CHEFS ENERGIZE LONDON’S RESTAURANT SCENE by NINA SIMONDS
In the past five years, London has emerged as one of Europe’s most exciting culinary meccas with a respectable showing of one, two, and three Michelin- star restaurants. Although the city has long hosted an extensive number of inexpensive ethnic eateries, and a modest selection of Italian restaurants, upscale menus have mainly featured “haute” French delicacies prepared by classically-trained British chefs.
But the culinary horizon is broadening, as Australian and New Zealand chefs are importing their refreshingly, open-minded philosophy of highlighting local ingredients and interweaving elements of East and West to create their own unique style of cooking which defies classic traditions. (But please don’t call it fusion.)
“Australian chefs have been drifting over to London for the past 7 to 8 years, ” says Terry Durack, an expatriate Australian who reviews restaurants for the Independent newspaper in London. “At the same time, English chefs who have studied with French chefs have brought THAT food to Australia.” Durack contends that Australian chefs have an unpretentious attitude towards food and that the eclectic Australian style has evolved as a result of having access to almost every type of ingredient and exposure to numerous Asian cuisines. As the following restaurants illustrate, these chefs have also brought a tantalizing diversity to the London food scene.
John Torode first came to London eleven years ago since he viewed the city as a gateway to Europe. He was hired by Sir Terence Conran (who is credited as being the first British resterateur to recognize the potential of Australian cooks) where he distinguished himself in a number of Conran’s ventures. In 1999, he and a now-departed partner took over a former meat-packing house and created a three-story complex that has something for everybody. The place teems with activity day and night.
The ground floor is a café/pub with a broad menu that includes breakfast all day, sandwiches, salads, and juices, drinks, and fruit smoothies. The first floor has a more ambitious set price menu that features bistro-style dishes (On the day we ate there roast beef, pasta, and smoked haddock kedgeree were available.) as well as canapés. The top floor, although casual, is for finer dining and features “Modern British” cooking. Torode likes to know the source of his ingredients and he has dedicated himself to exploring and highlighting British foods. Each restaurant uses only rare breed meat, organic food, and specific suppliers, who are all credited on the menu. My two dining partners, Faye Maschler, who is a revered restaurant critic for the Standard, and Paul Levy, the European correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, had high praise for the restaurant and for Torode’s passion in supporting British foods.
We had lunch on the top floor and since the September day was beautifully sunny, the doors to the terrace were open so that everyone in the restaurant enjoyed a charming view of the old Smithfield complex which houses the still-functioning wholesale meat market. The restaurant is bright and airy and the food is unpretentious and delicious. Raw oysters were incredibly fresh-tasting and briny. Shorthorn rump (There are four different cuts of beef offered ) was full of flavor and wonderfully tender. Seared scallops were sweet and succulent. I found the roast venison to be gamy, but my companions enjoyed it immensely.
While the menu leans toward meats, there is a fine selection of seafood and vegetarian dishes. Torode mixes classic preparations such as grilled or pan-fried beef with a choice of béarnaise, red wine butter, or horseradish sauce. The choices are varied since according to Torode, his influences come from different cuisines around the world. The wine selection (including many types of champagne) is extensive and quite reasonable.
Thirty-year old Shane Osborne is the first Australian chef to receive a coveted Michelin star and after glancing at his menu, you might conclude that his cooking is perhaps no different from his mentor Gordon Ramsey. Look again; amidst the mainly French-influenced dishes, there are some subtle Asian and Mediterranean touches.
The restaurant, which has only fourteen to sixteen tables is intimate, but lovely with a handsome stone floor, colorful abstract paintings and gorgeous flower displays. Co-owner and maitre d’ David Moore couldn’t be more gracious and helpful in choosing wine selections (The menu lists suggested
wines for each dish.)
