London: A Winter Visit
NATHAN FONG enjoys London in the off-season.
ALTHOUGH ONE MIGHT TYPICALLY expect a damp and dreary London morning arrival, with a mild haze of smog, I landed at Heathrow beneath a brisk, clear and sunny sky, despite the fact that earlier in the month, pollution levels greater than those of Beijing had made front-page news worldwide. But here I was in one of the world's most magnificent cities — a metropolis filled with history, culture, architecture and design, museums, markets and superlative cuisine. Not to mention a well-designed metro system, (the world's first underground, built in 1863 and known affectionately as the Tube), carrying close to five million passengers a day.
I lived briefly in London in the late `80s when the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver were still in the public education system and somewhat questionable “authentic” Indian and Chinese takeaways were the norm.
Avoiding the mass of summer tourists, this time I was in London to work on a culinary project and to take advantage of this ever-changing city. And of course food was at the top of the list! And boy had it changed…
Built in 1865, the legendary Langham Hotel was the first of the grand stately hotels to be built in Europe. One of the largest and best known traditional hotels in London, it was totally renovated to celebrate its 150th anniversary two years ago. A favourite spot for actors and royalty (Lady Diana, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Noel Coward to name a few famous guests) and providing exquisite service in luxurious surroundings, The Langham is truly a London icon.
The newly refurbished rooms and public spaces are decorated in various hues of white and gray with accents of blue, which give the once-dark interiors a grander and more spacious atmosphere. The bedroom interiors are lush and comfortable, not to mention the spacious, white and black marble-accented bathrooms.
Beyond the grandeur of the living quarters, the hotel's unique partnership with the culinary icons, father and son Albert Roux and Michel Roux Jr., can be enjoyed in all the restaurants and bars, and even for in-room dining. In the magical, domed dining room of Roux at the Landau, gastronomic wizardry is demonstrated on the crisp linen-lined tables. Succulent Orkney diver scallops, from the brisk, cold waters of the Northern Scottish archipelago, come plump and barely cooked, embedded in a luscious pool of fino sherry beurre blanc and Oscietra caviar. A magnificent local Roset John Dory is accented with cocoa beans, chorizo, razor clams and a sublime Normande sauce. No trendy plating techniques, sauce swooshes, foams or froths, but refined classic cuisine at its best.
Winner of the coveted `World's Best Bar' accolade, the Langham's watering hole, Artesian, named after the original 360-foot-deep well under the hotel, is extremely popular with locals and cocktail enthusiasts. Overstuffed leather wing-chairs in a modernized, relaxed atmosphere are a far cry from the Old Boys' Club feel it once had (much to the dismay of Churchill if he
were still alive!) while outstanding mixology ranges from Artesian Classics to experimental cocktails for the sophisticated.
In contrast to the timeless, traditional ambiance of the Langham is the 100-room boutique One Aldwych Hotel, with its spectacular 400-piece contemporary art collection. The hotel occupies the former 1904-built Edwardian Flatiron-style Morning Post newspaper offices that were transformed in 1998. A brilliant sunlit lobby bar and mezzanine restaurant are popular with suit-types, but it's in the glamourous subterranean depths of the hotel where renowned Basque chef Eneko Atxa reigns. Eneko at One Aldwych, a showcase for her fresh modern Basque cuisine, is an exciting new restaurant in the vibrant Covent Garden district. With dishes such as Txipirones en su Tinta (squid in ink sauce), Cauliflower in Textures, and succulent Braised Pork Cheeks with Confit Shallots, Chef Eneko celebrates her passion for precise execution and quality ingredients.
Fifteen years ago, long before Noma received accolades as the world's best restaurant, I had my first Nordic restaurant experience at Aquavit in New York, which was achieving much acclaim for an AfroAmerican chef called Marcus Samuelsson. Last year Aquavit opened a second overseas enterprise (the first was in Tokyo) in the newly gentrified St James Market area where hipster boutiques, coffee and tea emporiums, and chic bistros are creating a new neighbourhood buzz.
This glitzy contemporary restaurant, with curved tanned leather banquettes, wood panelling, brass and glass, celebrates Norwegian design in a welcoming, informal interior. From the gleaming Georg Jensen silverware and sleek furnishings by Svensk Tenn to the server uniforms by Ida Sjöstedt, this is not another grand and overstated restaurant. Instead, a cleaner sparse interior showcases the wonderful Nordic-inspired dishes.
PHOTOS THIS PAGE CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Linecaught Atlantic Cod with seafood sauce; Borough Market wine store; Modern Scandinavian fare at Aquavit; Afternoon Tea at The Berkeley