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.