It's been 20 years since the London restaurant boom banished the notion that eating out in the U.K. capital was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. And yet while nineties and naughties London served as the showcase for every major cooking trend to emerge from the global kitchen, the one cuisine typically bypassed by British culinary fashion was British food itself.
Not anymore: Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in Britain's native ingredients and its classic dishes, timed perfectly with the more general rise of the seasonal, organic, and local food movement. In February, Yorkshire rhubarb joined the ranks of Parma ham and Roquefort cheese as one of the regional specialties to be given "Protected Designation of Origin" status by the European Union. And the nationwide supermarket chain Waitrose will soon offer six types of heritage apples grown on its Hampshire farm. What's more, Waitrose made a multimillion-pound investment in Duchy Originals, the U.K.'s most famous organic food brand, founded by Prince Charles, with plans to increase the range to 500 organic British-produced products. (Not that U.K. shoppers are restricted to buying organic only from the heir to the throne: High-street supermarkets sell an impressively wide range of organic foodstuffs.)
London chefs have been quick to pick up on the trend, naming British ingredients wherever possible on their menus. Take Konstam, which aims to source its ingredients within the area covered by the Tube subway network, producing such dishes as charcoal-grilled leg of Amersham lamb and roasted Waltham Abbey chicken sandwiches. Roast, meanwhile, takes its inspiration (and some of its sourcing) from its location overlooking foodie mecca Borough Market, offering the likes of Cornish pollock, a sustainable alternative to cod. You'll even find English sparkling wines on its list, which bear comparison with the best in the world—not so surprising, considering the vineyards of southern England have growing conditions similar to those of Champagne, France. Try a bottle of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2003, which has beaten Champagne in blind tastings (though be warned that its high price matches that of French fizz).
Richard Corrigan is the chef behind Corrigan's Mayfair, the place for superb game, meats, and the finest fish and shellfish from around the British Isles. You'l see when you sample the Elwy Valley lamb or pan-roasted Cornish scallops with sweet corn and foie gras.
London dining isn't all about hyper-local food, though. Centuries of immigration combined with Londoners' seemingly insatiable hunger for culinary experimentation means that, from Afghan to Australian, the city is a melting pot of global cooking. Many consider the city's top ethnic eatery to be Benares, a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in Berkeley Square where Chef Atul Kochhar's refined use of spicing brightens dishes such as tandoor-roasted pigeon breasts. Kochhar's regular television appearances have made him the poster boy for Indian cooking, and his more casual Colony, in chi-chi Marylebone, has been one of the hottest openings of 2010, serving a short and snappy menu of high-end small plates—think tandoori monkfish with crab vermicelli—in plush surroundings.
For many Brits, though, "going for an Indian" still means a cheap and cheerful curry-house where you bring your own booze. For that, pick up a bottle of Kingfisher beer and head to the East End, bypassing touristy Brick Lane in favor of Tayyabs, an explosively spicy taste of multicultural London that's as famous for its marinated lamb chops as for the queues for one of its tables. If you simply can't be bothered to wait in line to eat, nearby newcomer Needoo Grill is owned by a former Tayyabs manager and serves a similar lineup of curries and kebabs offered at bargain prices.
One upside of the economic downturn has been a revival of traditional comfort classics. After all, London's captains of industry don't want to eat fussy sauces made out of foam when the financial system is imploding around them. Instead they're tucking into rib-sticking Scotch eggs, roast chicken, or a mixed grill, all on the menu at current hot spot Dean Street Townhouse. Launched at the end of 2009 by the owners of Soho House and Caprice Holdings (the team behind celebrity favorites The Ivy and Scott's), its A-list clientele mingles over good-value British food in surroundings that look like the perfect French brasserie.
While expense-account fine dining may remain in good health—March saw the launch of Gordon Ramsay's Pétrus, which offers more than 30 vintages of iconic Bordeaux—recession-hit Londoners can now get top-end food at knock-down prices. Leading the way are business partners Anthony Demetre (chef) and Will Smith (front-of-house) of Arbutus and Wild Honey, where classical French technique is applied to cheap and (what some may consider) unfashionable cuts of meat with sublime results, like ox tongue in a celeriac rémoulade.
