Ex­pat Lau­ren Collins goes on a Culi­nary ex­plo­ration of the bri­tish Cap­i­tal, from ex­per­i­men­tal new­com­ers to tra­di­tional favourites

Gourmet (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - PHO­TO­GRAPHS PE­DEN + MUNK


‘You know what they say,’ the woman whis­pered. ‘Red shoes, no knick­ers.’ I did not know what they said! If I had, I might not have shown up at the party, three days af­ter mov­ing to London, in a pair of scar­let flats. No mat­ter, we were pic­nick­ing in Re­gent’s Park, en­joy­ing a mid­sum­mer’s spread of hum­mus, strawberries and a fine chilled white rain. My in­ter­locu­tor was prob­a­bly 70, with a white bun and shirt­waist dress. Chas­tened, I stared at the grass. Which is how I no­ticed that the woman’s own feet were clad in or­thopaedic san­dals the colour of a tomato.

London, play­ground of Pepys and Pippa, city of old ladies go­ing com­mando at sod­den 30-some­thing birth­day fests. In LA, ev­ery­one is the same age. In New York, hip­sters and breed­ers and grandees so­cialise on sep­a­rate tracks. One of the ma­jor charms of London is its de­mo­graphic untidiness. Pensioners get pissed. Stu­dents cook. Ba­bies go to pubs. The city’s age ag­nos­ti­cism is on its most splen­did dis­play in the restau­rant scene, which hails the May­fair dowa­ger as en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as the Shored­itch punk.

Lon­don­ers won’t aban­don a restau­rant af­ter six months, or six years, just for nov­elty’s sake, nor is new­ness a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion for ado­ra­tion. A week spent binge­ing through the city of­fers an atem­po­ral mix of plea­sures – cor­rect­ness and cool at the same time, the fin­ger bowl and the slab of slate.

We might as well be­gin our sur­vey at the be­gin­ning, with RULES (, which, at 217 years, claims to be London’s old­est restau­rant. A food-minded trav­eller to Paris may be un­likely to dust off his blazer for Le Grand Vé­four, but a meal at Rules is worth spiff­ing up for. The thing here is game: wood­cock, pi­geon, teal, snipe. Soon af­ter the open­ing of the grouse-shoot­ing sea­son, the ta­bles abound with fowl.

With red-vel­vet up­hol­stery and a Kate Mid­dle­ton cock­tail, Rules is not un­touched by kitsch. But it does high Eng­land with such glee, that the act comes off as in­clu­sive rather than re­ac­tionary. You have to love a place that says, sim­ply, of its mis­sion: ‘We serve the tra­di­tional food of this coun­try,’ and posts a re­view in which Kings­ley Amis sav­aged ‘two of the most dis­gust­ing full­dress meals I have ever eaten in my life’.

The food at Rules is in fact very good. The roasted grouse, hot-crossed with strips of ba­con and served with bread sauce with a stut­ter of nut­meg, is rea­son alone to join the Wind­sor-knot­ted af­ter-work­ers or­der­ing by the bot­tle. So is the su­perb ribeye with York­shire pud­ding. What did Kings­ley know? He liked ketchup in his Bloody Mary.

An­other peren­ni­ally win­ning op­tion is J SHEEKEY (, the ven­er­a­ble Covent Gar­den seafood and game restau­rant (c. 1896), a war­ren of photo-lined rooms ad­joined by a glam­orous horse­shoe-shaped oys­ter bar. There, in late spring, you’ll find gulls’ eggs with cel­ery salt and the world’s most theft-wor­thy nap­kins, yel­low mono­grammed dish-towel-size things that would stanch a tidal surge.

The oys­ters came with lit­tle wild-boar sausages. Trendy herbs (wood sor­rel, hedgerow) spruced up the pro­teins like high-tops to tweeds. Even the tra­di­tional fish and chips with minted mushy peas, served with a cruet of vine­gar, takes on a nat­tily mod­ern air. The crusty, creamy, faintly mus­tardy fish pie bub­bled as though some­one was snorkelling be­neath the sur­face. It is canon­i­cal, and I don’t like fish pie.

The hope and glory of the land of hope and glory is lunch – a sit-down affair, an al­lafter­nooner, dis­tin­guished by its shock­ing amounts of booze and by the fact that, in Bri­tain, lunch is the first-pick meal for a me­an­der­ing catch-up ses­sion with some­one you re­ally en­joy.

