Two weeks in London (U.K.) last month wasn’t long enough to sleuth the hot ‘n’ happening food scene in that fair city.
In the 1950s and ’60s, when I spent formative years there, bagels and baguettes were a novelty In fact, my Canadian dad used to make a pilgrimage to Soho’s Berwick St. Market to find cobs of corn: an imported delicacy in those days that cost the equivalent of a dollar apiece. Sunday was the day for our visit to Zlotnick’s in the North London suburb of Finchley where we lived to purchase bagels – almost unknown in our white, white-collar, white-bread nabe – at that lone Jewish deli.
Today, London is a hot-bed of delicious chow – from the nutrient-packed, luscious Muesli pot at Pret a Manger to high-end stuff like snails at the new St. John Hotel. What’s more, corn is on almost every menu along with harissa, veal cheeks, smoked eel, burrata, lovage and other exotica.
First, note three tips from my previous blog: The sensational vegetarian eatery in Brighton called Terre a Terre where the incredible desserts – Lemon and Lime Sotto Meringue Pie, and Nuts About Chocolate Fondant, to name two – are sublime. Also, the gypsy swing jazz (especially on Tuesday, jam night) at Le Quecumbar in Battersea (London, south of the Thames) – but please eat before you darken these doors as the food is inedible. And pretty well anything at the health-conscious, eco-friendly fast food chain Pret a Manger.
The following is a list of my favourite spots to nosh in London as sleuthed on my recent trip, in order of preference:
Nopi: Located in Soho, this is the newest of four eateries owned and operated by Yotam Ottolenghi: a brilliant chef with Middle Eastern roots whose forte is vegetarian fare but who is not a vegetarian. My meal at Nopi consisted of eight tapas-style dishes, only one of which – Artichoke, Farro, Broad Beans, Goat Cheese – was not stellar. Best of the bunch were Grilled Broccolini with Skordalia and Chili Oil; Seared Scallops with Pickled Daikon and Green Apple; Softshell Crab with Green Tea Noodles and Ponzu, and Lamb Sweetbreads with White Pepper and Sweet Peas. The crowning glory and recent addition to the dessert menu were Doughnuts with Plum Wine Anglaise and Berry Compote – three delectably crisp, light and not-too-sweet beignets baked in a light coating of melted butter.
Tayyabs: Possibly the best Indian food I’ve eaten, this place in the heart of Whitechapel – east-end home to much of London’s Muslim community – was a fantastic tip from Kerstin Rodgers. Known as Ms Marmite Lover online, Kerstin is the hot foodie in London these days and author of a new book called Supper Club. The weekly dinners she cooks and hosts at her home in Kilburn are currently the hot ticket as the original underground restaurant that spawned a burgeoning scene. I had the divine lamb chops at Tayyabs, that day’s special. They, along with perfect naan and aromatic basmati rice, are still calling my name. Note: Try to go at a time other than the lunchtime rush as this big, bustling place, complete with snack bar/take-out, is hugely popular.
Terroirs: Not far The Strand and St, Martins-in-the Field, this is a newish and excellent spot for small plates of bistro-ish French food with a smattering of British fare. I found the menu a tad pretentious – much of it is in French only – but this was redeemed by the friendly, knowledgeable servers and excellent food. We were noshing our way around town that so only had the charcuterie plate and treacle tart. They epitomize the Franco-British marriage on the menu and both are good. The wine list is extensive here and they take it seriously.
Polpetto: The tip about this newish, second-floor boite above the iconic Soho pub The French House, came from Sheila Dillon, longtime host of BBC 4’s The Food Programme. In spite of the cramped tables and high decibel level in this tiny room, the terrific food – again, small plates – made up for everything. For a mere $20, the plate of cold meat could have been a meal for two by itself: a big mound of old-fashioned chopped liver was surrounded by thin slices of Italian salami and speck. It came with crunchy rounds of toasted baguette. Do not miss the zucchini fries: juliennes of zucchini in tempura batter that were salty and crisp. Must try to make these at home. Best use of that insipid veg I’ve found.
St. John Hotel: I went to the original St. John eatery in London several years ago soon after it opened. Its owner chef and confirmed carnivore Fergus Henderson had garnered a lot of ink since then, especially for his espousal of offal and of nose-to-tail eating. Anthony Bourdain and Martin Picard (of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon fame) are big fans. So am I but am wondering if the whole things has become a tad too trendy and a little pretentious. With this in mind, I dropped by the newly acquired and recently renovated St. John Hotel near Leicester Square, the latest Henderson project, for a mid-afternoon snack. The place is all portholes, chrome and minimalist decor. Everyone who works there, dressed in white, could be confused for a chef. Its saving grace? My dish of juicy snails with crunchy croutons, bacon chunks and lovage was delish. Likewise for the silky smooth custard tart. The couple next to me were devouring their Suckling Pig with Potato and Watercress with great enthusiasm. The crispy crackling made me vow to order it next time, even at $80 for two.
Sir Richard Steele: This fabulous pub on Haverstock Hill in Belsize Park is my mum’s local watering hole and a favourite place of my late dad who knew a good people-watching spot when he saw one. I once spotted David Walliams (of Little Britain fame) here and Helena Bonham Carter lives next door. The clientele is a lively mixture of working-class folk, artsy types and local regulars. And a happy surprise: The Sunday roast is excellent at $15 a pop: Yorkshire pudding, your basic roast beef and properly cooked veg.
Ottolenghi, located on the increasingly trendy Upper St. near The Angel tube in the once-rough northwest London enclave of Islington, is the original restaurant and named after its owner/chef. We were there one sunny mid-afternoon and tried dessert – a Passion Fruit Meringue Tart and Guinness Chocolate Cake. Both were good but not as good as they looked. Definitely not up to the sublime standard of sweets at Terre a Terre in Brighton.