Expat Lauren Collins goes on a Culinary exploration of the british Capital, from experimental newcomers to traditional favourites
‘ONE OF THE MAJOR CHARMS OF LONDON IS ITS DEMOGRAPHIC UNTIDINESS. PENSIONERS GET PISSED. STUDENTS COOK.’
‘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 (rules.co.uk), 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 (j-sheekey.co.uk), 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 (dorchestercollection.com) 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 (cafemurano.co.uk) 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 (chilternfirehouse.com) – 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 (feraatclaridges.co.uk), 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 (40maltbystreet.com), 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 (honeyandco.co.uk), 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 (ottolenghi.co.uk/nopi) 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 (lyleslondon.com), 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
‘GYMKHANA SEEKS TO FUSE THE RAJ WITH MODERN BRITAIN, WHERE CURRY IS AS POPULAR AS FISH AND CHIPS’
(gymkhanalondon.com). 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