LONDON

 

[Restaurants and sites that are underlined and appear in color have web sites that are reachable by clicking on them.]

 

TWO MUST-VISIT SHOPS (Places we are most likely to visit whenever we’re in London):

 

Rococo Chocolates -makes their own chocolates—very, very unusual, and extremely good. Dark chocolate in every level of cocoa up to 99%; incredible combinations (e.g., dark chocolate with chili pepper, white chocolate with cardamom, milk chocolate with sea salt—and, as of my most recent visit, dark chocolate wafers with coffee and cardamom); ginger or mint chocolate wafers to die for.  And they let you sample everything!  There is no easy way to get to the original Chelsea store (321 King’s Rd at Beaufort St., +44 20.7352.5857)—unless you are stopping by Norman Foster’s shop nearby; and it is probably worth taking a taxi, unless you’d like to take the long walk along “the KR” from the Sloane Square Tube stop. But there are now two new shops in London:  one in Belgravia (5 Motcomb St.,  +44 20 7245 0993), and one in Marylebone (45 Marylebone High St.,  +44 20 7935 7780) Unfortunately, you can no longer  order online outside of the UK.

 

Neal's Yard Dairy near Covent Garden, a heavenly array of cheeses---you simply must go! They only carry cheeses of the British Isles and everyone who works in the store is a wonderful character. They are constitutionally incapable of handling a piece of cheese that is either over- or underage and, if you go at a non-busy time, they are very generous with tastes and information. They also mail order. The stilton from Colston Bassett is to die for, and there are also really good Irish cheeses, e.g., the Milleens from Veronica Steele.  Good bread, too. (Daily, +44 20.7645.3550)

 

RESTAURANTS:

 

PLACES WE’VE EATEN:

 

The Ledbury  Currently our favorite place to dine in London! Every time we have gone, the food has been better than the time before—and the starting point had been pretty incredibly good to begin with!  Chef Brett Graham is another of those chefs from Australia (of all places) who has been revolutionizing and improving the cuisine in London (q.v., the bit below, “Australian Chefs in London”)—and he worked for years at The Square (which had been our favorite place to eat in London for decades: q.v., below).  His cooking is inventive yet solid.  The Ledbury is beautiful room, stylish, but less formal than The Square, with great service, and fabulous food.  To celebrate after the London opening of our friend’s musical of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, we took Davis Yazbek (who did the music and lyrics) and his wife Betsy, along with a couple of my very best foodie friends from Paris.  Our celebratory meal was built around one of Chef Graham’s magnificent tasting menus (click here for a current version)—in which every single course was ambrosial—accompanied by some truly outstanding wines from Anja Breit’s brilliantly assembled cellar (Anja was not there that evening, but we were ably assisted by the extremely talented Ted Kandylis, who is her Assistant Head Sommelier ).  The GM, Darren McHugh, runs a totally efficient, friendly, and highly professional dining room.  Dining here is an extraordinary experience, not to be missed.  It can be an extremely hard reservation, however, so plan well in advance so as not to be disappointed.  (127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill W11 2AQ. +44 20 7792 9090.)

 

The Square  [WARNING: After years of this being our favorite restaurant in London—wonderful and totally reliable—we had a truly disastrous, horrible experience our last visit! We still have not recovered from the shock; and we did not return during our last trip to London…which is a first for us!  I still dso not have a sense of what is going on there now…] This attractive, comfortable room off Berkeley Square provides the perfect setting for the truly delicious New French cuisine of Philip Howard, chef and co-owner since its opening in 1991. Howard, supported for over 10 years by the talented head chef Robert Weston, uses the best available seasonal ingredients to create elegantly creative, wonderfully tasty dishes that never fail to thrill me.  One meal we had, right from it beginning with an amuse bouche of a seared scallop in a frothy broth, through the exquisite appetizers (roasted foie gras with late harvested grapes, and a crab ravioli), and perfectly cooked main dishes (rack of hare, loin of lamb, and medallions of pork), everything was wonderfully delicious.  The wine list deserve special mention because, in addition to its impressive array of both French and Italian wines, it had options that were as affordable as they were delicious.  This has become our favorite restaurant in London, and we never miss the chance to pay it a visit.  (6-10 Bruton St. New French. Tube: Bond St/Green Pk., +44 20.7495.7100)

