Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: London diary

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 19, 2015 12:39 IST

For centuries, the British were notorious for their cuisine: perhaps the worst in the world. Then, around two decades ago, the Brits themselves declared that this had changed. London was, or so we were told, the gastronomic capital of the world.

This claim should have been greeted with derision but three factors had contributed to the change in the London restaurant scene.

The first was that a new generation of British chefs had begun to take pride in ingredients and reinvent simple dishes with high-quality produce.

The second was that by the Nineties, Britain had become genuinely multicultural. It wasn’t just the Asians and West Indians who finally came of age in that decade. It was also that Europeans took advantage of the EU’s Open Borders policy and flooded London.

And finally, the Nineties were the decade when London became the Moneytrash capital of the world. The British government changed its tax laws to allow the world’s rich to live in the UK without paying any tax on their global incomes. (The so-called non-dom tax policy.)

As the wealthy swarmed into London, their friends and associates came to visit each summer. And indeed, there is nothing English about central London in the summer: the hotels and restaurants are packed out with wealthy Russians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Arabs, and yes, Indians. Even Americans feel poor in London these days.

Celebrity Magnet: I liked the buzz at The Chiltern Firehouse (top). But chef Nuno Mendes’s steak tartare was one-dimensional in flavour

My problem with the gastronomic-capital-of-the-world stuff is that it is a massive overstatement. Yes, there are some good restaurants in London. But there’s also a lot of overpriced rubbish.

The night I landed, we went to The Chiltern Firehouse, very much the restaurant of the moment, partly because it is trendy (it is owned by American hotelier Andre Balazs who knows how to pack his places with celebrities) and partly because Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes is very highly regarded.

I liked the restaurant, loved the buzz, was pleased by high quality of the service and was slightly startled to discover that the first person I bumped into when I entered was my pal Deepak Shahdadpuri, vacationing in London from his home

in Singapore.

I’m not great on celeb-spotting so I can’t tell you if there were any famous people there that night, though I did notice Heston Blumenthal walking in and standing in the centre of the restaurant.

Nuno and the other chefs rushed to pay homage to the Molecular Merlin leaving me to wonder darkly who was going to cook my food.

The food, when it came, had its highs and lows. A starter of grilled octopus was fine, a steak tartare was a little one-dimensional in its flavours, the pan-fried gnocchi with girolles were excellent and my pork was over-cooked to the point of toughness (presumably left on the plancha at the moment when Nuno and the brigade rushed out to hug Heston).

I was staying at the The Washington Mayfair on Curzon Street so it made sense to try and score a table at the small Kitty Fisher’s right opposite the hotel.

It is as hot as The Chiltern Firehouse, though it tends to attract a more upper-class, establishment sort of crowd. (The Camerons went recently for dinner.)

Though they are booked out for the next month or so, they were good enough to find me a table (the trick is to turn up as the restaurant opens for lunch).

And even though it was not on the lunch menu, they were

kind enough to make me the dish that has made them famous: a rib-eye of Spanish beef. Apparently, the meat from older Spanish dairy cows has a very special flavour though it can be chewier.

It took 40 minutes to cook on an open fire (we had fresh burrata with peas and leaves – delicious! – while we waited) but was easily the most interesting chunk of beef I’ve eaten in a long-time.

I liked the restaurant and I liked the warmth of the service though I could understand why The Guardian review had been based on the notion of class warfare.

My old friend Fay Maschler is the doyenne of London’s

food critics. She won a competition to become the London Evening Standard’s food critic in 1972 and she has been doing it ever since.

Because she knows she can make or break a restaurant, she takes great care over her reviews, visiting each restaurant at least twice and trying nearly half the menu.

She invited us to Le Chabanais, a new restaurant just off Berkeley Square, which she was reviewing. We were joined by her husband, the famous thriller writer Reg Gadney, and her sister, Beth Coventry, one of my favourite people and a terrific chef who now runs a gastro-pub.

Fay felt warmly towards the restaurant because she knew and liked Inaki Aizpitarte, the chef at Paris’s Le Chateaubriand who is in charge of the

kitchen here and I wanted desperately to like it too because I know one "

of the owners.

