by Fred Ferretti
In London the talk these days is of food and gastronomic moment, of restaurants
opened, and closed, of chefs honored, and obscured, all as befits a city
that is as enticing as any when it comes to eating out.
A month ago Michelin spoke and Gordon Ramsay received his third star,
a culinary ranking held by no other London chef or restaurant at the moment,
an honor Ramsay actively, to some avidly pursued. No matter. On a recent
visit wherein I sampled many of the best, most of the brightest, the former
footballer's restaurant out in southwest London — the space once
tenanted by Pierre Koffmann's La Tanté Claire — is exquisite.
Ramsay has as sure and confident hand as any as well as an uncanny ability
to blend ingredients, garnishes, sauces, juices into coherent wholes.
To wit: A salad of an entire sweetbread, cooked just through, its surface
caramelized, accompanied by perfectly seared scallops and grilled asparagus
tips, the dish bound together by a sweet and sour vinaigrette; or braised
pork belly, that cut of fatty meat so adored by Asian chefs, cooked so
its fat has melted away, surrounded by sauteed langoustines touched with
their coral. And so on. As Michelin says, worth any detour, and the fact
that Ramsay has brought with him his director Jean-Claude Breton from
the old days at Aubergine adds urbane warmth and care to his restaurant.
Pierre Koffmann, who moved La Tanté Claire to the Savoy Group's
Berkeley Hotel, to a softer, pale green room, kept his second Michelin
star, to the despair of fans, such as me, who believe Koffmann is constantly
brilliant and deserves the highest star. One is greeted in his restaurant
by a large wicker bread trolley from which to pick any of more than a
dozen. Have his version of a loaf of fougasse filled with pureed olives
before your bowl of fresh snail stew, with carrots, salsify, potatoes
and shards of squid. Koffmann is your man for perfectly roasted duck,
for a proper classic potato galette, for foods paired jubilantly with
Other star turns in London this season are danced by Marco Pierre White
and Nico Ladenis, each of whom astonished the London eating world by returning
to Michelin their three-star ratings, White for his Oak Room in the Meridien
Hotel, Ladenis for Chéz Nico in the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park
Lane. White rarely, if ever, cooks these days — more's the pity
for he is a superb, and I so told him at one of his newest places, Drones
— preferring to preside over an expanding empire of restaurants
that as of this writing stands at fifteen.
White's chef at the Oak Room, Robert Reid, received his own Michelin
star last month, which must mean that the restaurant is the only one extant
with four stars (since Michelin informed White that it does not accept
voluntary returns of stars it has bestowed). Drones, with a menu quite
that of White's other one-star restaurant, Mirabelle, is very good indeed,
its food executed in Marco Pierre White style, straightforward, classic,
honest and ultimately exceptional. An arrangement of six Colchester oysters,
set into salted aspic was perfect, as was a dish of breaded and fried
pig's trotters and black pudding perfectly balanced with a sauce gribiche,
a vinaigrette dotted with bits of boiled egg yolks. White at his best,
even when he is not at the stove.
Nico Ladenis's newest entry — his Chéz Nicos and Simply
Nicos dot the landscape — is Incognico, an unusual day to night
restaurant on the edge of the theater district that, though recent to
the London scene has the varnished-wall, old mirror, Deco-lamp, cigarette-smoke,
bentwood-chair interior of an old brasserie. Run by Landenis's daughter,
Natasha, it is bourgeoisie in every way from its welcoming pot of tapenade
and its good breads, to a thick, puréed bean soup laced with white
truffle oil, to a perfectly crisped confit of duck leg set upon a bed
of lentils. Comfort.
Comfort indeed is what one experiences in what may be my favorite restaurant
of this visit, Club Gascon, an outpost of true Gascony food, on the brim
of the Smithfield meat market. It is a restaurant whose chef, Pascal Aussignac,
is dedicated, happily it seems, to preparing foie gras is all of its guises,
a man not afraid of fat, wonderful aromatic goose fat — in which
his frites are fried — and who believes the black truffle should
be dispensed liberally to a waiting world. He grills fresh foie gras with
grapes, or smokes it in a terrine. Roasted frogs legs sit in a cup that
once was a marrow bone and are eaten, dipped into a sauce mixed with puréed
potatoes that sit in a companion bone. So lovely. Enough? Try the cassoulet
Toulousain, thick with sausages and duck.
When in London one is obliged, of course, to eat traditionally, a duty
I take seriously. So, if it is not to be avocado and fresh crab at Wilton's,
it should be a perfect Dover sole at the Dorchester's Grill Room or Chef
Henry Brosi's imaginative take on a classic brandade de morue, wherein
his puréed salt cod and potatoes become the foundation for fine
seared scallops from England's south coast and grilled prawns from Dublin
way. Have as well, you must, breakfast at the Dorchester. The English
scramble eggs better than anybody and the Dorchester scrambles them to
creamy perfection better than anybody in England.
As in other cities, hotels in London are, more and more, establishing
and upgrading restaurants of quality, imagination, fashion and, to be
sure, good cooking. I suggest The Capital Restaurant in the hotel of the
same name, just in back of Harrod's where a new chef, Eric Chavot, has
just earned his kitchen a second Michelin star. Its once overstuffed dining
room has become all beige and spare with large mirrors on which wood shelves
are mounted, on which wood bowls, goblets and cups are displayed, as if
in air. Absolutely marvelous were tiny ravioli stuffed with mushrooms
served in a thick ragout of sautˇed mushrooms; and an utterly sensuous
dish of layers — a bed of lentils and bacon, a pastry cup filled
with shreds of confit of duck, then a layer of sliced duck breast, topped
by a goodly slice of foie gras, all touched with a frail vinaigrette.
Lovely as well is the Mandarin Hyde Park's Foliage, designed by Adam
Tihany as a bold, squared two-level room with large windows out onto Hyde
Park. A setting to show off such dishes by Chef David Nicholls as a salad
of crushed cauliflower and roasted scallops all of it sauced with a reduction
of a mix based upon that fine port-like Banyuls wine of Mediterranean
France; or a frothy broth of puréed artichokes with pearl barley
for texture and a bit of truffle oil for elegance. Fine cooking, tuned
to the seasons.
Not to forget Quadrato in the Four Seasons Hotel at Canary Wharf, where
Chef Marco Bax has brought with him the food of Milan, last tasted at
the Four Seasons in that city of La Scala. Bax, who is a native of Bergamo,
cooks with an elegant hand such dishes as scallops of veal with small
fried artichokes and an almost ethereal gâteau of fresh fennel.
He wraps Dover sole and swordfish lightly in lemongrass, cooks them to
a perfect firmness and serves them with tiny jacketed potatoes. Fine cooking.
And he will tell you why Ligurian olive oil is best for starters and Sardinian
oil for main dishes, except for meats which must be cooked with olive
oil from Tuscany.
Finally, before I depart from London's tables, considerably thicker
at the waist, I must say a few words about several perennial favorites
of mine, not tasted this time but remembered fondly. Do not fail to eat
at The Square where Chef Philip Howard will show you how and why his cooking
rates two stars from Michelin, if only for his shallot soup served with
a slice of ballotine of duck. Richard Corrigan at Lindsay House, his restaurant
set into a Soho brownstone, and whose food now graces the menu of British
Airways, plates up-to-the-minute British cooking such as potted pork with
cabbage, chilies and pumpkin. And Gary Rhoses, he of the spiked hair cooking
bright, direct food at City Rhoses. Try the tart of caramelized shallots
and mushrooms, enhanced with a red wine butter. Then come home.
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