Has London’s culinary landscape ever been richer or more exciting? Zeren Wilson doesn’t think so
Hey London, you’re looking mighty fine, aren’t you? Eating and drinking in London has never been this good, this exciting, this full of energy and crackling creativity.
Such is the confidence of the scene here, that after years of expecting cities like New York and Paris to provide the apotheosis of an evening out, there are whispers that London is now ahead of both of those cities. London restaurateurs have traditionally looked towards New York in particular for inspiration and culinary ideas, but the wind appears to have changed. The arrival of Eater and Infatuation, two big-time restaurant review sites from the USA with cash to splash on gaining a foothold here, is an indicator of the shift in mood.
Let’s head to Plaquemine Lock first for a new opening that feels very different to anything else in town right now, a pub owned by chef Jacob Kenedy (owner of Bocca di Lupo), serving up some of the classic dishes from Louisiana, a firecracker roll-call of Cajun and Creole plates: Oysters Rockefeller; gumbo with chicken, andouille, shrimp and okra; boiled crawfish; fried shrimp; smoked pork boudin; crab cakes; shrimp ‘n’ grits; Po’ Boys with fried oysters; fried green tomatoes – this is booze food waiting to be slung down with a Sazerac cocktail or a pint of 6.5% IPA from Fourpure, the temptingly named Juicebox.
The Nova Food development in Victoria has transformed the dining options there, adding 17 (yes, seventeen new restaurants on one site), bringing vibrancy to this part of SW1, among which Hai Cenato from Jason Atherton, a New York inspired Italian, is the pick of the bunch, serving up very decent pizza and commendable pasta. But the real action is happening around the corner on Wilton Road…at A. Wong, and with recent newcomer Lorne a couple of doors on, where a recent lunch included impeccable smoked eel with Sicilian cucumber and Jersey Royals, a devilish crust on the eel made from dried and toasted shrimps.
But A. Wong needs to be on any list of places which display the ingenuity of the London scene. It features Andrew Wong’s playful take on classic Chinese dishes from Sichuan to Hunan, from Cantonese to Shanghai dumplings (the twist being the vinegar is inside the dumplings). The dim sum at lunchtime are a sheer joy, the boon being that you can order them piece by piece rather than a whole basket, allowing for plenty of scope to tailor lunch. Har Gau prawn dumplings are given a flourish of citrus foam and chilli sauce, while fat pucks of pork and prawn have crisp crackling adorning them. Go along, sit at the bar of the open kitchen, Do Not Collect £200, but DO work your way through the snacks. One of the very best spots in town.
London’s lesser known areas are also in the grip of something approaching boom time, with local regeneration driving things forward: Deptford is currently top of this pile. I’ve had a jolly time asking many Londoners ‘when was the last time you went to Deptford?’ knowing full well that the answer is almost exclusively ‘um, never’.
Winemakers Deptford is the second outpost from merchant and importer the Winemakers Club in Farringdon, and this time they have a very nifty kitchen out the back, with head chef Rory Shannon delivering a menu that reads like a beauty every day: crab croquetas; Lincolnshire Poacher cheese soufflé; fresh pappardelle with summer truffle and Pecorino; cuttlefish kebab; barbecued sardines; confit Old Spot pork jowl – add to this homemade charcuterie, bread and butter all made in-house, and one of the sharpest wine lists in the city (let alone Deptford and surrounds), as well as being in one of London’s most historic yet neglected corners…it feels like proper, old London, and is still relatively undiscovered and ungentrified.
If we head West to salubrious Chelsea – historically not the richest of boroughs for exciting or innovative dining options (without the commensurate expense) – it has been a pleasure to see Elystan Street fulfil a neighbourhood role, without any starchy stiffness of service and overweening atmosphere. Owners Phil Howard (who ran two-Michelin-starred The Square for twenty years) and Rebecca Mascarenhas are two of the most experienced operators in town, and have brought their collective experience to bear on this smart opening: hand cut squid ink bucatini with sardine vinaigrette; ravioli of ox tongue; breast and spring roll of duck with pistachios and cherries; tartare of veal with white peach, artichokes and burrata – a seductive menu delivered in slick, elegant surroundings, and a reliable bet in an area where you can get stung for your supper and leave feeling more than a little ripped off.
Current trends? London loves a good trend-hop, and we’re still in the grip of a slew of taco joints, Indian small plate venues, and various riffs on Turkish/Middle Eastern/Levantine concepts, as well as a new focus on Jewish food, seen through an American/Canadian deli style lens at openings Monty’s Deli, The Good Egg, and Zobler’s Deli in the swanky new hotel The Ned.
Finally, wine is playing a role like never before in new openings, particularly a focus on wines made with minimal intervention and ticking the organic/biodynamic/ ‘orange’/ ‘natural’ boxes. On Hackney Road in east London (another corner that is now a hotbed of action), The Laughing Heart has a fine kitchen, and regularly hosts guest chefs from around the world, alongside a serious cellar and wine shop. You could bounce along and around this road and be blessed with dining and drinking options for days: Morito, The Marksman, Brawn, Campania and Jones; Sager and Wilde…
Yeah, London’s looking pretty good at the moment. Strutting like a peacock with its new-found culinary confidence.
Zeren Wilson blogs at bitten&written.com
For more information on London restaurants, visit our “Restaurants in London” page.