When it comes to food trends, there are only two cities in the world that count: London and New York. Paris is hopelessly parochial. Hong Kong is too busy trying to ape the West while its local food scene remains on a slow simmer. The Spanish only achieved recognition for their molecular cuisine when New York took notice – after The New York Times Magazine put Ferran Adrià on the cover.
Los Angeles could do nothing for Nobu Matsuhisa who ran a restaurant there for years; the breakthrough came when he opened Nobu in New York, because that is the city that counts. And London’s restaurants have now become brands – Hakkasan, Zuma, The Ivy, Royal China, Yauatcha etc – that are exported around the world as examples of the kind of place that the gastronomic capital of the world specialises in.So what are they eating in London these days? It is a difficult question to answer because it is not clear who "they" are. London is now the world’s most international city and many of its restaurants survive on the basis of foreign patronage. Others attract no foreigners at all, remaining entirely British enclaves.
At present, the biggest spenders in London are rich Russians. So much in demand is Russian custom (because they can spend thousands of pounds on a single meal) that you can get a table at virtually any hard-to-book restaurant by putting on a Russian accent when you phone and making the reservation in a Russian-sounding name.
Now, Russian business has reached such levels that an entire new sector of Russian restaurants has developed. There was always Sumosan (a sort of Nobu-for-oligarchs) but there’s also Novikov on Berkeley Street serving the same sort of food owned by Arkady Novikov who runs 50 restaurants in Moscow.
Plus there are many other places designed to cater to rich Russians: Mari Vanna, Baku (okay, it is Azerbaijani, but same general idea), Goodman (it serves steak but is run by Russians for other Russians), Novikov Italian (same Moscow restaurateur: This is his Italian place) etc.
None of us is going to go to any of these places and run up Russian-style bills for overpriced food. But there is another big ticket trend: The steakhouse. The Americans have always had steakhouses. So have Australians. But London has only just bought into the idea.
In America, the steakhouse is a no-nonsense kind of place meant for big men with bigger appetites who are served by dour, middle-aged waiters. In Britain, the steakhouse is designed for foreigners who want to spend a lot of money on dinner but have no interest in fancy food or understanding of haute cuisine.
At the bottom end of the market there have always been foreigners-and-tourists-only steakhouses like the Angus Steak House chain but now, new places are aiming for the very top of the market with fancy cuts of beef that can cost upwards of £100 for a single steak. Cut, part of Wolfgang Puck’s international chain, draws rich tourists. JW Steakhouse follows the same formula at Grosvenor House (owned by Subroto Roy, though I would be very surprised if he actually ate there!).
Maze Grill used to be Gordon Ramsay Holdings’ attempt to do something different: Now it is like all the other high-end tourist places. The Palm is a branch of an American chain and draws many rich Arabs. And 34 is the new one from Caprice Holdings (The Ivy, J Sheekey, Scott’s, etc) that hopes to use its Grosvenor Square location to lure locals and wealthy tourists alike into its 100-seater dining room.
Away from the places designed to appeal to foreigners, the London scene is more complicated. If steaks cost too much for most Brits, then hamburgers (another recent obsession) are more affordable. Daniel Boulud brought the upmarket hamburger to London at his Bar Boulud and I was an early champion of the restaurant. But when I went for dinner last week, the fizz had gone out of the place. The burger was fine but the chips were soggy, the onion soup had a thin, watery taste and the Floating Island was a disaster. Worse still, the crowd comprised tourists and hotel guests and service was sloppy with poorly-trained staff.
There are other burger places too but the hot ones tend to be those that charge much less than Boulud does and take no reservations. I did not have the heart to stand in line on a rainy London day at Burger & Lobster, a new popular place that only serves the two eponymous items, but I’ve heard mixed reports about the food.
I did, however, get into Meat Liquor, its soul brother. Like Burger & Lobster, it takes no reservations, usually has a line outside and has a severely limited menu. Its owners previously sold burgers and hot dogs from a food truck so the idea is to serve the kind of food you ate on the street with your hands in a restaurant setting.
There are no plates. All orders come on a single tray and you are encouraged to use a roll of tissue paper (like you have in a kitchen) as crockery and napkins, combined. Speaking for myself, I did not think much of the burgers (useless meat patties but inventive sauces) or of the strange room with its loud country music but the horrendous queues every night suggest that I am in a minority.
One kind of London restaurant that never really appeals too much to Indians or other foreigners is the British-French restaurant. In its heyday, Le Gavroche catered to some rich Pakistanis but Manu Chhabria was about the only Indian regular. Even today, there are few Indians to be found at Koffmann’s, Hibiscus, Tom Aikens, The Square or Arbutus. On the whole, we prefer Italian restaurants because (a) there are more vegetarian options and (b) we prefer Italian food to French anyway.
I’ve never seen an Indian at Wild Honey, a wonderful French-ish restaurant from the people behind Arbutus, even though its location, off Hanover Square, makes it perfect for shoppers. I went again this time and the food was as terrific as always: Cornish cod with roast chicken leg, English asparagus with poached egg, slow-cooked lamb shoulder and a killer Floating Island (they should send Daniel Boulud their recipe).
Nor are there many Indians at Dinner by Heston either. In the early days, when the restaurant had just opened, and was the hottest table in town (it is still hard to get into), many Indians went out of curiosity about Heston Blumenthal’s new adventure. But when I went back last week after several months, the room was full of Brits and a few South East Asian guests from the hotel. (Dinner was at the Mandarin Oriental – in my view, currently the best hotel in London, with outstanding service.)
I was lucky to get in (I suspect the Mandarin’s concierge has an allocation) and the set lunch at £32 must be London’s biggest bargain. The food was outstanding: A pork ragout as a starter (would it spoil things if I said it was made from a pig’s ear?), a succulent slab of salted fish and a trembling custard tart.
If you want a little molecular excitement, then there’s an ice-cream trolley for post-dessert. The waiter asks you which flavour you want and makes the ice cream before your eyes in seconds, using liquid nitrogen. There are even puffs of smoke to complete the magic trick effect.
Another kind of London restaurant that often mystifies foreigners is the casual-dining place. Brits go crazy trying to score tables at The Ivy, Le Caprice, The Wolseley or Polpo but rich foreigners stay away. Perhaps they associate casual dining with hotel coffee shops.
And certainly, the concept doesn’t seem to travel well. I don’t know how The Ivy’s foreign branches are doing but the New York Caprice never worked. The kings of the casual but trendy London dining are Jeremy King (whom I interviewed in these pages some months ago) and Chris Corbin.
The Delaunay in Aldwych is their latest and is clearly the Eastern European cousin of their massively successful Wolseley. It is, like all Corbin and King restaurants, marked by exceptional service, a sense of specialness and good, simple food.
I had the tarte flambée (a sort of thin crust pizza) as a starter and then an excellent New York hot dog with crisp, perfectly-fried chips. It all came to around £20 per head, which is crazy for one of London’s hottest restaurants. But then, good taste is not about money. At least, not in London.
From HT Brunch, June 24
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