 

Pied a Terre  This is a terrific, intimate little place on West Charlotte Street in Bloomsbury.  We have enjoyed it for many years, but it has become a real temple to gastronomic excellence in inventiveness.  The original chef, Shane Osborne (the first Australian chef [q.v., below, an old note about Australian chefs in London] to receive a coveted Michelin star) has recently been replaced by Marcus Eaves (one-time protégé of Shane Osborn, who gained his own first Michelin star when only 27, 14 months after opening the related L'Autre Pied in 2007, in Marylebone and who has returned to head the kitchen at Pied à Terre.  Amidst the mainly French-influenced dishes, there are some wonderfully subtle Asian and Mediterranean touches. There is a 3 course set lunch for £27.50; the a la carte menu is £60; and the tasting menu is £99.  On 22 May 2012, I had the nine-course tasting menu, which was quite extraordinary:

English Green Asparagus Velouté with a Ragout of Broad Beans and Soft Poached Quail Egg; Marinated Scottish Scallops with Toasted Hazelnuts,Caramelised Celeriac and Confit Amalfi Lemon; Seared Duck Foie Gras with Passion Fruit Curd, Puff Wild Rice, Glazed Endive and Puy Lentils; Poached Fillets of Lemon Sole with Cucumber, Borage and Pernod Velouté; Pyrenées Lamb Shoulder with New Season Onions,Peas and a Lightly Smoked Sabayon; Cheese Selection; Strawberry Sorbet with Wild Strawberries Jelly and Lemon Oil; Vanilla Creme Brulée with Spring Raspberries, Raspberry Gel,Lemon Verbena Ice Cream; Coffee and Petits Fours) 

All the dishes were totally magnificent—intensely flavorful, creative, beautiful, and profoundly delicious—except for the lamb course, which was OK, but not special…the slow cooked lamb shoulder was not interesting “qua meat,” and there were no sauce or spices able to rescue it (interestingly, Eaves, who—much to my liking—uses salt liberally in his cooking, failed to add nearly enough to this dish).  We had a fabulous ’02 Gevrey-Chambertin, Les Jeunes Rois from Geantet-Pansiot, and a glass of a delicious ’05 Trockenbeerenauslese from Nittnaus to accompany the foie gras course.   (34 Charlotte Street, +44 20.7636.1178.)

 

Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s  one of London's two three Michelin starred chef (for his cuisine at his #1 Zagat-rated London restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at 68 Royal Hospital Road) has created another major triumph at Claridge’s Hotel on Brooks Street in Mayfair.  In this beautiful setting, he provides truly delicious modern European cuisine and excellent service.  Dining here is an extraordinary—if somewhat overdone—experience.  It is quite formal, and quite expensive.   (Daily, +44 20.7499.0099)

 

Hélène Darroze at The Connaught In July 2008, one of the only female star chefs of Paris (who has a famous eponymous restaurant there) took over the restaurants at The Connaught.  She has created here a fine French restaurant of world class quality.  With exquisite service, gorgeous décor, and luxurious comfort, the place is a perfect setting for the sophisticated and delicious food M. Darroze is preparing.  In addition to the fabulous things we ordered (I had an appetizer of Chipirons [small calamari] sautéed with chorizo and confit tomatoes, in a black [squid ink] and creamy Carnaroli Acquarello rice, with a Reggiano parmesan foam; followed by a main course of  “Le Chevreuil,” ribs and fillet of venison with chicory butter, autumn fruits and vegetable fondant, in an intense coffee sauce; an a Poire Comice [pear poached in vanilla jelly, crystallized ginger pannacotta, with pear granite]), there was a seemingly endless presentation of other extraordinarily delicious treats that appeared unbidden:  several amuses bouches (A foie gras crème brulée with apple sorbet and peanut emulsion, a creamy soup of cèpes, a fine ham, bread sticks with tomato, et al.),  a signature L’Escaoutoun (a traditional polenta-like dish from Land, made with ewes’ milk, mascarpone, sheep cheese, cèpes, etc.) which appeared between the appetizer and the main course, a pre-desert, etc., etc.  It was truly an exquisite feast.  We accompanied it with a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Rosé and a spectacular Vosne-RomanéeReignots” 2003 from Cathiard.  All-in-all, it was an extraordinary meal, though  quite expensive.  There is a much more reasonably priced lunch.  Like most great French restaurants, Hélène Darroze at the Connaught is closed weekends.  In The Connaught Hotel, on Carlos Place, Mayfair, Tube: Bond Street, +44 20.7592.1223)

