Many people regard London as the gastronomic capital of the world. I love many London restaurants but I think New York has a stronger claim to that title. When you go to a New York restaurant you feel like you are in New York, eating with real new Yorkers.
But London has become two cities. There’s the real London and then there’s a make-believe London full of the world’s rich, a dismal collection of tax-exiles, tourists and expatriates. This London is the world’s most expensive theme park with hideously overpriced shops and rubbish restaurants that cater to Euro-trash and eagerly seek Russian cash.
There was a different London once. When I was growing up there, the Swinging Sixties were just ending and the world’s billionaires were still restricting themselves to Beirut, Gstaad, Cote d’Azur. So London was fresh and vibrant with all the energy of a city that had just learned how to break free from the shackles of the British class system.
The reigning cuisine was Italian or perhaps, Brit-Italian. For decades, dining out in London had involved expensive meals in formal restaurants that served over-elaborate French cuisine. But even in the Fifties, when men still had to wear ties to restaurants and women were not allowed in if they wore trousers, the waiters at these restaurants were nearly always Italian.
The change began when the Italian waiters rebelled against their employers, threw off their formal uniforms and opened casual restaurants serving the sort of Italian food Brits had never tried before. The pioneers were a couple of former waiters called Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla who opened what must have been the most influential British restaurant of the 20th century, La Terrazza. Mario and Franco revolutionised British dining and their empire soon expanded to include many restaurants (Trattoo, Tiberio etc). Then, their waiters started their own restaurants. Alvaro Maccioni started Alvaro, Aretusa and eventually La Famiglia, Mario Paggetti started Mr Chow and then Signor Sassi and Scalini. Sandro Tobi started Sale e Pepe and Sandrini.
Many of these restaurants still flourish today but none ever became as successful as San Lorenzo. The restaurant was opened by Lorenzo Berni, a former steward on cruise lines who had later become the manager of the La Taverna Spaghetti Garden restaurant. His wife Mara worked in the original Pizza Express.
Lorenzo and Mara opened San Lorenzo in Beauchamp Place, with wipe-clean plastic tablecloths, waiters with no uniforms and northern Italian cooking from Mara’s native Piedmont. At first, only visiting Italians came, including such film directors as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti. But when Sophia Loren dropped in the place acquired a certain cachet. Peter Sellers brought Princess Margaret and by the Seventies San Lorenzo was the preserve of a set of well-connected Brits, jet-set celebrities and royalty. Integral to its appeal was the informality. Mara would hug and kiss regulars and it became the one place in London where high-profile people could relax.
San Lorenzo should have been finished by the Eighties but the Bernis were able to attract a new generation of celebrities. The key of their continuing success was Mara’s friendship with Princess Diana who became a regular. The gossip columns speculated that Diana would meet her lovers in Mara’s apartment but these stories were never confirmed.
The rejuvenated San Lorenzo continued to attract crowds because, in some senses, it never moved with the times. Mara was still there to greet guests. The restaurant accepted no credit cards. And though the waiter-led Italian restaurants of old had been replaced in London by trendy chef-driven places such as the River Café, San Lorenzo kept its regulars.
Mara died a few years ago so I was intrigued when I heard that San Lorenzo would open its first overseas outpost at the Taj Land’s End in Bombay. I ate there twice last week and though I was nostalgic for such old favourites of the original San Lorenzo such as the Bagna Cauda and wished they had not destroyed the Escalope Milanese by making it with chicken, it was still nice to think that the spirit of Sixties London was alive and well and living in Bandra. My only suggestion is that they make it less Taj and more San Lorenzo. I would love more informal service and a more casual atmosphere. At any rate, you should go and try it. San Lorenzo is a slice of living history transplanted to a new country.
These days, of course, London restaurants tend to be more high gloss. Richard Caring has taken The Ivy and Le Caprice around the world. Zuma is a global brand. And Hakkasan flourishes in Bombay as a glamorous place for the partying rich.
My favourite of the Hakkasan Group restaurants has always been Yauatcha, the dim sum house which earned a Michelin star and has been successfully cloned in Bombay’s Bandra-Kurla complex. (A Bangalore branch opens soon and Delhi is next.)
But a stone’s throw from the original Yauatcha in London is Ping Pong on Great Marlborough Street. I’ve never been there but because I sometimes stay at the Courthouse Hotel opposite it, I’ve been struck by the queues outside the door on Saturday night. As Ping Pong also does dim sum, why don’t people just go to Yauatcha a short distance away, I have wondered.
Friends in the restaurant business explained it to me. While Yauatcha aims for Michelin star-quality dim sums, Ping Pong is cheap and cheerful. The dim sums are made in a central commissary somewhere (Taiwan? Who knows?), frozen and then sent to Ping Pong branches everywhere. All the chef has to do is to microwave the damn things and they are ready in minutes.
Now, Ping Pong has opened its first Indian branch. Once again, it is a stone’s throw from Yauatcha in Bombay’s Bandra Kurla. And it serves more or less the same menu as Yauatcha. The comparisons are inevitable. But in terms of ambience and concept, it struck me as being less like Yauatcha and more like the Taiwanese Din Tai Fung dim sum chain with a décor that channelled the first Hakkasan in Hanway Place. The restaurant was large but service was efficient, with Dennis Chelai Wu, formerly of the Grand Hyatt, effortlessly running the show.
The food, though, was another matter. I ordered the chilly squid, a chicken bun, a chicken puff and seafood siu mai. All of it was pretty dismal and yes, it had been made in another country, many many days ago, frozen and then shipped to Bombay. I don’t know if the restaurant has a chef but I guess a large oven is all it needs.
Still, the room was nearly full and people were enjoying themselves. So I guess there is a market that doesn’t care about cuisine. But, just to be sure, I wandered across to Yauatcha and ordered exactly the same menu. This time the food was freshly made and as for quality, there was simply no comparison.
The surprise, though, was in the pricing. The chicken bun was the same price at both Yauatcha and Ping Pong (`275). Yauatcha did not do a seafood siu mai but the nearest equivalent, the chicken and prawn siu mai was `295 to Ping Pong’s `350 for the seafood siu mai. The chicken puff at Ping Pong was `352 while at Yauatcha it was `270.
Even allowing for variations in portion size, Ping Pong is roughly the same price as Yauatcha. Why do they need to charge so much money for frozen ready-meals? Perhaps their microwave is very expensive.
That leaves one other London restaurant. Ciro’s Pomodoro has opened in Delhi’s Greater Kailash. I went for lunch last week and the room was empty except for one table where a guy was talking on the phone. The waiting staff spoke no English which is fine by me, but may be a mistake if Ciro’s wants to sell itself as a London brand. Eventually, the guy who was on the phone got up. He turned out to be the manager. He asked if we were okay, returned to his table and resumed making his calls.
While I waited for my pizza, I looked around the deserted room. The main point of decoration appeared to be scores of photos of a little guy with a gap-toothed smile posing with various celebrities. I assume this was the eponymous Ciro but the overall effect was as though a midget had broken into a lesser-known branch of Madame Tussauds and posed with every wax figure he could find.
The pizza, when it came, was okay, no better or no worse than something ordered from Pizza Hut. But nobody I know will pay over a thousand rupees for a mushroom pizza and two Diet Cokes in an empty restaurant.
Unless, of course, they are fans of Madame Tussauds.
From HT Brunch, September 22
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