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Holding Court

London's restaurant scene is a leader in its class

John Mariani
Posted: July 26, 2000


London has become the most exciting city in Europe for dining out. Even the French have to admit it. The Michelin Guide has deigned to give London restaurants 27 stars -- more than any other city's restaurants except Paris'. François Simon, finicky food critic of France's Le Figaro, allowed that although "in Paris you definitely eat better," London "may be the capital of restaurants."

Not that London's top chefs care much what the French think. They are too busy creating a quicksilver restaurant scene, promoting themselves like rock stars, and filling their reservation books every night. They are drawing customers that love the buzz, know a great deal about food and wine, are gastronomically adventurous, and are willing to spend a lot of money on dinner. As in New York, which has a slight lead over London in the sheer number of new places opening from week to week, restaurants have become statements for entertainment, architecture and design as well as venues for social networking. To be chic in London these days is to run a restaurant that attracts the likes of Elizabeth Hurley, Ralph Fiennes and Kate Blanchett.

Much like New York and Paris, center-city real estate has become prohibitive for new restaurant ventures. Chefs seeking a Mayfair, St. James or Knightsbridge address must be bankrolled by hotels--Vong at The Berkeley, Nobu at The Metropolitan, Axis at One Aldwych Place, Stefano Cavallini Restaurant at The Halkin and the dining room at The Capital.

This last, housed within a boutique hotel around the corner from Harrod's, shows how London restaurants have matured. The Capital's former chef, Philip Britten, had a penchant for odd combos -- jellied consommé layered with veggie purees, for example. New chef Eric Crouillere-Chavot has proven himself to be one of the most refined cooks in town.

Chavot, an acolyte of star chefs Raymond Blanc and Pierre Koffman, has bounced around in the last five years, first serving as chef at the charming Interlude de Chavot on Goodge Street, then putting in two years at Chavot on Fulham Road. Now, in an intimate dining room with only 10 tables, the still-youthful Chavot is doing his best work ever. He writes menus that seem simple, yet take extraordinary precision to execute. Focusing on impeccable ingredients, Chavot balances pungently flavorful food like panfried sardines with delicacies such as a crépinette of lamb with honey-laced roast vegetables. Straightforward comfort foods like boeuf bourguignon and skate sautéed in excellent English butter vie with more adventurous dishes such as spiced consommé of cèpe mushrooms with duck ravioli. For dessert, there's a wonderful rhubarb crumble with ginger ice cream and a decadently dark chocolate tart with blood orange sorbet.

The Capital's owner, David Levin, is very much the wine connoisseur (the family owns a vineyard in the Loire). He wants to share his enthusiasm, so the restaurant's wine list, which is overseen by sommelier Gearoid Devaney, is rich in Bordeaux of every stratum, fairly weighted in Burgundies, and reasonably well-equipped with vintage Ports.

But rising real estate prices are driving more and more of London's hot spots to out-of-the-way neighborhoods, which these restaurants are helping to regenerate. Just as places like Pastis and Fressen have made New York's Meatpacking District trendy, the year-old Club Gascon has brought vitality to Smithfield, London's own meatpacking section. Seductively lit, and decorated more with textures than colors, Club Gascon is one of the toughest tables to obtain in town.

Chef/owner Pascal Aussignac is on a quirky mission: first, to serve you any of nine foie gras dishes, a steaming cassoulet brimming with beans and pork, crispy smoked eel with horseradish cream and confit of lamb simmered in its own fat and then cooked for seven hours; next, to somehow convince you it's really rather light fare because the portions are deliberately small. "So go ahead!" reads the menu. "Let your senses be your guide as you liberate yourself from the tyranny of the fixed menu. Try one little plate after another -- don't be shy!" Very good advice, seeing as how most items cost only around $12.

Wines, too, are admirably priced, especially for sturdy, dependable selections from areas in southwest France, such as Cahors, Côtes de Duras, Madiran and Côtes de Buzet.

The brave new world of Canary Wharf, filled with striking examples of postmodern, corporate architecture, is about as far east as you can go in London. It's home to a spanking new Four Seasons Hotel and the city's finest Italian restaurant since the opening of Cavallini at The Halkin in Belgravia. This is Quadrato, whose name derives from its design: a series of squares within a large, expansive, high-ceilinged dining room, with an open kitchen and peek-a-boo view of the Thames.

