The two Londons and their food
Major changes are happening outside of the West End, and here’s what is trendingUpdated: Sep 02, 2017 22:22 IST
There is one important difference between the restaurant scene in London and in Delhi or Mumbai. In no Indian city can any restaurant (even one at a deluxe hotel) get by on expatriate/tourist business. You have to cater to locals.
Not so in London. The city centre is full of disgusting chain restaurants that are designed to cater to tourists who will eat there once and never come back. And there is a second category: super-expensive restaurants in Mayfair, Knightsbridge and other upmarket areas that make no attempt to attract locals but flourish on the custom of oligarchs, visiting Arab millionaires and extravagant Indian exiles and tourists.
A focus on foreign custom is not always a bad thing. Except that it has now reached a level where you often have to look really hard to find a single English person at many fancy restaurants. And some of the new ‘super-rich’ restaurants cater mainly to the gastronomically-challenged. As the critic Jay Rayner wrote of Novikov, run by a Russian for other Russians and assorted millionaires: “You really don’t have to hate Novikov on principle. There is more than enough about the place to let you hate it on its own terms.”
You can’t generalise too much about central London restaurants. The last time I was in London I ate at Frescobaldi, an outpost of the Italian wine company’s restaurant division where the service was inept, the food was mediocre and there were few English guests. On the other hand, Locanda Locatelli, which is located in a sort-of five-star hotel, The Churchill, served outstanding food and the service was exemplary.
But yes, there are two Londons when it comes to restaurants. And the big changes are happening in non-tourist London, outside of the West End, in such areas as Shoreditch and Clapham.
Here are some of the trends I noticed...
No bookings: Not a policy I like but the number of places that won’t accept reservations and will expect people to queue up for tables is increasing. On the whole, people are willing to queue even though I am not one of them.
The pop-up look: The currently fashionable style of restaurant design is to make every place look like a pop-up. You feel that the room was designed for something else, that the chef and his mates swooped in and took it over and didn’t waste money on tablecloths, fancy crockery, etc.
This suits me fine: I loathe chefs who brag about their plates. And sometimes, the new restaurants really do occupy spaces that were designed for other purposes. The excellent Clove Club is part of Shoreditch Town Hall. The Smoking Goat occupies a tiny space that might once have been considered totally unsuitable for a restaurant.
Open kitchen: Most of the new places have open kitchens so you can see the chefs at work. I like the concept for several reasons. 1) It reminds you of why you are there: to eat. 2) It reduces the distance between the chef and the customer. 3) It eliminates the need for superstar greeters and managers. 4) Because the chefs are on public display, they behave themselves. In the old days, the likes of Tom Aikens and Marco Pierre White would shout and scream in the kitchen, secure in the knowledge that the punters would never know what went on. 5) At least, you know who has cooked your food. At Lyle’s, you can see James Lowe cooking your pork; at A Wong, Wong looks at each plate before it goes out. It’s harder now to be an absentee chef if you are famous.
Cuisine neutral: There are still very good authentic restaurants in London but they tend to be the older ones. I ate a great meal at the Taj-owned Quilon (one-Michelin star) and spent a wonderful Sunday in the shadow of Tower Bridge, eating classic French food at La Pont de la Tour. But the last time La Pont de la Tour was in the news was in 1997 when Tony Blair took Bill Clinton there, and Quilon opened in 1999.
The concept of “authenticity” means less and less. The more popular Indian restaurants no longer claim to be authentic and many make a point of having fun with the food. The Smoking Goat is Thai. But the chef is British and the food is more Thai-inspired than fully Thai. Apparently the same is true of Kricket (Indian-inspired food, non-Indian chef) but it doesn’t take bookings and so I did not go.
On the whole, the newer wave of restaurants focuses on the chef’s interpretation of the cuisine rather than on ancient recipes. A Wong used to be Kyms, an old-style Chinese restaurant till the owner’s son Andrew Wong, who read chemistry at Oxford, took it over and revamped it.
Wong travelled around China, picking dishes he liked and translated them according to his vision. The restaurant is done up in the currently fashionable style (wooden tables, open kitchen etc.) and the food is remarkable. Scallop cheung fan comes as a single- seared scallop wrapped in cheung fan skin and served on its shell. Fried rice is made with lots of tiny bits of Wagyu, the fat coating each grain of rice. It’s not traditional Chinese, but the day I went the restaurant had lots of Chinese guests and the food was terrific.
At other places, the chef just did his own thing. At The Other Naughty Piglet (the first Piglet is in Brixton) the signature dishes include linguine in Chinese XO sauce and pork belly with a Korean sauce alongside a starter of ham croquettes. It is hard to find a common thread to the food other than the chef’s own style.
Eggs: Suddenly eggs are everywhere. At The Other Naughty Piglet, the linguine was topped with an egg that had been cured in soy and mince. An egg and mushroom combination cropped up again and again. At Lyle’s, girolles and ceps with egg were the stars of the show. At the excellent Ledbury (where I ate the single best meal of my trip), the Chef, Brett Graham, served a warm bantam’s egg (a bantam is a small chicken) with dried ham and truffles.
Grated foie gras: Say what you like about Ferran Adria, but many of the techniques he popularised still flourish even among chefs who don’t much care for molecular gastronomy. Frozen foie gras is now all the rage. The advantage with this technique is that you can shave the foie gras over a dish. It seems like powder but when it hits the warmth of your mouth, it returns to its original buttery texture.
I have seen nearly everyone use this technique from Mark Best in Sydney to Daniel Humm in New York but it was used most inventively in London by Brett Graham in a dish that combined green beans, hazelnuts and peach and, more unusually, by Andrew Wong with Chinese pork.
Wines: It could just be the places I went to but I think London is giving up on the novelty of wines from unfamiliar countries and the New World. Most sommeliers suggested European (mainly French) wines and the adventurous ones went for unfiltered wines, which I love but are not to everyone’s taste. (An unfiltered wine is cloudier and tastes more of the soil.) The superstar sommelier of the trip was Nominoe Guillebot at Lyle’s who won me over by pulling out an artisanal French tomato liqueur to drink with dessert.
Surprises: Not that many, actually. I thought the Ledbury would be as terrific as it was when it first opened but actually, it was even better. I thought Lyle’s would be good but not as great as the Clove Club and that turned out to be right. I thought Henrietta would be amazing because it had enlisted the talents of chef Ollie Dabbous but it was very ordinary. I was intrigued by the Smoking Goat, which was nice enough, but I wouldn’t go back.
I had wondered about Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, part of a chain run by the celebrity chef where waiters offer you hunks of over-priced and oversized steak from all over the world. I went with Digvijay Singh and Sheroy Kermani, the general manager and the chef from St. James Court and was pleasantly surprised. The steak (I stuck with local British meat) was fine but the sides (ratte potatoes, bone marrow, etc.) were terrific and the service was outstanding. But nearly all of the guests were from the Middle East and I wondered why they even bothered to put pork belly on the menu.
But overall, it was a good experience. Which just shows that you can’t afford to be prejudiced. It is possible to eat well in both Londons. You just have to be lucky.
From HT Brunch, September 3, 2017
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