If my food experiences last week in London are any indication, hundreds of years of jokes about how awful the food is in England should be shelved. I ate my way around that beautiful, fun town, and the eating is very good, indeed. Not only are many of my favorite foodstuffs from France on offer—Poilâne and Ladurée bakeries have London outposts; Pierre Hermé has a kiosk in Selfridge’s and a stand-alone shop is opening July 10! There are several Pauls, a Maison du Chocolat, and more French purveyors, j’en suis sûr—but the local breads, cheeses, and produce are superb. And the restaurants are creative and exciting. Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin in New York who was in London for the first time, is having a blast. “I had no idea how great this place was,” he told me. During a dinner cooked for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy by Alain Ducasse (who has one of only two Michelin three-star restaurants in London) and Joël Robuchon (who has a London outpost: thanks for the update, Johnny), Ripert chatted with the celebrated French chefs. He mentioned how much he was enjoying London. “Are you kidding,” both Ducasse and Robuchon said. “London is so much better than Paris.” Well, there you have it.
What makes it special? I’ve hardly scratched the surface. But strolling around the Borough Market on Saturday morning was an exhilarating experience. (Also frustrating, since I had nowhere to cook in my lovely suite at the Dorchester hotel.) Breads, cheeses, produce, honeys, jams, and other locally produced foods were beautiful, and it was too early for much harvesting. All you have to do is pop into Neal’s Yard Dairy, where the display of cheeses could make you cry and where they are eager to shave off tastes of any and everything for their guests (and for themselves) and you know you are in a great food town. There are shops specializing in Spanish foods, Indian, Turkish, and Asian foods. And tons of yummy things to eat. Butties (sandwiches), pies, pasties, bangers, and more. I bought oak-smoked tomatoes in olive oil, giant (and delicious) English muffins, a beautiful Lancashire cheese, flaky Eccles cake (buttery puff pastry filled with spiced, alcohol-soaked currants), and that was all just consumed while we walked around.
London restaurants have also been very pleasing. That meal by Ducasse and Robuchon at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester was exquisite, just as you would expect it to be. There was a slight old-fashioned quality to it, in evidence in the extravagance of the gold-leaf covered popcorn and sauce of puréed black truffles that accompanied a combination soufflé/crème renversée, and in the buttery, concentrated flavors of the sauces. But it was a delicious, elegant meal nonetheless (the kind of meal I long for after the style of overly creative, metaphoric explorations you get at some of the most celebrated restaurants of the moment).
But our tour of other, more casual restaurants around London was also satisfying. There’s the beloved St. John, a nose-to-tail eatery that ought to be as famous for its baked goods (crusty bread, buttery “puddings”) and delightful vegetables (crisp salads, steamed greens, creamy boiled potatoes) as for its pork-induced, offal-centric mains. We had a lovely, very English meal at the trendy Hereford Road. If the design of restaurants in Williamsburg were more modern and the crowd more posh, that’s where this sophisticated neighborhood restaurant would be located.
One of my favorite stops was lunch at Ottolenghi, a mini chainlet of sparkling white take-out shops scattered around town. The bright, light, salad-centric food has a Mediterranean–Middle Eastern bent; it packs a flavorful punch. And the baked goods are beautiful and delicious. If New York’s City Bakery put on a summer-weight Saville Row suit, it would approach the sophistication of these beautiful shops. The retail displays reminded me of a homey Hermé. It’s the sort of environment that makes you feel posh just by being in it. It didn’t hurt that the watches on the people sitting next to us cost about as much as my yearly salary. The food was so delicious I bought both of Ottolenghi’s stunning cookbooks.
Off the beaten path, the scrumptious cocktails at the tiny neighborhood bar 69 Colebrooke Row were worth the trip. The young, handsome bartenders dressed in white logo jackets were friendly and charming and, more importantly, mixed superb drinks.
In handsome setting practically atop the theater where we saw the exuberantly creative Enron, we had a simple and good seafood meal at J. Sheekey. If fried haddock and mushy peas aspired to be elegant, this was about as close as they could get. Dover sole, oysters, and the rightly famous fish pie were among the highlights. Breakfast at the Wolesley—a British Balthazar if ever there was one—included omelets with smoked haddock and poached eggs set atop a disk of delicious fried haggis. The pastries were delicate and buttery.
One surprise was the brand new, elegant Bar Boulud in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge. The paint wasn’t dry when Daniel Boulud hosted the winners of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards (Boulud’s eponymous NYC restaurant was number 8 on the list) for a lovely lunch in this new outpost of his shrine to charcuterie. The swank restaurant by Adam Tihany is bright and seemingly well suited to its new London digs. Maître charcutier Gilles Verot, Boulud’s partner, was on hand to make sure the pâtés grand-mère and grand-père and such came off without a hitch (I wondered if he carted them from his shop in Paris just to be sure).
In the jumbled world of international gastronomy, I liked the English-ness of the places we ate. Menus were strewn with unfamiliar words and names of dishes I rarely see: purple sprouting, gammon, and faggots, and, of course, there were pies, pies, pies! There was a simplicity to the presentations, almost homey, that alluded to what I imagine boarding school meals to be like. A braised joint of duck on a pile of mash. I liked the capitalized definite articles, real and implied, in all the names of the restaurants: The this, and The that. In short, eating in London was fun.