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London October 2010

Lunching – and Other Culinary Adventures – in London

Despite the jokes you may have heard depicting the dubious quality of British cuisine (or the quality of the cuisine served in Britain) – which has certainly changed radically for the better in recent years – London, a great cosmopolitan city, offers its visitors marvelously diverse and rewarding dining experiences.

So should you be contemplating a “trip across the pond,” here are several restaurants that may be of interest…

Cork & Bottle Wine Bar, 44-46 Cranbourn Street, London, WC2H 7AN

Located between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, the Cork & Bottle is the perfect spot to chow-down either before or after a visit to the theatre. It also provides a marvelous escape from the restless human flora and fauna and general pandemonium that are part and parcel of Piccadilly.

You enter a diminutive doorway, descend a narrow spiral staircase, and find yourself in a cozy subterranean, slightly claustrophobic space dedicated to the fruit of the vine. Here businessmen savor a bottle (or two or three) of their favorite liquid libation while couples commune quietly over lunch and a glass (or several) from the ever-changing wine list before heading off to a matinee. The usual hordes of sneaker-clad tourists (of whatever nationality) are – thankfully – conspicuous by their absence.

And there’s good food here as well as good wine; and it is – given the establishment’s primo location – quite reasonably priced. Casual international selections range from open-faced grilled sandwiches to burgers to the establishment’s famous ham & cheese pie to an appetizing assortment of salads, pâtés and terrines.

If you’re attending the theatre and in the market for a restaurant that is decidedly un-touristy, in the center of the action but still far from the madding crowd, you’ve come to the right address.

Latium, 21 Berners Street, London, W1T 3LP

Sequestered away on a rather nondescript street in the city’s Fitzrovia neighborhood, Latium, which is named after the southern Italian region of Lazio, is many things… but nondescript is certainly not among them.

This handsome but understated restaurant serves up some of the best Italian cuisine that it has ever been my pleasure to ingest. The kitchen’s specialty is ravioli – and the presentations are studies in artistic ethereality, as you can clearly see from the incredible starter of elegant pasta pockets filled with Taleggio cheese, Swiss chard, and ground walnuts gently seasoned with marjoram. Equally satisfying to both eye and palate was the main course of ravioli stuffed with veal accompanied by delicate slivers of zucchini and sprinkling of pecorino cheese.

But Latium is infinitely more than pasta. A prelude of cauliflower soup garnished with crumbles of gorgonzola and splash of olive oil proved to be a silky revelation; and entrées (other than the ravioli selections) are evenly divided between meat and fish. Thoroughly enjoyed, for example, was the pan fried fillet of Cornish gurnard (a delicate white-fleshed fish). Incredibly moist, it reclined on a seabed of wilted spinach surrounded by a pool of flavorful fennel broth.

Our desserts included a benchmark tiramisú kissed by coffee mocha foam and a lime parfait wrapped in wafer thin shavings of fresh pineapple (which resembled ravioli), aided and abetted by mint sauce and sweet balsamic vinegar.

A marvelous dining experience.

Oscar Bar & Restaurant, Charlotte Street Hotel, 15-17 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 1RJ

Oscar is situated on the first floor of the Charlotte Street Hotel, our home-away-from-home while in London. But even if you’re not staying at the hotel, the restaurant is certainly worth a visit – as is the adjoining bar, which really rocks during happy hour. The restaurant itself is a colorful palette, boasting original paintings by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and other British artists.

And it’s a fun place to dine. The modern European menu majors in a variety of grilled items, and everything I sampled (including a terrific club sandwich at lunch) was right on the money. To start things off, nothing beats Oscar’s plump and succulent mussels marinière prepared with white wine, butter, and sprinkling of parsley (Just ask my wife!). But I find it difficult to resist any possible permutation of arugula; and the salad proffered here is festooned with generous shavings of Parmesan cheese and finished with a soothing white balsamic dressing. Simple but sublime.

Among the restaurant’s entrées, I am particularly partial to matters piscatorial. The Dover sole was beautifully grilled and minimally garnished with a sprig of watercress and wedge of lemon. And the texture was just right: firm to the bite yet wonderfully moist. This is an expensive item, weighing in at a whopping £32.50 (even within easy commuting distance of Dover) but certainly commensurate with the quality.

Carnivorous pursuits are equally up to the mark. My wife’s breaded veal cutlet with lemon butter was wonderfully tender and bursting with flavor; and a friend who joined us for dinner one evening thoroughly enjoyed the braised lamb shank. The meat, which was arranged vertically (leaning Tower of Pisa-style) in a foundation of Parmesan mashed potatoes, literally fell off the bone.