Our lunch, (an extraordinary bargain at 23 pounds) began with the serving of aperatif glasses brimming with a frothy mouse of parsley with ham hock and cumin. The subtle blending of seasonings was exquisite. For starters, I chose a Salmon and crab ravioli (dumpling) that had an ethereal filling and paper-thin skin and my companion, the renowned Middle Eastern authority Claudia Roden, opted for Slow -roasted banana shallots with baby beetroots which was also wonderful. My entree of Roasted brill with red wine sauce was beautifully seared and accompanied by a crisp potato pancake. Claudia’s veal was succulently tender and offset by a garlic confit and mushroomy cepe risotto.
We were almost too full for dessert, but couldn’t resist tasting the creamy vanilla- lemon cheesecake with a buttery crust (worth the calories). Diners can opt for a selection of cheeses instead of dessert . Just as we were about to call for the bill, a beautiful tray with miniature pastries and homemade chocolates arrived, a lovely gesture, especially at lunch. It was a superb meal in every way. The wine list, although heavily French, is extensive and offers a strong showing of wines from Australia, Spain, and Italy.
Christopher Behr, the head chef at Mju is the protégé of Tetsuya Wakuda, a renowned Australian-Japanese chef who has a greatly acclaimed restaurant in Sydney. When word of a new venture in London first circulated, there was great expectation. Although Mju, which opened last summer in the Millennium Hotel, got off to a rocky start, it seems to have found its mooring and as a lunch in October illustrated, the kitchen is in incredibly capable hands. The décor, however, could be a little more interesting and is a marked contrast to the food.
According to manager, Michael Dore, another Testoya protégé, every meal at Mju (all set menus with fixed prices) is a modern-day version of the Japanese kaiseki banquet, or a “pageant” of small dishes featuring seasonal foods. Behr, like his mentor Tetsoya, mixes classic Japanese and French ingredients and techniques to create innovative and exciting food.
The set lunch (another bargain at 25 pounds) consists of ten courses and was truly memorable. Each dish provided a different texture and flavor experience and the presentation of most dishes was stunning. Portions are small so the diner doesn’t feel overwhelmed- especially at lunch. We began the meal with small glasses of Campari and grapefruit sorbet which was refreshing and a lovely palate cleanser. Briny, fresh oysters with ginger dressing followed. Other highlights of the meal included a superb ravioli of lobster with a seaweed vinaigrette, a generous nugget of smoked eel served on wasabi rice, and tuna tartar. As a special treat at the end of the meal, we asked for Floating Island (from the dinner menu) and were rewarded with feather-light meringues floating in a satiny vanilla bean and praline custard sauce. Petits fours and chocolates were also too special to ignore, despite a very full stomach. My suggestion: Go for lunch and skip breakfast.
For years I had been reading rave reviews about David Thompson’s innovative Thai dishes. Thompson, until his move to London, was one of Sydney’s most acclaimed chefs, who went to Thailand on vacation a number of years ago and became infatuated with Thai food. He studied for several years with a master cook and went on to open Darley Street Thai in Sydney.
At Nahm, which is situated at the posh Halkin Hotel Thompson and sous chef Damien Jones , a longtime protégé, weave magic in many dishes, especially the salads by integrating classic Thai dishes and prime European ingredients. The salad of scallops with green mango and chilies is a classic example. Sweet seared scallops are combined with firm mango slices and tossed in a spicy hot and sour dressing with fresh lime and cilantro. It’s a masterful blending of flavors. The oyster salad with a serving of five-flavor pork on the side was less enticing. Foie gras dressed with sweet coconut cream and deep-fried galangal ( a spice akin to ginger) - a dish I would not have normally tried but a fellow diner insisted- melted in the mouth with an arresting caramelized sauce.
The entrees were also fine: Red curry of brill with kaffir lime leaves and coriander had the right balance of flavors, but grilled corn fed chicken was a tad dry. The simple dessert of white sticky rice with mango and coconut cream was wonderful, especially when the mango is properly ripe.( At a dinner it was not quite there, but at lunch, it was delectable.)
