 Mount St., Mayfair; 44-20/7495-7309; dinner for two $248.
InterContinental, 1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane; 44-20/7318-8747; dinner for two $160.
27 Cale St., Chelsea; 44-20/7349-0202; dinner for two $139.
12 St. George St.; 44-20/7758-9160; dinner for two $150.