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Why London Is the Capital of Food

England

Photo: Jason Lowe

See Photos of London’s Best Restaurants

A honky-tonk roadhouse serving deep-fried pickles and chili-cheese fries. A Parsi café straight out of old Bombay. A semi-secret chef’s table, tucked behind a hot dog joint, that’s giving Copenhagen a run for its foraged nettles. If you haven’t eaten in London lately, get back as soon as you can—and expect the unexpected.

Over the past six months I’ve made multiple visits to the city, running the gamut of its ever-expanding food scene. My focus was on new or recent openings, along with a few old favorites still going strong. As I crisscrossed the city, three things became apparent.

One: you can travel a long way to eat at a great local restaurant here. (On, Bermondsey, Clapham, Hackney, and Brixton!) Today’s standouts are often in neighborhoods well beyond the West End. You could liken it to the Brooklyn effect in New York, but a proper comparison would have to throw in the Bronx, Staten Island, and New Jersey as well. Still, central London is far from over: Soho is enjoying its umpteenth revival, and Covent Garden is suddenly red-hot for dining. Meanwhile, the buzz has shifted to such once-humdrum enclaves as Marylebone and Fitzrovia—the latter home to two of the city’s best restaurants.

Two: there is no “London dining scene,” in the singular sense. Though certain tropes and trends pop up, there’s little to unify the city’s food offerings, except that the bill is calculated in pounds sterling. As with music and fashion, the culinary realm here has been niched and sub-niched so much that the options are now near-endless.

Three: few cities on earth offer food this good across the board. That’s not a judgment; it’s a fact. Pound for pound, nose to tail, there’s never been a better—or, frankly, wackier—time to eat here. So which London are you after?

The City of Amazing Breakfasts

What a drag to live in London and have a job—a dreary morning-interrupter that keeps you from lingering over the day’s best meal. Options are myriad: Tom’s Kitchen for the full English, Daylesford for poached eggs, the Wolseley for every damn thing on the menu. But the new Granger & Co. is not only the prettiest breakfast spot in town, it’s arguably the best. Opened by Australian chef Bill Granger, whose Sydney café Bills is legendary for eggs and pancakes, it occupies a prime block of Notting Hill where geraniums fill every window box. Sunlight pours through double-height windows, casting a glow on the radiant crowd, most of whom look as if they’ve come from a morning swim at Bondi. Order an Aussie-style flat white, grab a paper from the granite-topped bar, and indulge in a platter of silky eggs, gently folded with I don’t want to fathom how much cream, and served with chipolata sausages and avocado relish—or go all out for Granger’s famous ricotta hotcakes, topped with sticky, molten chunks of honeycomb butter.

For a more old-world vibe, head to Sloane Square and join the air-kissers at Colbert, the latest from Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, the gifted duo behind the indefatigable Wolseley. They’ve taken over the corner spot long occupied by Oriel, whose food was so lousy that the building’s landlord, the Earl of Cadogan, purportedly refused to renew the lease. He turned the space over to Corbin and King, who upgraded it in the manner of an all-day Parisian grand café. With stage-set lighting, Buñuel posters, and impeccably distressed mirrors, Colbert could coast by on looks alone. Yet as at the Wolseley, the food is way better than it has to be. Order the piquant blackberry-and-pear compote atop thick, tangy Greek yogurt with a side of nutty house-made granola, and your day will be the better for it.

The City of a Million Markets

More than Paris, New York, or even Tokyo, this is a city devoted to the pleasure of ogling foodstuffs—from the gorgeous fattoush salads at Ottolenghi to the hunks of Stichelton at La Fromagerie, labeled in dainty farmer’s script. Yes, London can be insanely overpriced, and at times comically precious. (When I dropped into the Albion, the new Conran café in Shoreditch, the adjacent grocery was selling seagull eggs “collected by licensed pickers on Hampshire marshes.”) Yet for sheer quality of ingredients, London is hard to top. This is the land of great milk and better honey, where egg yolks bear the color of Thai monks’ robes.

