We have to let you in on a little secret: this year we’re using our quest to identify a quintessential dish in each destination that I can learn to cook as a fantastic excuse to try a range of restaurants that specialise in the local cuisine of that destination.
Just as importantly, and in keeping with our desire to promote slow and sustainable travel, we’re on a mission to experience restaurants that pride themselves on presenting or reinterpreting local cuisine that is made from the best and freshest of local produce from the place or surrounding region.
A by-product will be a mini-guide to our best eating experiences in the place that you can use when you visit. First up is London (our last post on the city) and our pick of the best of British dining we sampled. It is, by no means, a complete guide, but we only write about places that we have personally tried.
Our first eating experience in London, recommended to us by local foodie Philippa Owen, who took us on a Context culinary walk of London, was Roast. Appropriately located at Borough Market, this buzzy restaurant (tables busy with suits doing business lunches when we visited) specialises in classical British cuisine based on seasonal produce. It’s a stunning restaurant in a glass building that’s crowned by the Covent Garden Flower market portico that had been found stored in a cave! There’s a casual eating area in the bar, and a slightly more formal dining area spread over two light-filled spaces, the lower level offering views into the well-run open kitchen.
We went for the 3-course Market Menu, which was great value at £26. Lara had a hearty Pea and Ham Soup with Smoked Ham Hock, while I had Cold Roast Welsh Black Beef Fillet that was delicious. For mains, Lara opted for an enormous Spit Roast Goosnargh Chicken with lemon and thyme, that was unevenly cooked, being extraordinarily moist in some parts and rather dry in others, but she was enamoured by the succulent flavours. I loved my Pot Roast Featherblade of Beef with Mashed Potatoes and Creamed Horseradish, although the mash, which was piped from a bag was cold after five minutes. For dessert, the Yorkshire Rhubarb and Bramley Apple Crumble, was a bit too much like baby food for my liking, while Lara thought the Potted Cheddar Cheese with Scrumpy Apple Chutney was fine. A solid meal and one that certainly suits the suits at lunch.
I’ve always wanted to eat here as I love the concept of ‘nose to tail eating’ as promoted by the chef, Fergus Henderson, who runs St John. If you’re going to slaughter an animal, you have to learn to eat as much of it as possible. Man shouldn’t survive on sirloin and pre-packaged, boneless ‘meat’ with scarcely a hint of what animal may have been slaughtered to provide it. The room resembled a cross between a butchers shop and a hospital, which is appropriate. For appetizers, Lara tried Chitterlings (intestines) and Dandelion Salad served with capers, gherkins and caramelised shallots, which she loved for its wonderful combination of textures (the soft sausage-like intestines were enhanced by the crunch of dandelion stalks), while I slurped Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad with sea salt. After scooping several mouthfuls of marrow onto some lovely toasted bread, to be honest, the thrill of finally trying this dish was gone by the third piece of bone.
For mains, Lara opted for the hearty, stew-like ‘Snail, Sausage and Chickpeas’. The sausage was spicy chorizo which was perfect for warming her up on what was a freezing day. I tried the Ox Heart and Lentils which to make it interesting, I had to constantly remind myself was Ox Heart. Had I set my expectations too high? Perhaps, but I’ve eaten sweetbreads in Buenos Aires, tripe in Palma, and brains in Lebanon that were far more tasty.
Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, established in 1798, came recommended to us by a few people, including Bloomberg’s London food critic, Richard Vines, who gave Lara some excellent dining tips. Richly decorated with plush red-velvet booths and walls covered with antique prints and paintings, it must be London’s most atmospheric and most romantic restaurant, reminding us a little of Don Carlos in Milan oddly enough. The restaurant’s game is grown on their own farm, Lartington Estate, where they raise a rare and ancient breed of Belted Gallowy Beef purely on grass and hay. Their charming menu lists the dates for Rules Famous Grouse hunting season, warns that “game dishes may contain lead shot”, and encourages clients to drink London Tap Water, which “is free, safe, palatable and every bit as thirst-quenching as mineral water” and produces fewer carbon emissions.
For first courses, Lara had the Brown Windsor Soup with Welsh Rarebit, which was similar in style to a French Onion Soup yet thinner and darker, while I opted for a velvety Foie Gras Terrine and Duck Riclettes. The soup hasn’t converted me – I’ll stick to my own French Onion thanks – however, the Foie Gras was super, only let down by some pieces of wholemeal bread rather than the classic accompaniment of brioche. For mains, the Breast of Wild Duck with Artichoke and Black Cherry Sauce was a tad too rare for Lara’s liking; she preferred the tiny piece of duck confit on the plate. The Roast Loin of Organic Berkshire Pork with Sage and Pine Nut Stuffing, Buttered Leaks and Crackling that I had was lovely, but paled in comparison to the pork I ate at Galvin La Chapelle (below). The experience of Rules is worth it and while the food is simply very good, the space is charismatic.
