London’s a global hub, especially when it comes to the food scene. In the last five years, London has roared ahead of other capital cities in embracing pretty much every food trend that has challenged our stomachs. Korean fried chicken? You betcha. Peruvian ceviche? Been there, move on. Pop-ups and street food stalls have evolved into permanent, hot-listed restaurants and warehouses bursting with food ‘concepts’, distilled menus and cocktail bars blare music out every weekend to foodies looking for a hip thrill with their hunger-busting bao.
But let’s not forget, London has always been a city of immigrants, of food trends and fusion cuisine. Over the last 50 years the city has adopted a curry as a national dish, embraced spicy rice ‘n’ peas, and positively cooed at anything that looks like it might have been imported from Europe (cafe culture, decent olive oil, tapas…).
As much as each quickfire trend creates a new wave of excitement, reviews and pretenders, there are more cuisines in London that meet the just landed eye. A visitor today might assume it’s all, and forever has been, about gourmet burgers, low and slow meat restaurants, and the ubiquitous sharing plates, but London’s food scene runs much deeper than the latest incarnation at each restaurant address. From a resurgence of the classics in a newly invigorated love of French cuisine to reimagining dishes that once would only have been served up late at night out of a fluorescent lit, greasy takeaway joint, today’s London delights in finding deliciousness in both the most obvious and the most unusual of places.
Think Chinese, think gloopy MSG laden dishes that are nuclear orange, right? Or all-you-can-eat buffets with tough strings of Peking duck? Chinese Laundry on Upper Street is doing things a little differently. The tiny, narrow restaurant opened this summer as a kitsch take on 1980s family life in China, complete with lesser known dishes from that period.
With a sharing plate ethos, many of the dishes have evolved from Sichuan and Beijing with a Western twist, so you’ll find traditional Chinese snack, the century egg, fried in batter and served with spicy peanut butter. Sweet basil chicken popcorn takes on the neverending appeal of fried chicken but adds a moreish five-spice marinade while the stir fried aubergine, another rural favorite of China, is accompanied with hot smoked salmon.
Don’t miss the Manchurian lamb — twice cooked lamb belly made crisp with soya bean paste and Chinese spice, baizhi, deep fried cilantro leaves and pickled daikon. It’s lip smackingly good, a delicate balance of crisp skin and gooey meat made potent with exotic spices. The restaurant also has developed its own spirit, baiiju, a traditional Chinese white spirit that comes flavored with different fruits, which is mixed into potent versions of the classic sour cocktail.
Chic neighborhood bistros have made a comeback in Paris; trendsetter Frenchie opened a British outpost in Covent Garden in the spring. Forget the white linen tables, heavy silver cutlery and snooty waiters of intimidating classic French dining. Frenchie is all pale green buttery leather booths, Art Deco lamps and informal waiters who are warm and welcoming.
Split into sharing appetizers and small snacks, mains and desserts; the pared back menu combines technical French flair with seasonal, British sourced ingredients for fresh, flavorful dishes and no rich cream sauces in sight. Cornish crab on a black rice cracker with Sicilian lemon makes for a light amuse bouche, while the Buccleuch beef tartare with razor clams and seaweed gives the French staple a modern twist. The hearty purple beef is juicy and just delicious. Try the Cornish monkfish with borlotti beans, samphire, girolles and black garlic to taste the rustic French vibe and wash it down with one of a number of small, organic wine producers from France — your carafe comes with a handwritten label detailing your choice. Save room for the dessert menu, each item comes as pretty as a picture, scattered with edible flowers.
While it’s never going to be warm enough for hula skirts in London, the city has recently embraced Hawaiian cuisine, especially the ahi poke (raw tuna) dish. Playing to the health conscious and a city that has already lapped up the cross between Peruvian and Japanese cuisines in recent years, Hawaiian adds a new angle to the raw fish restaurant craze. If you want to try it without coughing up a fortune for fine dining, Ahi Poke (just off Oxford Street) covers off two trends in one, (Hawaiian cuisine and the bespoke salad bar), having created a quick and airy casual eatery, perfect for a healthy lunch pit stop while you’re hitting the shops.
Choose between (sustainably caught) diced salmon or ahi tuna; add a rice, kale or mixed quinoa base; then load up on Hawaiian flavors such as cilantro, red onion, kimchee cucumber and avocado, and add ponzu, spicy mayo or leche de tigre sauce.
Last year’s Hoppers opening has really introduced the fiery variety of Sri Lankan cooking to London. This small quirky restaurant in Soho echoes traditional houses in Sri Lanka where visitors are welcome to stop for something to eat, with its wooden panelling, Sri Lankan music playing and shared tables. The menu’s split into short eats, hoppers and dosas and then roast and kathu with a line of mocktails that could hit a homerun for sobriety (strawberry and cilantro, who knew?). Mutton rolls come as meaty spring roll tubes, chewy and filling. The bone marrow varuval is rich, melting and buttery (much tastier than it looks), and traditional lotus root chips are given a spicy kick that makes them incredibly hard to stop eating.
But what people generally come here for are the hoppers. A hopper is a Sri Lankan fermented rice pancake shaped like a bowl that’s filled with savory karis (curries). Choose between red pumpkin, lamb, or the favorite, black pork and order a trio of chutneys made from coriander, tomato and coconut. Dosas lack the fermentation flavor but are a slightly crispier pancake rounded into a loose cone. Those not into pancakes can settle for the Ceylonese split chicken with gotukola sambol and pol roti — basically a spicy, do it yourself chicken wrap.
There aren’t an overabundance of South African restaurants in London, but High Timber has been setting the standard for the last seven years. Tucked away on the north bank of the Thames, a few minutes from Southwark Bridge, this unassuming place serves up some of most succulent steaks along with top notch service in London. The restaurant is an extension of the award-winning Jordan’s wine estate in Stellenbosch (arguably South Africa’s finest vineyard region), so expect amazing tipples and plenty of advice on wine pairing. The restaurant actually has 22,000 bottles on hand and if you dive downstairs to use one of their private dining rooms, you’ll see crates cellared in every possible spot.
Start with a taste of biltong, South Africa’s beef jerky (biltong is traditionally a little thicker than its American cousin and preserved with vinegar). You can also try it in warm, oozing croquettes as a starter, or plump for beef carpaccio with seared foie gras, truffle and Parmesan, which feels decadent but superbly light and fresh at the same time. For entrees, let’s face it, South African means steak, so get stuck into a ribeye, which comes with a range of sauces including a truffle mustard. However, the meat is so tender and juicy you’ll want to give it plenty of room without drowning it in condiments, plus the handmade fries are extremely moreish. The restaurant also does a steak, fries and glass of wine on a Friday for 20GBP (about $26) which is an absolute bargain for central London. Their terrace, overlooking the OXO Tower and the South Bank, is a secret gem of a spot to catch a sunset over iconic London.
Georgina Wilson-Powell, Special for USA TODAY