Then there are the weekend markets, with their bins of Romanesco and steel-drum-size pans of paella. Borough Market is the big one, of course. But an upstart has laid claim to the throne. Tucked under the smoke-stained Victorian railway arches running through an industrial patch of Bermondsey, the weekend-only Maltby Street Market was founded in 2010 by defectors from Borough. It’s quickly become London’s hottest block party. On a recent visit, the Comptoir Gourmand was selling giant pink-and-white meringues resembling pashas’ turbans; at Tozino, two young Spaniards were carving jamón ibérico to order. St. John Bakery was making open-faced sandwiches with Faeroe Islands salmon from the North London outfit Hansen & Lydersen, which cold-smokes the fish over beechwood and juniper. Down the lane at Christchurch Fish, an Albert Finney ringer was shucking oysters for a queue of 20. Most took their edible prizes over to the Little Bird Gin Bar, Maltby’s de facto hub, run by the small-batch London gin maker of the same name. Owner Tim Moore started last spring with just a folding table and sample-size cocktails—but as the crowds grew, so did the concept. “Suddenly, we were running a proper bar,” he says, still bemused. Intended or not, it works: mismatched chairs cluster around wobbly tables topped with fresh-cut flowers in gin bottles. Birdcages hang from the archways. And bearded lads in jaunty thrift-store caps serve negronis and Aviations in vintage crystal coupes. Can your market do that?

The City Whose Patron Saint Is John

With all respect to Ramsay, White, and Blumenthal, if there’s one British chef whose influence currently ranks above all others, it’s the inimitable Fergus Henderson, whose St. John empire has nonetheless spawned countless imitations. With its throwback-British cooking and ascetic shirking of pretense—in the dining room and on the plate—St. John was an outlier in the flashy, fusion-prone nineties. Today, its disciples are legion. And nearly two decades on, the original St. John still kills it out in Clerkenwell. For my money, I’ll take a long boozy lunch at St. John Bread & Wine, in Spitalfields, with the pale English sun streaming into a room like a public-school caff: rows of coat hooks, a blackboard, a grid of scratched wooden tables. The chummy English waiter waxes poetic about the veal chop, then brings you currant-filled Eccles cake for dessert, which he calls pudding.

It was Henderson, of course, who made London safe again for offal; now every other kitchen in town serves calves’ tongues and duck hearts—and, righteous as nose-to-tail eating may be, it can get a bit same-y after a while. (A man tired of London isn’t necessarily tired of life; he may just be weary of lambs’ brains.) But St. John also helped revive those defiantly British, deceptively simple dishes one’s great-aunt in Leeds might crave, from smoked eel to potted shrimps. Such are the draws at the relaunched Quo Vadis, the clubby Soho landmark that’s stepped up tenfold since chef Jeremy Lee took over last year. Spread across several snug, low-ceilinged dining rooms, it’s a convivial spot, with a nursery’s worth of greenery and a menu that could have been conceived and typeset in 1876. Bring yourself to order “bloater paste” and you’ll be rewarded with a sumptuous herring pâté topped with a tasty layer of congealed butter to be pierced by a shard of crusty bread. And Lee’s smoked-eel sandwich, served on grilled sourdough bread with pickled onions and creamy horseradish, is fantastic (and, it turns out, a favorite of Henderson’s).

Trad-British simplicity is also on the menu at Mark Hix’s latest, Tramshed, located on funky Rivington Street in Shoreditch. You have two choices: grilled sirloin, priced by the gram, or a whole roasted free-range chicken. You want the latter; the steak is just fine, but the bird is close to perfect, its skin crisp and its meat delicate and juicy, all the better when dipped in fiery English mustard. And the setting? A gorgeously decayed trolley shed, built in 1905, with hulking steel girders rising three stories to a soaring, skylit ceiling. The coup de grâce: a Damien Hirst installation of a bull, encased in formaldehyde, with a rooster perched on its back.

The City Where We’re All Well-Fed French Peasants

St. John’s influence extends to places where the food isn’t even particularly British. Ed Wilson and Oli Barker work in a similarly robust, offal-y vein, but take their cue from the rustic campagnard cooking of France. They’ve built a small empire of their own with Terroirs (a natural-wine bar near Covent Garden), Brawn (a temple to pork in Bethnal Green), the Green Man & French Horn (focused on the wine and food of the Loire Valley), and the excellent new Soif, which their British clientele pronounces “Soyf.”

Soif sits on a remote stretch of Battersea Rise that bears all the marks of hipsterfication: women with Feist bangs; guys in stevedore caps. The narrow room is decked out with old wine barrels and French bric-a-brac; the menu makes any season feel like winter. Ribbons of melt-on-the-tongue fromage de tête come dressed with cornichon-spiked vinaigrette and adorned with a soft-cooked egg, the yolk glowing like a sunset. A luxuriantly creamy soup of Jerusalem artichokes is festooned with petals of meaty, umami-rich black trumpet mushrooms. Basile, the sommelier—a Gallic Ethan Hawke—can walk you through the list of more than 200 wines, only a handful of which aren’t natural or biodynamic. Remember when Brits drank mostly claret? They don’t, either.