Among the side dishes, the hand cut chips are something of a must… ditto the benchmark tart tatin with Calvados Ice Cream in the sweet endings department. The restaurant also boasts a selection of cheeses, excellent wine list, and array of postprandial libations.

A most convivial spot for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea.

Pied-à-Terre, 34 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 2NH

Pied-à-Terre, a stylish and intimate VERY French restaurant, is the recipient of two Michelin stars, which is pretty high up there on the gastronomic Richter scale (three stars is the supposed pinnacle of perfection). But one of the things I’ve learned as a professional “hired belly” is that looks – and Michelin stars – can often be deceiving. In other words, I’ve been disappointed enough times to be as circumspect as a minnow in a shark tank with regard to my choice of temples of haute cuisine.

But even after all this noble sounding rhetoric, there were several reasons why we chose to dine at Pied-à-Terre: First of all, the restaurant had been highly recommended by several independent sources (including the concierge at our hotel, who was, thus far, batting a thousand in that department); secondly, the convenience factor definitely entered into the equation, as the restaurant was only a few steps away from our hotel; and, finally, it was our last night in London, and we wanted (and hoped for) something special to end our sojourn.

Were we disappointed…? Certainly not with the food. As advertised, it was nothing short of sublime (and exceedingly rich). Having rather diminutive appetites, we passed on the 10-course tasting menu with accompanying wines and opted to order à la carte. My wife began with scallops and settled on venison for her main course. I started with breast of quail and ended with grouse. Superb across the board… as was the exceptional cheese course and a positively decadent chocolate tart for dessert. And, although prices are steep, there are all manner of little extras: a variety of amuse bouche, for example, and towering tiers of petits fours.

On the other hand, I think we were disappointed in the pretentiousness of it all… the celebrated appearance of each course… the careful explanation of every ingredient… the silly game of “Guess that Wine” played by the staff on guests who choose the tasting menu. I also wasn’t terribly impressed by the hairy eyeball the sommelier threw my way when I sent back a half bottle of Alsatian Riesling that was obviously over the hill (although he loosened up a bit when we subsequently struck up a spirited conversation).

There is no question that Pied-à-Terre is a wonderful restaurant for that special occasion. However, during our London sojourn, we enjoyed infinitely more satisfying dining experiences for infinitely less money. And I am more and more of the opinion that two- and three-starred Michelin eateries are fast becoming the dinosaurs of the food chain; they represent a style of dining whose time has come… and gone.

Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, London, W1D 3LL

Just a few steps away from the zoo-like atmosphere of bustling Oxford Street, Quo Vadis serves up modern British cuisine in sophisticated yet exceedingly comfortable surroundings. Some restaurants put you at ease the moment you cross the threshold, and Quo Vadis is certainly one of them. Originally founded in 1926, the building was restored to its former glory by Sam and Eddie Hart, also proprietors of Spanish restaurants Fino and Barrafina, and reopened in June 2008.

My wife began with an extraordinarily beautiful endive salad with Strathdon Blue (an intensely flavorful blue cheese hailing from northern Scotland) and candied walnuts. The leaves of endive were arranged in rather casual tiers, with each end of greenery containing a crumble of the blue and the entire affair topped with grilled crostini. My beetroot tart resided on a thin, perfectly textured crust and was topped with a dollop of St. Tola, a soft, moist, unpasteurized goat cheese produced in Ireland.

When it came to entrées, matters piscatorial took center stage. My wife couldn’t wait to try the fish and chips… and she wasn’t at all disappointed. The breading was perfectly crisp, the white-fleshed cod marvelously moist and bursting with its own unique flavor. The chips were golden brown on the outside, light and puffy at the core. This is a relatively simple dish, but one that – we’ve learned from bitter experience – is all too easily mucked up. The rendition here was benchmark.

My John Dory consisted of two pan roasted filets set on a seabed of baby lettuces and sprinkled with English peas. The finishing touch was a seductive white wine and butter sauce. Superb in every respect. A side of mashed potatoes – my ultimate comfort food – was rich and buttery.

In lieu of dessert, we concluded our evening at table with a wonderful selection of English cheeses. Topping the list was Adrahan, a semi-soft cheese similar to the French Epoisses. It is, in the language of the vernacular, a “stinky” cheese… but quite delicious. I’ve always felt that cheese, rather than a cloyingly sweet dessert, is the most suitable conclusion to an evening at table.

