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"Significantly, the charge (if it is a charge) has been levelled at the gastronomic essay and the 'learned' cookery book that they have an affinity with pornography. Certainly, both gastronomy and pornography dwell on pleasures of the flesh, and in gastronomic literature as in pornography there is vicarious enjoyment to be had." 

Stephen Mennell

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« My restaurant recommendations: West London | Main | Spring menu launch at Public House »
Sunday
May062012

My restaurant recommendations: Central London

It won’t come as a surprise that I am regularly quizzed by family, friends and colleagues for restaurant recommendations. It is one of my favourite topics so I don’t mind at all and I always give a very detailed response. You may well regret you asked.

It is helpful to give me some parameters, for example, where? and what price range?

If your answer to these questions is a combination of the below:

... then you will get an essay on the subject. If you can narrow it down a bit then you will get a more concise response.

Where I fall down is when the answer is something like:

When I first moved to London I was more adventurous. I couldn’t believe Londoners were so reluctant to travel beyond their corner of the city, especially given the efficiency of the transport system. Now I am a Londoner and it has to be a very special occasion for me to travel West. Don’t even get me started on South of the river. It’s another world down there.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I think it important to explain in advance why I have so many more recommendations for Central London and the North East; it is not because of a lack of gastronomic flair in the West and South, I just haven’t explored them fully.

You will also notice a weighting towards mid-range in terms of budget because that is what I can afford most of the time.

I start here with Central London and will follow with North, South, East and West, though not necessarily in that order. 

I am always open to new recommendations so please leave comments with your favourites. If I try them and like them, I will add them to the list.

Happy dining.

Central London

Barrafina

Cuisine: Spanish (tapas)

Website: http://www.barrafina.co.uk/

Budget: Mid-range (but it can build up, that is the nature of tapas!)

 

In a nutshell:

Bustling tapas bar in the heart of Soho. This is Spanish cooking at its best – fresh, quality produce cooked simply. The fresh seafood on the specials board is always a winner, but I've never had something I didn't enjoy. Perhaps surprisingly, one of my favourite dishes is an unassuming baby gem salad with anchovy and pancetta - light and fresh, crisp and crunchy and a perfect balance of saltiness and acidity.

Other info:

  • No bookings. Get there early to avoid the queues, but if you do arrive late persevere; it’s worth the wait.
  • Fino in Fitzrovia is owned by the same group (see below)

Barshu

Cuisine: Chinese (Szechuan)

Website: http://www.bar-shu.co.uk/

Budget: Mid-range

In a nutshell:

It's a good sign in an Asian restaurant when you are the only caucasian table in the place; this is often the case at Bar Shu. Huge portions of meat and fish drowned in chilli oil, garlic and spices predominate and there is plenty of offal for those who dare. Some lighter dishes, such as the thin sliced pork rolls in spicy, garlicky sauce and the minced chicken with preserved mustard greens help to soften the blow; I highly recommend both. 

Other info:

  • Ba Shan, just across the road, is owned by the same group (see below)

Ba Shan

Cuisine: Chinese (Hunanese)

Website: http://bashanlondon.com/

Budget: Mid-range

In a nutshell:

Ba Shan specialises in Hunanese cuisine. The menu here looks quite similar to the menu at Barshu, their Szechuan sister restaurant across the road. Hunan and Sichuan provinces are in close proximity and so their cuisines share many characteristics, such as a lot of garlic, chilli and offal, though there are subtle differences. Given that Hunanese cuisine is often touted as the hotter of the two, I was surprised to find that the food at Ba Shan was milder, with more delicate flavours overall. I highly recommend the village pork rolls with slivered vegetables, which are similar to the pork rolls at Bar Shu but with a relish of dried and preserved greens, rather than spicy, garlicky sauce. Other favourites include the spicy chicken slivers in chilli oil and Chairman Mao’s red braised pork. My only complaint is that some of the more subtle flavours are often drowned out by too much soy sauce.