The City Obsessed with Tapas

Is there any jamon ibérico left in Spain? You’d guess not, based on the number of tapas bars in London, each with a glistening ham racked up on the countertop. Long is the love the British have for the Iberian peninsula—and that love is begetting ever-better rewards. Worthy newcomers include the Basque-devoted Donostia, in plummy Marylebone, whose chef Tomasz Baranski previously cooked at Soho’s estimable Barrafina (which recently expanded to Covent Garden).

Meanwhile, in Bermondsey—a slum in Oliver Twist, now a tony arts-and-media enclave—the Spanish chef José Pizarro has opened Pizarro, the larger offshoot to his popular tapas bar José. The new space is even more rustic-chic: plank floors, unfinished beams, industrial desk lamps, and reclaimed chandeliers. Settle into a half-moon banquette, order a bottle of Txakoli (which your server will pour, per custom, from a height), and don’t stop till you’ve tried the entire tapas menu. You’ll want the girolle mushrooms with batons of Manchego in truffle oil, flecked with parsley and chives. You’ll definitely need the razor clams, impossibly tender and drizzled with strong, grassy olive oil. And you mustn’t miss the chopped salmon: lightly cured in beet juice and crowned with an egg yolk to mix in à la tartare. (Egg yolks are everywhere these days; they are the ampersands of contemporary London.)

The City That Can Out-India India

Bengali prawns, Hyderabadi biryani, Karnatakan dosai…if it’s cooked somewhere in India, it’s served somewhere in London, where thousands of South Asian restaurants specialize in countless regional cuisines. One thing you couldn’t find much of till now: the Parsi cooking of Bombay’s beloved Irani cafés. In the 1960’s, Bombay had hundreds of such places—elegantly worn rooms with faded tile floors, creaking fans, and a devoted clientele that transcended class and caste. Now only a few dozen remain. All of which makes the charming Dishoom, in Shoreditch, such a find. An uncanny homage to Bombay’s Britannia—the king of Irani cafés—the place feels like a walk-in sepia photograph, bathed in dreamy light from Deco sconces and lamps fashioned from antique film projectors. Archival photos and old Hindi adverts capture the funky glamour of midcentury Bombay. Despite its artfully aged interior, Dishoom actually opened last fall—a follow-up to the Covent Garden original. (That location, sleeker and less soulful, has the same menu.)

But Dishoom isn’t just a movie-set simulacrum; it also serves terrific food. Consider its take on berry pulao, the tart Parsi-style biryani. I’ve long pined for one equal to Britannia’s, and Dishoom’s intricately flavored variation—made with tangy cranberries instead of barberries—comes as close as any. There’s also a deep, rich, black-lentil dal, fragrant with wintery spice, into which I kept swirling spoonfuls of yogurt to create spirals of creamy deliciousness. For those who really miss Mumbai, Dishoom even serves Thums Up, the Indian Coke. Never again should one settle for generic curry on nearby Brick Lane.

The City That Ate America

London is right now in thrall to at least a dozen different food crazes, among them a rage for old-school steak houses, a burgeoning Peruvian trend, a sudden wave of authentic Mexican, and a welcome influx of great Vietnamese (the chic new Cây Tre Soho has fabulous bánh cuón ravioli and a knockout ox-cheek pho). But of all the exotic foods making their way to these shores, the least likely is also the most pervasive: London has gone mad for American junk food.

You can’t swing a Welsh corgi around here without hitting some jam-packed burger, hot dog, fried-chicken, or barbecue joint. Just off Carnaby Street, Pitt Cue started life as a truck before going brick-and-mortar last year. The pit master does impressive work with smoky, slow-cooked beef ribs, and the addictive mashed potatoes come laced with marrow and a sticky glaze of barbecue drippings. (Chase it with an A&W root beer.) Eight blocks east is the new Soho branch of Brixton-based Honest Burgers, which sources rare-breed North Yorkshire beef from Ginger Pig, the city’s best butcher. The namesake burger is excellent: an inch-thick patty of savory dry-aged chuck, cooked to a properly pink medium and topped with onion relish, lettuce, pickles, bacon, and aged cheddar. Better still are the crisp twice-cooked fries sprinkled with rosemary salt. Meanwhile, in Fitzrovia, the red-hot Bubbledogs pairs grower champagnes with gussied-up hot dogs (including a bánh mì variation with pickled carrots, fennel, cucumber, cauliflower, and Sriracha-spiced mayo).

Then there’s Meat Liquor, currently the trendiest restaurant in London. Join the epic queue, cross the velvet rope, and step inside a faux roadhouse soaked in graffiti and blood-red neon. The sound track is raunchy psychobilly; the food pure, uncut Amurrican. The saucy, spicy “dead hippie” burger is justly revered as one of London’s best, with a good bun-to-filling ratio and a satisfying if sloppy integrity. A reckless man might side it with deep-fried pickles. As my eyes adjusted to the dim, I noticed an absurdly gorgeous quartet of male and female models—all with butterscotch English accents—noshing on chili-cheese fries and chugging PBR.