The best place in London to have this sort of laid­back meal is the the GRILL at the Dorch­ester (dorch­ester­col­lec­ in May­fair. Es­tab­lished in 1931, the restau­rant has re­cently cel­e­brated the an­niver­sary of its suc­cess­ful re­fur­bish­ment by Parisian in­te­rior ar­chi­tect Bruno Moinard, whose fa­mous projects in­clude Christie’s in New York and the Her­mes head­quar­ters. The decor has un­der­gone a meta­mor­pho­sis, and so has the food: three­miche­lin-starred chef Alain Du­casse’s pro­tégé Christophe Mar­leix has taken up the man­tle and while the menu con­tin­ues to play host to his­tor­i­cally famed dishes, such as the lob­ster chow­der, Christophe has in­tro­duced the likes of a sweet souf­fle menu and, in a play­ful nod to Bri­tish fish and chips, melt­ingly suc­cu­lent lemon sole gougounettes. The fa­mous grill trol­ley is al­ways a temp­ta­tion and so is the cast-iron co­cotte of roasted black leg chicken for two with “street-corner” pota­toes.

An­other din­ing op­tion with leg­endary con­nec­tions is An­gela Hart­nett’s cafe mu­rano (cafe­mu­ in Covent Gar­den, the sec­ond and new­est cafe ad­di­tion wor­thy of its Miche­lin-starred sis­ter, Mu­rano. Here, you’ll find north­ern Ital­ian fare at it’s very best from the ar­ray of ci­c­cheti to wob­bly bur­rata on gar­lic br­uschetta and del­i­cate far­falle with peas and girolles. Lunch here is the sort of idyll that you’ll do any­thing to draw out. So, per­haps a Vin Santo. Cof­fee, yes. Se­crets, con­fi­dences, gos­sip you prob­a­bly shouldn’t have let rip – es­pe­cially since the sub­ject may well be sit­ting within hear­ing dis­tance.

Right, but what about the up­starts? Where do you go for a breather from claret and laven­der socks? Cherie Blair and Rita Ora might say chiltern FIRE­HOUSE (chiltern­fire­ – the newish ho­tel, restau­rant and PR mill from Amer­i­can André Balazs – where both were seen din­ing in the space of a week.

Chiltern Fire­house, which the Daily Mail has deemed ‘the world’s hottest celebrity hang­out’, can be an un­re­lax­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the rest of us.

You get out of a cab and are met by a top-hat­ted bouncer mas­querad­ing as a door­man. He hus­tles you past a lovely court­yard and slots you in front of the maître d’ stand, where you jos­tle for at­ten­tion with song­writer Bryan Ferry and Alannah We­ston (the cre­ative di­rec­tor of Sel­fridges). The room is beau­ti­fully lit and home to a supremely se­duc­tive bar, but so fran­tic that you fear some­one’s go­ing to come slid­ing down one of the col­umns that sup­port the ceil­ing, ready to put out a blaze.

The hostesses wear Spock­like jump­suits the colours of a rain­bow in space. There is a place for all of this, but, to my mind, it’s the Meat­pack­ing Dis­trict, not Maryle­bone.

Fol­low­ers of ex­ec­u­tive chef Nuno Men­des, who earned a Miche­lin star and much ad­mi­ra­tion at Vi­a­jante in Beth­nal Green, might find it some­what of a shame that he now pre­sides over a place where his gar­lic-mar­i­nated Ibérico pork loin – so pre­cisely pink it could have been char­grilled by laser – is sold with the prom­ise: ‘There’s not much fat.’

The graft of cel­e­brated youngish chef to am­bi­tious ho­tel restau­rant seems to have taken much bet­ter at FERA AT CLAR­IDGE’S (fer­aatclar­, where Si­mon Ro­gan serves a tast­ing menu

brim­ming with lo­ca­vore vo­cab quizzes such as lo­vage (a herb from the pars­ley fam­ily) and hogget (a lamb slaugh­tered at be­tween 12 and 18 months). A pea wafer, like a floren­tine, de­liv­ers fen­nel pollen and marigold petals. Mack­erel, served in a box of rocks, tastes like rid­ing a wave.

Ro­gan’s food is prob­a­bly more it­self at L’en­clume, his two-miche­lin-star restau­rant and farm on the River Eea in Cum­bria, but it looks per­fectly good in a suit. He even man­ages to make the bread course thrilling: a malt loaf, brushed with ale be­fore be­ing baked and served on a bur oak wood plat­ter with bone mar­row but­ter and an aus­terely in­tense mush­room broth that you drink from a ce­ramic mug. It was as if an ukiyo-e painter had been com­mis­sioned to cook a ploughman’s lunch.