Other info:

  • Barshu, just across the road, is part of the same group (see above)
  • Book in the evenings as it is a small venue and popular

Bocca di Lupo

Cuisine: Italian

Website: http://www.boccadilupo.com/

Budget: Mid-range

In a nutshell:  

Bocca di Lupo “specialise in the obscure and the delicious highlights of food and wine from all across Italy's twenty regions”. The dishes come in small or large size so that you can either eat a traditional meal (starter, main, dessert) or share lots of small plates (my preference). The regional menu, by nature, traverses a wide range of tastes and styles. From the light fresh flavours of a radish and celeriac salad with pomegranates, pecorino and truffle oil to a rich and hearty pot roasted saddle of goat with pecorino and anchovy stuffing; there is something for everyone.

Other info:

Fino

Cuisine: Spanish (tapas)

Website: http://www.finorestaurant.com/

Budget: Mid-range to pricey 

In a nutshell:

Fino came close to winning Gordon Ramsay’s Best British Restaurant, but lost out at the last hurdle on account of repeatedly over salting the dishes – this may explain why I liked it so much! They serve traditional tapas which feels modern – light and fresh and cooked with finesse. There is a big focus on seafood, much of which is cooked ‘a la plancha’ (on an authentic Spanish grill). The roast suckling pig is said to be good, but I have never been with more than two people so am yet to try it. The basement venue is a bit dark and claustrophobic for my liking (hence the lack of decent photos), but the service is very friendly and well informed.

Other info:

  • Booking essential, especially on weekends
  • Barrafina in Soho is owned by the same group (see above)

 

Giaconda Dining Room

Cuisine: Modern European

Website: http://www.giacondadining.com/

Budget: Mid-range

In a nutshell:

Giaconda Dining Room describe their food as “French-ish with a couple of day trips to Italy thrown in”. They say they aren’t flashy or grand, but they are more refined than they let on. This is solid bistro cooking in an intimate environment with a good selection of (mostly French) wine to boot, all at very reasonable prices.

Other info:

  • Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide
  • It’s a small venue so do book in advance

Opium

Cuisine: Chinese (dim sum)

Website: http://www.opiumchinatown.com/index.html

Budget: Mid-range

In a nutshell:

Opium cocktail and dim sum parlour is in the heart of Chinatown, though you would easily miss it if you weren't looking for it. Drinks are the main focus here, with an impressive array of expertly crafted cocktails, as well as a selection of teas. Food may be an aside, but is no less delicious for it. All the dim sum are fresh and handmade. The selection is small, but there are enough choices to make a full meal without too much repetition. They are mostly traditional dim sum, with the exception of a few Modern British twists on old Cantonese classics, like gowgee filled with crab and samphire or, my favourite, mushroom and truffle. It’s reasonable too, with the average price of a dim sum basket around £7.

Other info:

  • It gets busy so book if you are planning to eat dinner. Otherwise, you may be lucky and get a seat at the bar

Pollen Street Social

Cuisine: Modern European

Website: http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com/

Budget: Expensive

In a nutshell:

Pollen Street Social is Jason Atherton's flagship restaurant in London. The concept is "deformalised fine dining" for both special occasions and the everyday. I am not sure they have achieved the latter, but that is half the fun. Dishes are innovative, interesting and executed with finesse. Both flavours and presentation range from fun and quirky to delicate and refined. Favourite dishes were a simple but exquisite mushroom consomee poured over parmesan foam and the roasted Cornish turbot, bulgur wheat, turnip, pear and cardamom purée. The tasting menu, at £85 for 8 courses, is good value for a high end restaurant and there are wines starting at £25 per bottle. 

Other info:

  • You will need to book about 1 month ahead for weekends
  • The sommeliers really know their stuff, so don't be afraid to ask for recommendations in your price range
  • Jason Atherton has 3 other restaurants in London. Details here

Portrait Restaurant

Cuisine: Modern British/European

Website: http://www.npg.org.uk/visit/food-and-drink/restaurant.php

Budget: Mid-range

In a nutshell:

This is one for visitors to London; when you have some, bring them here. This is more about the view than the food, although the last time I went that was very good too. There are wonderful views over the rooftops to Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and beyond so ask for a window seat when you book. 