Thompson was lured to London because it reminds him of Sydney ten years ago when it was establishing a food identity, making it an exciting and challenging place for a chef. He urges his customers to eat a traditional Thai meal, choosing among the various salads and entrees. At 47 pounds per person for dinner and 18 or 20 pounds for lunch, plus wine, the price is quite steep, especially if you order a la carte at dinner and some good wine. (The sommelier is delightful and we loved his suggestion of a 1998 Albert Mann Gevertztraminer ). Furthermore, the décor leaves much to be desired and the service can be a bit stuffy. Stick to a set meal and chat up the wine steward.
The Providores and Tapa Room
Although Peter Gordon, a native New Zealander, came to London twelve years ago, he first caused waves in 1995 with his food at The Sugar Club. The critics described the dishes as a combination of “Pacific Rim” and “New British food”. Gordon suggests that his style had more to do with taking local ingredients and pairing them with different cuisines and technique, with the focus being mainly Asian. At The Providores and Tapa Room, which he opened with 3 other partners, Gordon and fellow cook Anna Henson go a step further bringing Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences together with European and Asian to create an interesting and eclectic menu.
The restaurant, located in the West End of London, consists of two floors: The décor , both upstairs and down, is warm and appealing with comfortable leather booths and handsome dark wood. The more formal space upstairs serves reasonably-priced, substantial lunch and dinner dishes and takes reservations. The tapa room, on the ground floor, is a lively, no-reservation, bar/café where I prefer to eat. At night, it can be crowded. To avoid a wait, go early. Lunch is relatively quiet, or at least it was when I ate there in last fall.
My companion and I ordered a diverse assortment of tapas and it was difficult to choose which one we liked best: Sweet and spicy mixed nuts were delightfully crisp with a curry flavoring. Coconut laksa (a spicy Malaysian noodle soup) had just the right balance spicy, sour, and salty. Miniature spring rolls had a crisp skin and tender filling fragrant with smoky black mushrooms. A salad of tea-smoked salmon was unique and flavorful. We especially liked the Lamb, saffron, tomato, stew with basmatic rice and yogurt. The lamb was succulently tender and the portion so generous it was a meal-in-itself. Mixed drinks are imaginative and the wine list (which is reasonably priced) leans heavily towards those from New Zealand.
Bill of fare:
All restaurants are open for lunch or dinner, unless otherwise stated. Prices do not include 12 ½ % service charge or wine. Prices are estimated at a rate of 1.45 pounds to the dollar.
Smiths of Smithfield, 67-77 Charterhouse Street, EC1M 6HJ; (44) 207 236 6666, fax (44) 207 236 5666; Hours vary for each floor; Ground floor open Monday through Friday 7 am to 11 pm; Saturday and Sunday10:30 am to 10:30 pm Top floor: Monday to Friday lunch and dinner. Dinner for one on top floor restaurant is roughly $58 to 72 per person for appetizer, entrée, and dessert. (Contact Sarah Jane 44 207 236 7666)
Pied a Terre, 34 Charlotte Street, W1P 1HJ; (44)2076361178; (44) 207 9161171(fax). Set lunch is $34 for 3 courses and dinner is $51 for 3 course Monday through Friday. Saturday dinner menu is $58 for 2 courses. Tasting menu is available each night; 8 courses for $95 .
Mju, Millenium Hotel, 17 Sloan Street, Knightsbridge, SWIX 9NU; (44) 207201 6332; (44) 207201 6303(fax). 25 pounds for six-course set lunch and 50 pounds for ten-course set dinner every day.
Nahm, Halkin Hotel; Halkin Street, SW1X 7DJ (44) 207333 1234; (44) 207333 1100 (fax) ; Set lunch is $26 for 1 course with dessert; $29 for 2 courses; $33 for 3 courses; and $36 for 4 course. Five- course set dinner for $6s.
Providores & Tapa Room, 109 Marylebone High Street, W1U4RX; (44) 20 7935 6175; (44)20 7935 6877 (fax); Breakfast served in Tapa room; $29 for lunch and $68 for dinner.