The visit to Quo Vadis was one of our most satisfying dining experiences in London. If you’re on the hunt of traditional British cuisine prepared with innovative touches, this restaurant is definitely worth a try.

The Red Fort, 77 Dean Street, London, W1D 3SH

There are many excellent Indian restaurants in London, and The Red Fort, located just across the street from the aforementioned Quo Vadis, is surely one of the best.

It was founded by Amin Ali in 1983. On July 10, 2009 it received extensive water and smoke damage from a fire in the building next door, which took 100 firefighters over 12 hours to bring under control. Recently reopened after a major refurbishment, the new dining room is intimate and inviting; and Mohammed Azid and a team of six chefs weave their culinary magic in the state-of-the-art kitchen… So don’t expect the usual “curry palace” business as usual.

Like the ambiance, the cuisine is sophisticated and upscale… and may seem to some rather pricey. Everything is à la carte – and that includes breads, rice, and vegetables. Be that as it may, all presentations are of impeccable quality and lovingly prepared & presented.

Starters, for example, include items like tandoori salmon seared with fresh ginger and bevy of subdued spices; mushroom caps filled with mildly spiced cheese and creamy yogurt; chicken with mint, coriander, ginger, and green chilies; and finely minced lamb spruced up with cloves and black pepper.

I started, though, with the monkfish tikka. Smoked and lightly spiced, this proved a marvelous appetizer. Monkfish, often called the poor man’s lobster, exhibits the same type of dense consistency as its more expensive cousin… which means it can be rather tough and chewy if improperly prepared. But here the kitchen sends it forth with a moist and tender countenance. The hara kebab is yet another winner in the prelude department. Patties of spinach and fenugreek (aromatic seeds with a subtly sweet flavor) lightly filled with white cheddar cheese, onion, and coriander are accompanied to table by coriander, tamarind, and mango sauces. An utterly beguiling combination.

For our main courses, the coriander-crusted red snapper offered up just enough spice to tantalize rather than overwhelm the palate; and the murgh bemissal, corn-fed chicken breast, was gently kissed by a completely addictive creamed tomato and dill sauce.

Nothing goes with Indian food like plain naan bread (light, airy and slightly puffy oven-baked flatbread)… the perfect vehicle to sop up all those delicious sauces… And nothing concludes an Indian meal more appropriately than kulfi, an ice cream-like dessert similar to custard. Both were exceptional.

Unlike many Indian restaurants in this country, which are generally BYOB, The Red Fort offers up a very nice wine list. Chosen was a Cortese di Gavi, an Italian white wine that provided the perfect cooling foil for several of the spicy presentations.

Roka, 37 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 1RR

Roka, the Japanese entry in the Charlotte Street restaurant row sweepstakes, also has an establishment in London’s Canary Wharf, as well as outlets in Hong Kong and Scottsdale, Arizona… But don’t let that fool you. This is no run-of-the-mill mini chain chophouse. The food here shows great & loving care in both preparation and presentation… as crowds at lunch and dinner clearly attest. And we were fortunate enough to dine here at midday – more like early/middle afternoon – on three occasions (on two of them, taking advantage of the highly unusual warm and sunny London weather to enjoy our food al fresco).

The main focus of this attractively-appointed restaurant seems to be the large three-sided bar where pristinely fresh (and rather pricey) morsels of sushi are served up with flair and finesse. But take heart. Even if you’re not into raw fish, there is still a great deal to tempt your palate; as the real emphasis here, in my opinion, is on the exotically cooked dishes that are, quite simply, prepared to perfection. In point of fact, one could very easily go the tapas route, ordering a variety of small plates to savor and share – which proved an extremely satisfactory modus operandi during our three visits.

To start things off, let me simply say that the vegetable tempura was the most celestial rendition of this particular dish that I have sampled anywhere. The batter was as light as a feather, literally melting on the tongue, and the vegetables themselves were cooked through while still maintaining their bite-wise integrity; and they were accompanied by two first-rate dipping sauces… one sweet, one slightly spicy.

The table favorite, however, proved to be the beef, ginger, and sesame dumplings. The translucent wantons were absolutely ethereal and the filling of tender beef and delicate seasonings was irresistible.

Also enjoyed were the moist and tender chicken skewers accompanied by green onions and the incredibly addictive slender broccoli spears bathed in a seductive pool of miso (fermented soybean paste), mirin (Japanese rice wine), and ginger.

For a casual lunch, dinner, or midday snack, Roka is not to be missed.

Bon Appétit!
The Artful
November 2010

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the Reviews page.

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