Many of the movements that have come to form the current restaurant landscape in the western hemisphere largely include back-to-basics, family-style sharing plates; burgers given haute-cuisine do ups (potato buns! beef garum! sit-down service! silverware!); puzzling chalkboard menus of barely translatable Euro-inspired small plates (if you haven’t quite yet assembled the courage to ask the server if it’s the fregola or the brandade that should pique your interest, you may be doing it wrong); and what is often marketed as democratic service, which is to say no-reservations bare-brick restaurants that have queues of pining diners coiling from its entryway to surrounding side streets.
But, if a blow-out occasion takes a man’s fancy, which is the table to reserve for when the moment calls? Here’s our selection of places where the food will jolt your mind and the prices will bust your Amex in equal measure.
Dinner by Heston
Have you ever wondered about the brioche bun that blossoms from a cast-iron pot and is ordered by nearly all the covers at Dinner by Heston? That’s the Tipsy Cake, the restaurant’s trademark dessert, a blooming, shapely bun lacerated five directions, heavily moistened with Sauternes, and whose accompanying jagged slice of pineapple has been spit-roasted in front of the kitchen’s open-fire oven for the span of a sluggish afternoon and severed into stubby, appendage-looking batons moments before it’s delivered to you. Does the dish’s 19th-century backstory truly flavour the moment? Perhaps; the taste is divine.
Blumenthal’s playbook here is directed by recipes fashioned centuries prior and refracted through a contemporary lens. The dish labelled on the menu as Rice and Flesh – a risotto-like riff enlivened with slices of almond, veal sweetbreads and smoked eel, fragranced with saffron, and scattered with snips of chicken feet – has lineage from Richard II’s court. The black-foot pork chop – the loin taken from the Iberian pig, judged by many to be the finest breed of its kind, sliced fine, and fanned out like a spread of cards on a Las Vegas table – is a nod to a moment in time when Marie-Antoine Carême, the 19th-century architect of French cuisine, took residency in London. At the end of the meal, the Victorian-inspired ice-cream trolley will be wheeled out and cranked by hand tableside until a thick smoke of liquid-nitrogen erupts from the new-age machine and envelops your server who will then stud it with popping candy, chocolate and walnut, and raspberries that have been freeze-dried. At this point, it’s either you or the dessert that gets crushed. Steady yourself and move the belt down two notches; you’ll need to dig deep.
Eight-course menu, £220 per person
Dinner by Heston
Bob Bob Ricard City
Is there a more embellished London restaurant than Bob Bob Ricard City, the outpost of the Soho original, acknowledged for its champagne-summoning button and flush trappings of oyster plateaus and caviar plates? Well, there’s Aquavit, the Scandi-inflected restaurant in St James’s whose restroom taps are gilded in gold. At Brasserie of Light, Damien Hirst’s model of a pegasus in flight, encrusted with enough crystals to steady a small-nation’s economy, dominates the airspace. BBR City, a complex network of bevels and sparkles, pixelated screens and motifs that seemed to have been smuggled from a Fabergé storeroom, is likely in the argument.
The currency that sustains BBR’s appeal is hedonism dialled to eleven, from the moment you spoon the pelmeni – meat dumplings lined with lobster, crab and shrimp and steeped in a lobster bisque – to when your server raptures at your selection of red Domaine Faiveley as though it weren’t the eighth carafe of the stuff peddled that hour. Have you really been to BBR if you didn’t you order the beef wellington, a behemoth brick of beef fillet cooked to pink, swaddled within a latticed veneer of pastry and lubricated by only a few dabs of truffle-enriched sauce? The gleaming dessert orb that shatters into itself under the gentle heat of melted chocolate? Here, everything exists for your pleasure.
Four courses, roughly £180 per person
Bob Bob Ricard City
Endo at the Rotunda
There is a particular cadence to an omakase tasting, the tightly coordinated meal which is regarded as the best expression of the season’s bounty and a chef’s masterful intent and whose length can last anywhere between 45 minutes and the duration of a cross-continental flight. You will most likely have to make your reservation three months in advance (walk-ins are for the less ambitious!). When you land the coveted spot, you and a small-sportsteam-size of strangers will congregate around a hinoki counter. You’ll probably be encouraged to swab your hands with an oshibori, the dampened hand-towel crucial to Japanese hospitality. And, like a Knicks fan who has managed to score courtside seats, you’ll spend most of the evening observing the itamae mould tiny mounds of rice, dab it with a grating of wasabi, and press it with coin-thin slices of fish. The rhythm is tight and it flows – mould-dab-press-eat, mould-dab-press-eat – and the pace is relentless.