Our most consistently great meal in London was at Jason Atherton’s Maze at Grosvenor Square. Set in a striking contemporary Art Deco-inspired room it somehow manages to feel simultaneously casual yet elegant – as does the impeccable cuisine. We couldn’t resist the lunch tasting menu of 6 dishes for £42.50 or £54 including a 3-glass wine flight, which in hindsight we should have given a miss, as we had to order additional glasses of wine anyway. It has to be said that placing the three glasses of wine on stands on the table is a rather tacky gimmick.
Before the review proper, just a quick note on Mr Ramsay. We’ve noticed that it’s very popular to slag the guy off here in London. My personal feelings on the matter are that he has spread himself too thin and that it appears that he is being left behind a little in the culinary stakes. However, his shingle on the door for me has always meant impressive service, impeccable cooking and superb wines, only let down by a lack of creativity compared to many of his peers. Jason Atherton’s cooking at Verre by Gordon Ramsay in Dubai was superb – and we ate there regularly during his tenure, which is why we chose to dine at Maze.
Lara started with the Onion Squash Soup, ‘puffed’ with Wild Rice, Ewe’s Curd, Smoked Bacon, Braised Chicken Thighs, and Chestnut Powder, which she loved, raving about the textures, while I had a very prettily-presented Marinated Beetroot, Slipcote Cheese, Pine Nuts and Cabernet Sauvignon Dressing. I’ll be making that one for my vegetarian friends. We both had the Cornish Red Mullet, Tapenade, Croutons, Aioli, and Fish Soup, which was some of the finest fish we’ve ever had – incredibly moist and tasty – although I have to say we’ve never had poorly cooked fish at any Gordon Ramsay restaurant. If you see red mullet on one of his restaurant menus, don’t hesitate, just order it. Another tasty fish dish followed – ‘Scotch Broth’ with Roasted Halibut, Black Pudding, Argyle Ham and Turnip – which was also delicious. Both the fish courses were really too big for a tasting-style menu, however, and nothing was as small as the ‘tapas-size’ portions people write about.
Then it was time for Twice Cooked Quail, Medjool Date Puree, Amaretti Powder, and Turnips, which was a technical triumph as the quail was cooked to perfection. Thankfully it was a smaller dish than the previous two. Braised Shoulder of Suffolk Port, Piccalilli Vegetables, and Spiced Choucroute followed and was a well-balanced dish and a great way to finish off the savoury courses. For dessert, Lara was smitten with her Winter Clementine Mess, Powered Brazil Nuts, Clementine Sorbet and Vanilla Oil, while I thought my Devonshire Rice Pudding, Spiced Blackberry Jam, Clotted Cream and Blackberry Ripple Ice Cream was the only disappointment of what was one of the best cooked meals we’ve ever eaten. I can only describe it as baby food.
We did a quick tour of the massive kitchen and despite a near full house and turning tables, the chefs were calm and focussed – something we’ve realised over the past few years of poking around Michelin-starred restaurants is one of the hallmarks of a great kitchen. Once again, I have to say how impressive the cooking, ingredients and floor staff were.
Galvin La Chapelle
We enjoyed our last meal in London at Galvin La Chapelle on Spital Square which was recommended by the Maitre’D at Maze and Alla, a Russian foodie we met at Borough Market. The elegant high-ceilinged dining room must be one of London’s most dramatic, and, along with the superb cuisine, contributes to making a meal here a very special experience.
We were the first guests to arrive on this chilly Sunday, but the room soon filled with a mix of couples downing champagne and oysters, and groups tucking into the heartier fare on offer. We took advantage of a table facing the open kitchen, delighting in the fact that chefs were still preparing items such as pasta for lunch service. A pleasing kitchen to watch in action.
For starters, Lara had the Escabeche of Yellow Fin Tuna, Aubergine Caviar and Coriander, and I had the Lasagne of Dorset Crab and Veloute of Chanterelles, and they were both very elegant little dishes that tasted truly sublime. For mains, Lara delighted in the Tagine of Bresse Pigeon, Aubergine Puree and Harissa Sauce, a truly creative deconstructed version of tajine that was as delicious as it was clever (not really British we know, but she couldn’t resist). The harissa sauce was simply beautiful, while a surprise of the dish was a sort of pigeon pastilla – one of the best we’ve ever sampled. I had the Slow-cooked Lincolnshire Pork Belly, Confit of Savoy Cabbage, and Red Wine Sauce, which was heavenly. Rich, moist and unapologetically carrying layers of fantastic fat, it ranks amongst the best pork belly I’ve ever eaten. For dessert, Lara tucked into a colossal serving of rustic Apple Tart Tatin with Crème Fraiche, while I opted for a blueberry soufflé – a textbook worthy specimen of a soufflé – but the blueberry flavour became a little too much after a few bites.
The sommelier was excellent and the rest of the floor staff just as impressive. It’s a quality fine dining restaurant, although we were amused that one newspaper critic thought the food was ‘nothing terribly original’, even after sampling the ‘tagine’. There is simply no pleasing some people. This is a fine restaurant and a fine way to finish off a week of dining in London.
Next up, Marrakech!