 

Zafferano  On Thanksgiving 2003 (and 2004), we ate dinner here as a gesture of support for Calvin Trillin’s campaign to replace turkey with spaghetti carbonara the national dish for Thanksgiving (q.v., www.RLRubens.com/Thanksgiving.html).  This interesting and highly touted Italian restaurant is located on Lowndes Street, just south of Lowndes Square.  It has a magnificent Italian wine list, delicious food, and professional but friendly service. It is expensive—and a bit more so because, on both visits, we could not resist availing ourselves of the fact that it was still the season for white truffles—but very much worth the price, and everything they cook there is delicious.  We have returned many times since, and the place is always satisfyingly delicious. (daily:  lunch, 12 or 12:30 - 2:30 or 3; dinner, 7 – 10:30 or11.  15 Lowndes St., Knightsbridge Tube: Knightsbridge, +44 20.7235.5800)

 

Moro  This really interesting, small Moorish restaurant (with Spanish, North African, and Eastern Mediterranean influences) is all the way out by King's Cross—a ten minute walk north on Farringdon Road from the Farringdon tube stop.  There is an excellent inexpensive to moderately priced wine list (featuring mainly Spanish and Portuguese wines)and wonderful breads (baked while you are dining).  The menu, which changes daily, features spectacular appetizers (the best grilled squid I’ve ever had, a divine chestnut and chorizo soup, and wonderful grilled sardines), and very good main courses (lamb, chicken, fish, or vegetables)  (M-F, 34-35 Exmouth Market, Tube: Farringdon, +44 20.7833.8336)

 

The Wolseley  This fun French Bistro-style restaurant, located right next to the Ritz Hotel, is a true find.  Everything was delicious (although their deep fried Whitebait and their steak tartare were particularly outstanding).  And this place is one of the few places in London open late for dinner—they’re open until midnight every night except Sunday. 160 Picadilly W1J 9EB  +44 20.7499.6996

 

River Café   Italian. If you happen to be in Hammersmith—although who in his right mind would just ‘happen’ to be in Hammersmith, which is a thirty minute taxi ride from downtown—this is the place to eat.  [If you do go for dinner, three practical things to remember due to its isolated, residential location:  bring a map of the area (as our cab driver had a hard time finding it—and be aware that it is very poorly marked even once you are in front of it); know that, due to the zoning, you have to be out by 11 PM; and remember to have them call you a car, as there is no way that you will be able to find one in that neighborhood, and it is not at all close to the Tube station.]  It is an extremely  interesting, albeit somewhat cold, industrial-chic dining room, quite informal, and, in the daytime it must have a beautiful view of the river.  The food was a bit uneven: when we ate there, it ranged from a totally sublime appetizer of wood-oven roasted  fresh sardines over pine nuts and hot peppers to one main course that was rather pedestrian.  One of the two women who own the place is Ruthie Rogers, wife of the renowned architect Richard Rogers (who, among many famous projects, did the Pompidou Center in Paris with Renzo Piano); and his organization has its home just next to the River Café (allowing one to look in at models of his many famous buildings).   (Thames Wharf, Rainville Rd., W6 9HA Tube: Hammersmith, +44 20.7386.4200.)

 

St. John   This old Smithfield smokehouse, opened by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver in October 1994, is a rather earthy setting for some marvelously earthy but delicious food.  Describing itself as specializing in “Nose to Tail Eating,” this place is only for the serious carnivore—and even at that, there are items on the menu that will challenge all but the very most adventurous:  appetizers of Welk, Sausage, & Trotter, Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad, and main dishes of  Ox Heart & Mash, Mallard and Swede, and Lentils & Goat Curd. Many more familiar dishes are also readily available—including a Lemon Sole, the one fish entrée on the menu. We were there for a banquet built around a whole roasted suckling pig (which must be ordered a week in advance) which was simply the best I have ever had to pleasure to taste.  The place is most unusual, but totally wonderful.  (26 St. John St., Clerkenwell/Smithfield, EC1, Tube: Farringdon, +44 20 7251 0848) They have recently opened a new branch office:  St. John Hotel.  While we have not yet eaten there, we hear it is extremely good. (1 Leicester St, WC2H 7,
+44 20 3301 8069

