What’s on the plate, London?
The city moves away from formal dining towards more buzzy places – but not at the expense of celebrity chefs, writes Vir Sanghvi.brunch Updated: Jul 21, 2012 18:04 IST
Yes, I know. I wrote about food trends in London a few weeks ago. So why am I flogging the same horse with yet another piece on the subject?
Well, apart from the obvious reason (i.e. I went back again), there are two others. The first is that an astonishing number of people told me that they enjoyed the first piece: partly because they visit London reasonably often and partly because any true foodie wants to know about restaurant trends in the food capital of the world. And the second reason is that the first piece was vaguely incomplete: there were still trends left to discuss, restaurants left to review.
But before we go any further, here’s a bit of advice that you might find slightly surprising: if you are planning a trip to London, don’t.
The city is going to be taken over by the Olympic hordes, hotels will be full, roads will be shut, the traffic will be unbearable and the London we know and love will vanish for about a month or so.
Then, there’s the small problem of the English summer. The week I was there, they found the Higgs Boson. But they still couldn’t find the English summer. England has had more rain this year than ever before. Even when the sun does shine, it only shows itself for an hour or so before vanishing. And then, the rain takes over.
One night while I was there, the Met Office issued 199 separate flood warnings and large parts of Britain were so completely submerged that they could organise the swimming events at the forthcoming Olympics at any meadow; no swimming pool is required.
However, once all this Olympic madness is over and once – according to the Met Office – the rain has receded somewhat (that would be September, I think), then do visit London. It is still one of the world’s two great foodie cities.
In terms of trends, the most notable is the move away from formal dining towards more buzzy places. One such hot restaurant is the Pollen Street Social, which takes the ‘Social’ in its name quite seriously. In the evenings the place is full of people drinking at the bar, helping themselves to tapas or antipasti and wandering around the two main rooms that comprise the restaurant.
What makes Pollen Street Social such a hot place (it is hard to score a table) is that it does serious food. The chef is Jason Atherton who opened Maze, the Asian-influenced small plates place, for Gordon Ramsay Holdings. But this is very much his own place and it probably does better than any of Ramsay’s own restaurants do these days. (A branch in Singapore is supposed to open soon).
I liked the vibe but at lunch, the food was distinctly so-so. A poached cod and a slow-cooked lamb entrée were competently executed but had no ‘wow’ factor. Starters of a foie gras terrine and English asparagus with heritage tomatoes were disappointing. The greeters had the air of shampoo-trainees at a high street salon but our waiter, Ludek, from Czechoslovakia, was quite outstanding.
Ludek’s ethnicity pointed to another trend. A decade and a half ago, fancy restaurants had French waiters even if the kitchens were all Brit. Now, that’s changed. There are lots of Indians at the back of the house (kitchen, pantry etc.) but very rarely are they allowed into the front.
The visible staff at most upmarket restaurants (and designer shops, for that matter) tend to be white – Eastern Europeans on the whole, who have no experience of the food or (Ludek being an exception) of service itself. Their primary qualification is that because they are white, they seem European. The Indians are hidden away where no one can see them. If this isn’t racism, then I don’t know what it is.
I mentioned Burger & Lobster last time. It is one of London’s most popular restaurants with two conceits. The first is that it does not take reservations (like Meat Liquor, another trendy burger joint I wrote about). The other is that the menu does really only consist of lobster and burgers – both at the same price. They pull this off by serving a lobster sandwich (called a Lobster Roll in the American style) that doesn’t actually have that much lobster in it. You can, if you like, order whole lobsters but these cost a lot more.
Unlike Meat Liquor, which I did not like, I was impressed by Burger & Lobster. The restaurant looks nice, is well-run and the staff are friendly and efficient. Plus the burgers are really good.
You would think that a rise in buzzy places would lead to the devaluation of the chef. But no, chefs are very much at the centre of the new eating-out culture. Pollen Street Social has Jason Atherton’s name on the menu in bigger letters than the name of the restaurant’s.
Brown’s Hotel is one of London’s great names but it sensibly outsources the food at its dining room to a celebrity chef, Mark Hix, who made his name at The Ivy before launching his own empire. And it seems to have worked. Though the restaurant has still to take off, the food was great: English snails, crispy pork belly, etc.
Philip Howard is probably the last great unsung British chef. His The Square has long deserved three stars but Michelin has refused to give him more than two. Undeterred, Howard has launched an empire of his own. One of his places – The Ledbury – now has two stars in its own right. And another, Kitchen W8, a neighbourhood restaurant on the Abingdon Road, has one star, despite making no efforts to please the Michelin inspectors.
I went for dinner to Kitchen W8 and was struck by the friendliness of the place and wide range of wines available by the carafe. The food was excellent: an outstanding foie gras terrine, delicious steak tartare and thin slices of Spanish pata negra. It wasn’t hard to see why the restaurant has a Michelin star.
The kings of the London restaurant scene are Jeremy King and Chris Corbin. In this avatar (after they sold The Ivy, Le Caprice, etc.) they are best known for the Wolseley but are now suddenly expanding furiously. I wrote last time about The Delaunay which I loved. There’s a new place in Sloane Square still to come and a hotel off Oxford Street opens next year.
I went to Brasserie Zédel, their newest restaurant, a week after it had opened, before the reviews had come out and before the publicity had begun. Even so, it was packed. Corbin and King have transformed a basement off Piccadilly Circus into a huge French brasserie of the sort you would expect to find at a grand railway station. (Except that in today’s France, you’d probably find a McDonald’s at a railway station).
Corbin and King like Mittel Europe and Austria so it was nice to see them take on France for a change. That said, I thought the food was a work in progress: the foie gras and escargots were okay but you could get better at a dozen other places in London for only a little more money.
A steak haché, duck confit and a Floating Island were much better but the food has yet to hit the highs you expect of Corbin and King. More unusually, the waiting staff were ill-informed. The wine list is all French so it was odd to see a wine described simply as Pinot Noir. I asked a manager-type where the wine was from. He said ‘France’ which was self-evident and so no help. I asked him if he could find out where in France and he never came back.
Fortunately, we had a wonderful waitress, Georgie, newly arrived from Sydney, who knew her stuff and said the wine came from the Loire (which might explain why it was so tasteless).
I asked Georgie if the excellent chips were commercial and if the confit had mustard in the sauce. She checked with the head waiter who said the chips were hand cut (which was odd because they were coated like Stealth Fries) and that there was no mustard in the duck. Because she was good at what she did, she then went to the kitchen and double checked. The chef told her the fries were McCain. The confit had Dijon mustard in the sauce. So much for the head waiter.
Small things. And perhaps they’ll get it right eventually. But from Corbin and King, you expect perfection.
From HT Brunch, July 22
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