"It's not just a credit crunch tactic," Demetre explains. "I've always enjoyed cooking with ingredients that are seasonal and sometimes a bit neglected by other chefs because they aren't prime cuts, such as lamb breast, mutton, and oxtail. They've got great taste, and they translate into slightly lower prices on the menu."
Meanwhile, at the Giaconda Dining Room, just off Charing Cross Road, savvy Aussie chef Paul Merrony turns out braised tripe with chorizo, butter beans, and paprika for less than £12 (about $18): not bad in a city where £20 is routine for a main course.
For a sense of the real edge in London eating, check out the city's fast-expanding underground restaurant scene, where diners pay to eat at someone's home. Queen of the supper club is a food blogger known as "Ms Marmite Lover," who was inspired to start cooking for paying guests after visiting the paladares of Havana, and has been running the popular Underground Restaurant from her apartment in north London since 2008.
Explaining her motivation, she says, "I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and have people come to my house and taste what I was writing about—turn the virtual into the real." Diners sit at shared tables eating off her collection of vintage crockery, and are treated to an ever-changing menu with a decidedly British bent (a recent meal ended with bergamot posset with candied thyme).
Food isn't the only place where Londoners are pushing boundaries. Tony Conigliaro was crowned International Bartender of the Year in 2009. The showcase for his wizardry is 69 Colebrooke Row. Upstairs from the 40-seat bar is a laboratory of centrifuges, water baths, smoke guns, and sous-vide machines where Conigliaro invents new recipes and methods. "We look at the structure of old-style drinks and develop new processes to achieve a modern approach," he says. Signature libations include the Somerset Sour, garnished with small balls of apple infused with hay essence, and a vintage Manhattan made with bourbon, vermouth, and bitters aged in the bottle on the premises to create the smoothest version of the drink imaginable.
You'll find bartender Nick Strangeway manning the downstairs bar at Hix, where he resurrects historic British drinks such as Lamb's Wool, a 17th-century combo of apple purée and India pale ale. Brian Silva at Rules offers a perfectly formed list of just 10 drinks in London's oldest restaurant (founded in 1798). Cutting-edge techniques with one eye on tradition: You can't get more London than that.
BREAKFAST AT LANTANA
Breakfast in London used to mean parting with big bucks in a hotel dining room or having your clothes absorb the smell of cooking fat over a "full English" in a greasy spoon. No more: Over the last two years, a new breed of "cool caff" has appeared. Leading the way is Lantana, opened by Shelagh Ryan after she moved to London and couldn't find the sort of laid-back, quality café of her native Australia. Dishes like sourdough toast with roast tomatoes, basil, and shaved Parmesan or corn fritters stacked with crispy bacon, arugula, corn salsa, and lime aioli—which inspired our lightened version—give Londoners a taste of why Sydney is the brunch capital of the world.
Go there: Lantana
Make it at home: Corn Fritters with Roasted Tomatoes and Lime Aioli recipe
LUNCH AT TERROIRS
Maybe it's the sort of attention-deficit disorder that comes from living in a city with 7 million inhabitants, but Londoners can't get enough of tapas-sized plates—especially from a cuisine not usually served in mini portions. Polpo is modeled on a Venetian wine bar where diners enjoy anchovy and chickpea crostini and octopus salad. At Terroirs, the French bistro furnishings are the background for tapas-sized plates of charcuterie and seafood, like the recipe below.
DINNER AT HIX
Mark Hix has three restaurants to his name in London, but it's Hix that's grabbing attention now—not only for the fact that Hix's artist chums such as Damien Hirst have provided pieces for the decor, but also for its simply served, utterly indulgent dishes made from rigorously sourced native ingredients. Cornish fish soup with Julian Temperley's cider brandy might be followed by Ayrshire veal stew with Mendip snails and January king cabbage. Traditional British comfort is found in Hix's upscale take on fish, chips, and mushy peas.
Go there: Hix
Make it at home: Chunky Fish Fingers with Pea and Mint Puree recipe