It was Fay’s review so I won’t record what I thought but it was a treat to see her in action. There were five of us on the table and she made each of us

order different dishes and then tried each one of them.

She had booked the table in the name of Seema Goswami, but predictably enough, she was rumbled as soon as we entered. She ordered three different wines, checked the prices of each on the list and refused to tell our server

what she thought. I guess he’ll have to read about it.

Jeremy King and Chris Corbin have long been regarded as the kings of the London restaurant scene. After they sold Le Caprice, The Ivy and J Sheekey, they opened the phenomenal The Wolseley and then St Albans (which only I seemed to have loved; it closed.)

When I interviewed Jeremy King for Brunch some years ago, he spoke of his new ventures, most of which have now opened.

Low Point: The food at the Colony Grill Room (above) was terrible. The steak was so hard that I had to ask for a sharper knife

I liked the Delaunay in Aldwych when it first opened but had a bad meal there last year. I was never impressed by the food at Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly and thought Fischer’s in Marylebone was a good neighbourhood restaurant with limited ambition.

Corbin and King more or less invented the simple-comfort-food-with-great-ingredients formula at The Ivy, Le Caprice and Sheekey.

But I think that they now have to accept that no matter how wonderful the service at their restaurants is and how brilliant the conception behind each place can be, they are consistently let down by their kitchens.

King had spoken enthusiastically about their first hotel, The Beaumont, so I was dying to go and see it. And while the hotel lived up to his concept, the food at The Colony Grill Room, its restaurant, was terrible.

The restaurant had the Corbin-King trademarks: it looked great, the wines were well-chosen and service was good.

But the food was the worst I’ve ever had at any of their places. This is supposed to be an American-style restaurant

so I tried the burger, which was a dry lump of mince with the texture of sawdust. (It was certainly not the medium-rare

patty I’d ordered.)

The New York strip (their most expensive steak) had no juiciness and was so hard to cut into that I had to ask them

to see if they could find a sharper knife. Only the chips were good.

I liked the hotel. They greeted resident guests by name and seemed friendly but operations needed tightening up. The men’s loo had only two urinals, one of which was leaking so that a little puddle of pee had collected below it. Nobody in the management seemed to have noticed.

With Corbin and King’s magic touch, The Colony Room should have been as trendy as the Chiltern Firehouse is now.

Who Moved My Chutney? Namita Panjabi, her husband Ranjit Mathrani and sister Camellia Panjabi have just shifted Chutney Mary to a fancy new location in St James But the night I went, it was not full and the guests comprised mainly American visitors to London; hotel guests, perhaps. They need to find some good chefs if their group is to get its mojo back!

And finally, an old favourite. Twenty five years ago, my friend Namita Panjabi and her husband Ranjit Mathrani opened Chutney Mary on the wrong end of the King’s Road.

At the time, the only upmarket Indian restaurant of consequence in London was the Taj’s Bombay Brasserie (opened, oddly enough, by Namita’s sister, Camellia) which had become a super-success (another connection: it was Fay Maschler’s review that put The Brasserie on the map).

Chutney Mary was more formal than The Brasserie and more experimental with its food. I loved it and it became the first success in Ranjit and Namita’s empire which grew to include the Masala Zone chain, Amaya (Michelin-starred and buzzy), and a makeover of the venerable Veeraswamy’s.

Ranjit and Namita (and Camellia who joined them after she retired from the Taj) have just shifted Chutney Mary to a fancy new location in St James, near such great English names as Lock & Co the hatmaker and John Lobb the shoemaker.

It’s the site that once hosted the legendary Prunier’s fish restaurant though Marco Pierre White had less success with the space when he ran Luciano there more recently.

I went to the new site and like everybody else (including Fay, who was very impressed) loved the new Chutney Mary. If the Mathranis can make this site work, then this is potentially the best Indian restaurant in town.

Which is nice because the so-called gastronomic capital of the world could do with some good restaurants.

From HT Brunch, July 19
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