The City of Earthy Delights

By now you’ve surely heard the hype about Dabbous, the 12-table room in Fitzrovia run by 32-year-old chef Ollie Dabbous, who’s earned second-coming-like praise since his debut last January. (Given that London critics are the nastiest on the planet, this is no small feat.) I can report that the food really is that good, even if the space comes off like an assembly-line floor—all concrete, steel, and exposed ductwork. You expect to be issued a welder’s apron. The servers, however, are amiable and informed, and what the room lacks in color is made up for on the plates. A startlingly vivid pea-and-mint starter celebrates the miracle of England’s greatest ingredient: a bright-green pea purée, drizzled with tart pea oil, topped with minty pea granita and whole peas in the shell, their tangly shoots climbing up the rim. It is the greenest dish you’ve ever seen, a bowlful of emeralds. You want a spatula to scoop up every bite.

Dabbous’ signature dish, a coddled egg with smoked butter and wild mushrooms, arrives in the shell perched on a nest of straw. Imagine a Japanese chawanmushi custard, but tasting definitively of the English soil. It is unspeakably delicious. Even the bread course is unexpected: a house-made seeded sourdough redolent of...smoky bacon. (After baking, the bread is cooled on a rack above a barbecuing ibérico ham.)

One can imagine the chef as a boy, playing in some rustling meadow or English garden, conducting experiments on all that grows there. His kitchen does much the same: pickling rose petals, transforming pine needles into a heady consommé, mixing horseradish with buttermilk, fashioning nests of hay, garnishing each dazzling creation with edible flowers. It’s an astonishingly assured restaurant, and I urge you to try it yourself, if you can score a table—I hear there are a few left for 2014.

The City You Never Expected

Much as I loved Dabbous, the place I keep dreaming about is two blocks farther north—hidden, as it happens, behind the aforementioned Bubbledogs. It’s called Kitchen Table, and shortly after it opened last fall, it served me one of the finest meals in my memory.

Chef James Knappett and his wife, sommelier Sandia Chang, make a nice emblem for the new England: he, a Noma- and Per Se–trained Brit; she, a Saudi-born Asian American schooled in Los Angeles. They met in New York, moved to London, and started Bubbledogs last summer. But it’s in the back room, at Kitchen Table, that Knappett does his finest work: creating a 10- to 14-course, daily-changing tasting menu for 19 diners who sit at a zinc countertop around the open kitchen.

Opera plays softly in the background; the nighttime clamor at Bubbledogs is just a faint buzz beyond the curtain. Chang pours champagne while Knappett and three sous-chefs work the stoves. The hand-lettered menu lists just a single word for each course (burrata / pheasant / pasta / pig), playing up the surprise. First up: a plump Cornish shrimp, served raw, with fresh dill and frozen horseradish. It is luscious, elemental, sensational. The chatter of the room drops to a hush as we all realize what we’re in for: attention must be paid. Knappett, meanwhile, is as humble as can be, introducing each course himself and charming his guests with funny stories. He confesses to nearly being arrested while foraging for sorrel and nettles on national parkland (“The cop said, ‘I have no idea why anyone would want to eat this stuff, so I’m going to look the other way—but don’t ever come back here again’ ”). He rhapsodizes about the 32 varieties of herbs growing “at my mum’s place” in Cambridgeshire, including the verbena that perfumes the sauce for the Scottish lobster. He raves about the samphire he collected on the coast of Cornwall and the English—yes, English—truffles he sources from “a top-secret woodland” in Wiltshire.

In an era when restaurant cooking is about too many hands doing too much with your food or too few doing far too little, Kitchen Table finds a laudable balance. The pheasant course, for instance: confited leg meat, mixed with thyme and pickled rhubarb, then rolled in delicate brik pastry and deep-fried, like a Moroccan cigar. It rests on a silky purée of Jerusalem artichokes alongside stewed bonbon dates, and is scattered with puffed barley. The result is ingenious: complex yet comforting, novel yet deeply familiar.

While Knappett explains each dish, his sous-chefs are already assembling the next course, like stagehands in the wings, offering us tantalizing glimpses of what’s to come: a snow-white turbot fillet here, a tangle of sea purslane there. The cooks are remarkably young—average age 24—but maintain intense focus, working hard to create a sense of play. After three hours the night is winding down, and the kitchen crew begins to relax and joke around. Strangely, no one seems tired, least of all the guests. Despite the late hour—and the forest of empty wine glasses before us—we’re feeling rather energized. So much so that I’m tempted to order another round of the pheasant.

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