For those who pre­fer some­thing less af­fected but gen­uinely cool, there is 40 MALTBY STREET (40malt­, the bio­dy­namic wine ware­house in Ber­mond­sey that serves small plates (as­para­gus frit­ters, a cheffy al­mond soup). The space, tucked un­der the rail­way arches near Tower Bridge Road, feels like sit­ting in­side a cut-open can. The ta­bles are made of pack­ing pal­lets. Young cou­ples sit strewn among them tak­ing beau­ti­ful self­ies that would make the work of any pa­parazzo pale.

HONEY & CO (hon­, in Fitzrovia, be­longs to chef Ita­mar Srulovich and his wife, Sarit Packer, who were born in Is­rael. It is a dif­fer­ent kind of Bri­tish lunch: The day I went, ev­ery­one around me was guz­zling mint lemon­ade along with their maqluba (an up­side­down dome of chicken and saf­fron rice). A dessert billed as ‘cold cheese cake’ ac­tu­ally con­sisted of a nest of kadaif pas­try, crowned by a dol­lop of whipped feta and cream cheese, which was, in turn, topped with al­monds, blue­ber­ries and pine­and-fir honey from Greece. It was the sin­gle best thing I ate all week. Luck­ily, the recipe is in their cook­book, Honey & Co: Food from the Mid­dle East (Hod­der & Stoughton, R519).

In­ci­den­tally, Packer was the ex­ec­u­tive head chef at NOPI (ot­ where Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi and Sami Tamimi have so­lid­i­fied the sta­tus of za’atar, tahini and pome­gran­ate as na­tional sta­ples. Nopi is a some­what grown-up ver­sion of the Ot­tolenghi café’s. Here, you are able to linger over slightly more elab­o­rate plates of sim­i­lar Mid­dle Eastern fare beau­ti­fully pre­sented in a slick white space with gleam­ing splash-back tiles, high-gloss mar­ble floors and gold-trimmed bar with sconces and coat hooks. Plump, seared scal­lops with sticky chilli jam sit hap­pily along­side pick­led daikon and shaved ap­ple, while slow-braised beef­brisket cro­quettes are equally pleased with their sea­son­ing of sweet anise in a crispy coat­ing. Communal ta­bles down­stairs give a glimpse into the kitchen where Ra­mael Scully is the magic-maker; up­stairs is more for­mal, a place to brood over a glass of wine or three. You’ll find it dif­fi­cult to leave…

LYLE’S (lyleslon­, in Shored­itch, is in­spired by an­other school of London cook­ing: the revered Fergus Hen­der­son’s nose-to-tail. James Lowe’s stripped-down set menu is like an am­bi­tious PHD stu­dent’s ac­knowl­edg­ment to his beloved ad­vi­sor: Smoked Eel & Horse­rad­ish, Blood Cake & Dam­son, Mut­ton & Turnip Broth, served in a gor­geously spare room. You want to ap­plaud James’ se­ri­ous­ness, but when As­para­gus & Wal­nut May­on­naise turns out to be four spears to be shared be­tween two peo­ple, you’re left hun­gry enough to eat an am­per­sand.

By the end of the week, the old chaps seemed to have it by a hair – un­til I went to GYMKHANA


(gymkhanalon­ The menu en­cour­ages shar­ing: there are nashta (duck dosas), ke­babs (beet­root with chut­ney), cur­ries (suck­ling pig), birya­nis (wild munt­jac), game and chops (pi­geon pep­per fry). There’s no stand­ing on tra­di­tion or pan­der­ing to in­ex­pe­ri­ence – you have to ei­ther know your stuff or ask your waiter.

The one-bite gol gup­pays erupt in a burst of tamarin­dand-chilli-flavoured wa­ter. Re­gent’s Punch comes with a tiny crys­tal carafe of Cham­pagne and your own nut­meg grater. Gymkhana serves food that you have only ever been able to get in one place, at one time. Old, young, past, fu­ture, what­ever. This is London. Go now.

Clock­wise from above a waiter spiffs up for lunch at the 217-year-old rules; pome­gran­ate mo­lasses chicken at Honey & Co; the sim­ple decor at Honey & Co lets the food do the talk­ing; london lo­ca­vorism at fera at Clar­idge’s; the chang­ing of the guard op­po­site page Clock­wise from top left eel and horse­rad­ish at lyle’s; ta­ble­side punch ser­vice at gymkhana; the grill at Dorch­ester; an av­enue Cock­tail at the Con­naught bar; lyle’s chef James lowe; fish and chips at J sheekey

clock­wise from top right rib of beef for two with York­shire pud­ding and dauphi­noise pota­toes at rules; beef tartare at lyle’s; a diner at gymkhana

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