At Endo at the Rotunda, the restaurant reputed as one of the toughest seats to land this side of Park Lane, Kengo Kuma’s pared-down scheme immaculately frames chef Endo Kazutoshi’s merciless bill of fare. Otoro with Gloucestershire ‘onsen egg’ may dwindle into kobujime brill, Atlantic tuna, and aged monkfish pil pil, and your visit, should the stars align, might include the Cornish spider crab that’s absolutely pummelled with a mortgage-worth of Périgord black truffle.
20-course menu, £220
Endo at the Rotunda
Core by Clare Smyth
With Gordon Ramsay pedigree, Clare Smyth, the first British female chef to have been allotted three Michelin stars, is pushing the envelope for British modernist cuisine – her most famous serving of an ‘apple’, a dead ringer for a granny smith, is a gleaming, glinting sphere whose glistening exterior, a gel of red fading to green, appears as though it was cribbed from Eden itself and gives way to a fine mousse of the fruit from which it is made.
At a time when high-tech cooks continue to play around with xanthan gum and de-construct and rebuild things in ways that they’re not, and the populist chefs plough through book deals like a wide receiver through a loose shoulder, Smyth does elegant, graceful things with modest produce, embodied best by the potato that’s dressed up with dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe. The menu, with wine, will set you back a little over £300; excellence comes at a cost.
7-course menu, £185 per person
Core by Clare Smyth
Cradled between the embellished brasseries and the wood-lined, scotch-perfumed members’ clubs of St James’s, the genreless Ikoyi swims against the current, its name taking its cues from a well-heeled Lagosian district and its pantry of spices and pungent rubs, which derive from sub-Saharan west Africa (scotch bonnet chillies; Grains of Selim), is paired with produce that the food-obsessed label as micro-seasonal – namely ingredients, such as finger lime, that are at full flavour for only a precious few weeks.
Things here are often pickled, burnt or fermented, and run the gamut from ikejime trout and Gola peppercorn, to plantain-smoked kelp and blackberry; sorghum crêpe, cuttlefish and trompette fondue; and black sesame, uda and vanilla. Innovative libations – Palm Punch made with rum, palm wine and tiger nut; and Pedro’s Elixir that mixes ogogoro, pineapple and ginger – also pack strong punches. If you find yourself questioning what is the quintessential-London restaurant to book, the table that best embodies the city’s vivacity and character, there are the usual suspects – St John with its white-walled sobriety and its paean to offcuts; or Wiltons, the near-300-year-old establishment that proffers crustacea and choice cuts of fish prepared and served the way it’s always been done. But Ikoyi’s menu – borderless, complex and offbeat – might make the strongest argument.
13-course tasting menu, £185 per person
The love for Italian menus seemingly knows no limits in London. There is Padella, whose once endless queues comprised tourists flocking from the Tate, yuppies looking to score a modestly priced dinner, and Eater-subscribers hoping for a taste of the creamy cacio e pepe, a dish well-chronicled by restaurant followers and reputed for cranking up the Roman original with a heavy shake of what I suspect is oregano or marjoram. The Veja-wearing Campari-sippers pack the inner courtyards of Campania, perhaps the closest you can get to the southern half of the Italian peninsula without having to make a beeline to Gatwick. And I could have sworn I once heard a portly man whisper to his mistress that the scaloppa Milanese at Ciao Bella – a wheel-sized tablet of veal, breaded and bludgeoned until it achieves the thickness of a frisbee – would be his death-row meal. Luca, a clean, bare-brick space punctuated with skylights and skirted by leather banquettes, the type of place enthusiasts of bellini and Calvarino might naturally gravitate towards, could rank among the best.
What the cooking at Luca speaks of is a new-wave approach to Italian fare that has come to flavour many of the Euro-inspired dining rooms in London, less facsimiles of regional brodos and osso buccos than concepts based on a true story. Is the burrata, dialled-up with broad-bean pesto, preserved lemon and confit almond, an exact representation of the Murgian delicacy that’s traditionally coupled with nothing more than a scattering of rough salt and a puddle of olive oil? Will you think more of the Orkney waters from where the lean, puckering scallop was caught than the Calabrian origins of the gently spiced ’nduja schmear that underpins it. Does the plating of Scottish halibut, with spring minestrone, jots of smoked eel and coins of Italian courgettes, smack more of the fresh British spring than that of the Amalfi kitchen? A shortage of rough-and-ragged workman pasta and choppy wines might not agree with zia, yet, all things considered, you probably won’t take note. Settle into that leather banquette – and submit.
Four courses, roughly £165 per person
Now for a digestif. Here’s how to make the ‘Fine Line’ Suppai cocktail by Sexy Fish…
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