 

Hakkasan  This striking underground room is done mostly in black with blue highlights and is dramatically spot lighted.  It serves delicious and innovative Chinese food—especially the incredible dim sum (a vast variety of unusual and tasty morsels to choose from), which is available only at lunch. (8 Hanway Pl., Tube: Tottenham Court, Bloomsbury, 020.7927.7000)

 

The Ivy which felt like 21 with good, homey, upscale food.  Perfectly located for the theatre district, but impossible to get  a reservation.  (Daily L&D, 1 West St at Litchfield St, Tube: Leicester Sq., 020.7836.4751) Mod Brit.

 

Le Caprice   Run by the same people who own The Ivy, and with a related menu (and easier to get a reservation at)—and serves dinner until midnight, and has a good brunch.  (Daily, Arlington St. [off Piccadilly], just behind the RITZ, Tube: Green Park,  020.7629 2239)

 

Kensington Place restaurant, is still going strong after a dozen years. Great space with big windows, outside of which in its heyday appeared to be a Range Rover lot. Don't let that put you off, though, as the food is quite good. (Daily L&D, 727.3184, 201-207 Kensington Church St. Tube: Notting Hill Gate)

 

E & O   An excellent and informal—if trendy—pan-Asian fusion restaurant; inexpensive and very good.  The program here involves ordering a series of small portions with no difference between starters, main courses and desserts: dim sum, BBQ/Roasts, sushi and sashimi, salads and curries. (Daily, 14 Blenheim Crescent, Tube: Notting Hill Gate, 020.7229.5454 )

 

Bistroteque   This hip, white brick, industrial room in Hackney (not far from a street full of warehouses that have been turned into thriving, happening art galleries) serves tasty, simple fare—and it is most certainly the place to eat when in this neighborhood.  It is a fabulous place for brunch on Saturday and Sunday (11-4), and it is open until 10:30 or 11 every evening for dinner.  23-27 Wadeson Street, E2 9DR, 020 8983 7900

 

Wapping Food  This industrial eatery, set in a former power substation, is an out-of-the-way little treat.  The food is tasty and good, if in no way particularly wonderful; but the setting and related art venues are quite extraordinary.  The owner, Jewels, has created something of a miniature, and earthier version of the Tate  Modern.  In the midst of rusting machinery, she has created spaces that provide a magnificent home to visual artists, filmmakers, designers, writers, and choreographers—not to mention her quite respectable eatery. (Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, E1, Canary Wharf/Docklands, Tube: Wapping, 020.7680.2080)

 

The Black Friar Pub  Not really on this list because of its food as much as for its atmosphere, this wildly decorated pub stands in the shadow of Black Friars Bridge, just across from the Blackfriars tube station.  After a visit to the Tate Modern, walk across the Millennium pedestrian bridge, head west, and stop in for lunch.  The bear and ale are wonderful, and the rarebit is tasty—although most of the other food is of rather poor quality. The décor, however, is well worth the visit:  the walls are done in incredibly richly colored marble, with mosaics and copper trim and embellishments of every variety.  It is unbelievably packed for lunch on weekdays (an experience all its own), but much more manageable for a Saturday lunch. (174 Queen Victoria Street, Tube: Blackfriars, 020.7236.5474)

 

 

RECOMMENDED BY OTHERS ON GOOD AUTHORITY, BUT NOT TRIED:

 

 (Sally) Clarke's  another favorite. You've probably heard her described as the Alice Waters of London, and that's not far off. Very nice, clean, but hearty food and now she has a shop attached selling baked goods, jams, etc. She had the only good bread in London and really terrific cookies ("biscuits" doncha know) (M-Sat L&D, 124 Kensington Church St. Tube: Notting Hill Gate, 221.9225)

 

Assaggi  excellent Italian. (39 Chepstow Pl. Tube: Notting Hill Gate, 7792.5501)

 