Other info:

  • Great place for High Tea and cheaper than most of the more famous venues
  • Service often leaves something to be desired due to a high staff turnover

The Red Fort

Cuisine: Indian

Website: http://www.redfort.co.uk/

Budget: Expensive, but the set menu is cheap

In a nutshell:

The Red Fort is not a typical Indian restaurant. An air of delicacy and refinement extends from the tasteful decor to food that is both elegant and delicious. Flavours still pack a punch, but care has been taken in the selection and cooking of aromatics and spices, which can be singled out and identified, and it's far less greasy than your average Indian meal. A starter of spinach and fenugreek patties with onion and coriander is a case in point; beautifully presented and skilfully crafted, so that a crisp exterior of fenugreek seeds gives way to soft spinach and an oozing cheese centre. Another great dish is Hyderabadi Bhuna Gosht, a curry of Herdwick lamb, cooked long and slow to melting tenderness, with ginger, garlic, coriander and red chilli. The Red Fort is in the Michelin guide and the prices on the a la carte reflect that, but they do a set menu, which is a steal at £15 for two courses or £18 for three.

Roka

Cuisine: Japanese

Website: http://www.rokarestaurant.com/

Budget: Expensive

In a nutshell:

Chic Japanese restaurant on trendy Charlotte St – think monochrome decor, elaborate cocktails and moody lighting. The restaurant is set around a traditional Japanese robatayaki (open charcoal grill), but the food is decidedly modern. Take, for example, wagyu sushi, oscietra caviar, spring onion and fresh ginger or foie gras, umeshu plum and nama nori. It may be a bit wanky, but after a few of those cocktails you’ll forget about that (and possibly join in).

Other info:

  • Bookings necessary for usual peak slots, but you can snag a late table on a Friday or Saturday reasonably easily

Terroirs wine bar and restaurant

Cuisine: French

Website: http://terroirswinebar.com/

Budget: Mid-range

In a nutshell:

This cosy little wine bar and restaurant tucked down a side street near Trafalgar Square is always warm and welcoming. Good value and it's size means it does get very busy, but don't be put off - the atmosphere is half the fun. The focus is on shared plates, tapas style, but with a French focus. There are also a handful of mains and a good selection of charcuterie and cheeses. The wine list is extensive with a number of good wines by the glass or carafe. 

Other info:

  • Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide
  • Booking is advisable if you want a sit down meal, but it is usually possible to snag an impromptu seat at the bar, which is the most fun place to be if it’s just wine and tapas you are after or you can wait there for a proper table

Yauatcha

Cuisine: Chinese (Cantonese)

Website: http://www.yauatcha.com/soho/

Budget: Mid-range to expensive

In a nutshell:

This is dim sum of a different ilk. Forget prawn and chive, what about king crab instead? Lobster dumplings anyone? How about crispy duck spring rolls? But its not all about twists on old classics, there are a plenty of traditional items on the menu and you can be assured they’ll be the best renditions you’ve ever had. There are also some larger plates of other Cantonese fare, but the dim sum is what you are really here for – if you are having an alcohol free lunch date try one of the fabulous fruity iced teas.

Other info:

  • 1 Michelin star
  • They also have a sister restaurant called Hakkasan which has had a Michelin star longer and been on The World’s Top 50 Best Restaurants list. The menu is very similar
  • If you stick to dim sum and either tea or a couple of beers then you can get away without it costing too much, about £30pp

If you have any suggestions for Central London restaurants please leave a comment or email me. I will endeavour to update this post overtime as I try new places. 

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Reader Comments (4)

I am am more than impressed and proud to say you took me to 5 of the 7!
And would recommend them all!
Favorites: mmm probably Yauatcha and Boca di Lupo...
YUM!

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie Brown

Hi Cha - and thank God for your visit, otherwise I would have no photos at all; I don't tend to take photos at my favourite restaurants cause I go there all the time and had not intended to write reviews of them. Glad you consider Bocca a favourite despite the tripe ;) x

May 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterVix

I have a couple of suggestions for you to try in Central London. I like them both a lot. Providors in Marylebone Lane , see www.theprovidors.co.uk is a tapas bar and restaurant - with a huge wine list of New Zealand wines- a nice change for people used to drinking French and other European wines, and interesting to any lover of NZ wines.Even though we drink them all the time in Sydney, the selection has some great surprises. Randall and Aubin in Brewer St ,Soho, is all about champagne and oysters. I don't eat oysters but I love the atmosphere in this place. www.randallandaubin.com

August 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMa

Hi Ma, thanks for your suggestions. I would like to try Providores with you some time, I think you told me about it once before. The champagne/oyster bar sounds great too! :)

August 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterVix

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