Award of Excellence Winners 2000: London
Following is a list of London restaurants that have won Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence:


Bibendum Restaurant
Best of Award of Excellence
(44) 171-581-5817;
Cuisine: Modern British
1837
Best of Award of Excellence
(44) 171-408-1837;
Cuisine: French
L'Escargot
Best of Award of Excellence
(44) 171-437-6828;
Cuisine: French
Bleeding Heart
Award of Excellence
(44) 171-242-2056;
Cuisine: Modern French
Ransome's Dock
Award of Excellence
(44) 171-223-1611;
Cuisine: Modern European
Leith's Restaurant
Award of Excellence
(44) 171-229-4481;
Cuisine: Modern British
RSJ Restaurant
Award of Excellence
(44) 171-928-4554;
Cuisine: Contemporary English/French
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Milanese chef Marco Bax has fashioned an imaginative menu without straying from beloved traditions of Italian regionalism. You sense that nothing can be added nor taken away from a dish; the flavors and textures enhance each other. Antipasti include a cured-meat platter with marinated vegetables, a lovely warm ricotta-and-truffle salad, and a small wild mushroom tart with crispy leeks and a dressing of sweet garlic sauce. Pastas range from ricotta-filled ravioli with a lush red pepper and eggplant sauce to risotto alla milanese with foie gras and black truffles. Fish are treated delicately. From the meat selection, I recommend the perfectly rendered, crisp veal milanese or the filet of beef perfumed with thyme and lavished with a reduction of Barolo wine. Desserts do not show the same creativity as the dishes that precede them, all being merely plated rather than prepared to order.

Quadrato's wine list is a judicious selection of many of the best small estate bottlings out of Italy right now, such as the '97 Il Marzocco from Avignonesi, Giuseppe Rivetti's Barbaresco Vigneto Gallina Vürsù '96, and Matteo e Claudio Alario's Barolo Riva '95, with a pleasing number of wines under $40.

One of the most triumphant achievements of London's new gastronomy is actually outside of the city, in Bray, a picturesque, one-lane town that is also home to the renowned Waterside Inn. It's the 45-seat Fat Duck, where chef/owner Heston Blumenthal won his first Michelin star just last year. Aside from three weeks of training under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Blumenthal is wholly self-taught. Liberated from the straitjacket of formal training, he has the creative freedom to come up with extravagant dishes that compare with the experimental cuisine of chefs like Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Catalonia and Jean-Georges Von-gerichten in New York. That Blumenthal succeeds on this high-wire with almost every dish is testament to his passion to get at the essence of things.

I am convinced Blumenthal is one of the modern masters. There are missteps, to be sure, such as a ridiculous pastilla of Anjou pigeon with cherries, spiced nuts and a slab of sweet chocolate candy on top. But this is a man who has the audacity to create a ballotine of foie gras and smoked eel with apples and a jelly made of mead, and to make you wonder why no one ever thought of the combination before. In a similar vein, he combines a lasagna of langoustines with meat from a pig's trotter and truffles. Jambonneau of -- duck -- petit salé takes on a marvelous savoriness from a green-coffee sauce. Blumenthal roasts a veal kidney in its own fat, then gives it a dollop of something called Macvin, Golden Wonder Pont-Neuf & Ketchup. I don't care to know why or how he adds chlorophyll to his delicious risotto of crab and rocket greens with a cassonade of red pepper, crab ice cream and passion fruit seeds.

Blumenthal is every bit as passionate about his wines. He has created a 41-page list of 400 labels clearly chosen to go with his food. The list includes seven Alsace Gewürztraminers, six Condrieus, scores of vins du pays, dozens of excellent Burgundies and a superb collection of wines from Spain and Italy. The Fat Duck also carries about three dozen American wines, with five Zinfandel bottlings, including Turley's '97 Moore Earthquake Vineyard and '97 Hayne Vineyard.

Blumenthal's desserts are every bit as adventurous. Chocolate fondant, rice pudding with orange flower water, apricot sorbet and coconut sorbet all arrive on one plate.

If this all reads a bit eccentric, it is; but then again, England's greatest strength has always been that it's eccentric. And at a time when Londoners claim their city is the most exciting in Europe for dining out, restaurants like these drive the point deliciously home.

John Mariani's new book is Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman Books).

THE FAT DUCK

High Street, Bray-on-Thames Telephone: (011) 44-1628-580333 Fax (011) 44-1628-776188 Open: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday Cost Lunch, prix fixe $35; dinner, prix fixe $95, entrées $34 Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

CLUB GASCON

57 West Smithfield, EC1 Telephone: (011) 44-207-796-0600 Fax (011) 44-207-796-0601Open: Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday Cost Lunch and dinner, entrées $11-$19 Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard

QUADRATO

Four Seasons Canary Wharf, West Ferry Circle, E14 Telephone: (011) 44-207-510-1999 Open: Lunch and dinner, daily Cost Lunch, prix fixe $25 or $34, entrées $14-$26; dinner, prix fixe $33 or $45, entres $14-$26. Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

THE CAPITAL

The Capital Hotel, Basil Street, SW3 Telephone: (011) 44-207-589-5171 Fax: (011) 44-207-225-0011 Open: Lunch, daily; dinner, Monday to Saturday Cost Lunch, prix fixe $38; dinner, prix fixe $95, entrées $35 Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

For more information on London travel, please refer to our Travel Page

To find hotels and resorts for your stay in London, refer to our Hotel Database

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