Australian Chefs in London   Yes, believe it or not, there are a number of restaurants run by Australian (and New Zealand) chefs that are excellent! (The one we’ve tried, Pied a Terre, is listed above.)  The others, Smiths of Smithfield, Mju, Nahm, and Providores & Tapa Room are wonderfully reviewed in our friend Nina Simonds article that appeared in the NY Times: http://www.nancyrubens.com/Australian London.html)

 

Rasa   a south Indian vegetarian restaurant, out in Stoke-Newington, Tiny, full of students, really delicious, fresh-tasting interesting food for ten pounds per person. terrific AND cheap (6 Dering St., Tube :Angel/Finsbuy Pk., 249.0344)

 

 

THINGS TO DO:

The Courtauld Gallery is an incredible treat: a very small collection with some of the most absolutely magnificent impressionist and post-impressionist treasures in the world (upstairs).  There are fabulous paintings by Cézanne, Pissarro Monet, and Derain that may rank among the finest done by these extraordinary painters.  The Courtauld is one of our very favorite things in London, and we literally never go to London without paying it a visit.  It is located in Somerset House, an impressive Neoclassical building by Sir William Chambers (late 18th century), which also contains The Gilbert Collection of decorative arts and the Hermitage Rooms (which recreates, in miniature, the imperial splendor of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg)—all for the same price of admission.  In the central courtyard of Somerset House, a magnificent space which formally only served as a car park for the Inland Revenue, which is the building’s main tenant, there is now an ice skating rink (www.somersethouse.org.uk/ice-rink) that is open to the public for eight weeks starting the end of November.

Of course, there’s The Tate: the Tate British (great Turners and Constables; my view of British art: “Ugly painting, ugly painting, Turner, ugly painting, ugly painting, Constable, ugly painting, ugly painting...”) and the Tate Modern, in its renovated power station home:  The original building, the Bankside Power Station,  was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott—also the designer of the famous British red telephone box.  The Tate Modern has some spectacular art in its permanent collection, but is a simply dreadful example of what I consider a most damnable trend in current exhibition philosophy, in which art is grouped according to some conceptual scheme of the curator, rather than chronologically or by artist.  Thus, instead of being able to go and look at the Schwitters collages you might want to see, or the Rothko paintings (on the other hand, there is one fabulous room devoted entirely to a series of Rothko paintings, which was designed in consultation with the artist himself), or marvelous works by Duchamps, you have to wander through various arrays of works dealing with “Still Life/Object/Real Life” or “Landscape/Matter/Environment” or some other conceptual groupings, and sort through any number of other works the curator thinks you ought to see along with those you might want to see.  There is usually a magnificent installation of some sort in the turbine hall (the mammoth entrance area to the museum which housed the power plants turbines).  In November 2004, it was a gigantic sound sculpture.

After a visit to the Tate Modern, one should return back across the Thames via the Millennium pedestrian bridge.

If you've never been there, the War Cabinet Rooms are really worth seeing. (Nancy dragged Alex and me there against my will, but I loved it: a real experience of WWII).

 

If you can stomach the imperialist plundering, the The British Museum has many incredible treasures (including the Rosetta Stone, the sculpture from the Parthenon, etc.); the new inner court yard designed by Norman Foster joins the space between the various buildings of the museum and creates a magnificent central area under its beautifully vaulted glass roof which houses the recently renovated and totally amazing Reading Room (open to the public for the first time) at its center.

 

The National Gallery is one of the world’s great museums; among its many world class treasures, it is the home to one of the three unbelievably wonderful paintings by Uccello of the Battle of San Romano (the other two being at the Louvre and the Uffizi)—these incredibly modern 15th century paintings are among our favorite works of all time.  (This Uccello is in Room # 55 of the Sainsbury Wing.)  Among the other magnificent paintings are the National Gallery’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (in Rooms 43-46 of the main building)—including some magnificent Manets, Monets, Cezannes, Pissarros, etc.

 

The Soanes Museum, the preserved townhouse of the great Regency architect, Sir Joan Soanes, is a treasure of the highest order,  decorated as he lived in it, it is filled with an unbelievable collection of architectural fragments, models, drawings, sculpture, paintings (a must if you like Hogarth)—and even the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I!  The domes and other top-lighting of the spaces and the colored glass he employed are truly wonderful.

 

The Wigmore Hall is one of the nicest concert halls in the world, so check out their programs. And the Royal Opera Company in Covent Garden is a treat that is well worth partaking of.

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