£2, 1 Station Parade, Uxbridge Road, London, W5 3LD
There’s a growing trend in London’s faux-Japanese restaurants – the ones that aren’t Japanese-run, and serve Japanese food to Western tastes – to do away with the more challenging textures and flavours. The result is bowdlerised menus. Not so at Atari-ya, which has stayed faithful to traditional Japanese tastes and offers many delicacies, including natto. This fermented soybean has a distinctive flavour and is best enjoyed raw, perhaps in the maki (hand-rolled sushi): six pieces cost a mere £2 here.
Read Atari-ya restaurant review
£5.90, 54 Frith Street, London, W1D 4SL
The humble tortilla may seem a peculiar choice for such a swish tapas bar, particularly when alternatives include the likes of razor clams, grilled quail and giant tiger prawns. All of these are excellent, but that’s partly down to the high-quality ingredients. The tortilla, however, reveals the skill of the chefs, who will cook it right in front of you. A plump, golden cushion of perfectly seasoned omelette with a soft, oozing centre, this is Spanish peasant fare at its very best. Glam it up with chorizo or spinach if you like, but it really doesn’t need embellishment.
Read Barrafina restaurant review
£5.50, Surrey Quays Leisure Park, 100 Redriff Row, London, SE16 7LH
Many people head to the Vietnamese hotspots in Hackney when they get the craving, but a trip to this unprepossessing café in a car park in Surrey Quays will yield much joy for the more adventurous diner. These cold ‘summer’ rolls are filled with crushed roasted rice and shredded pork skin as well as the usual herbs and veg, which gives them a fantastic soft/crunchy texture and an intense piggy flavour.
£4 each, £8.80 for a selection., 5 Kingly St, London, W1B 5PF
Of all the balls we’ve bitten this year, these are the best. Created by executive chef Vivek Singh at his latest Indian restaurant, they show off his trademark style: fusing Indian spices with European presentation. Five tiny balls are lined up on an elegant slate, each one perched on a smear of fragrant home-made chutney. Of the collection, the delicate crab cake, potato bondas (a kind of Indian potato croquette), and tiny spiced scotch quail’s eggs are the winners.
Read Cinnamon Soho restaurant review
£3.50, 63 Charterhouse Street, London, EC1M 6HJ
Comptoir Gascon, a French bistro, traiteur and pâtisserie, is an accessible offshoot of the phenomenally successful fine-dining restaurant Club Gascon opposite Smithfield Market. Appropriately for a restaurant specialising in the food of south-west France, the french fries are cooked in duck fat. But careful choice of fat is not the only bit of Gallic polish the kitchen adds to these chips magnifiques. The tatties are hand-cut 8-10cm long and 1cm square (un petit peu thicker than better-known french fries). The final flourish is fleur de sel salt and piment d’Espelette pepper.
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£10.95, 22 Harcourt Street, London, W1H 4HH
Sushi of Shiori does a strikingly similar version, but it’s not as tender nor as explosive as the one at Japanese restaurant Dinings. A lightly blowtorched piece of fatty beef lies on perfect rice, which is then topped with salty-sharp cubes of ponzu (citrus) jelly that melt on the tongue. Overarching this luxurious mouthful is the dab of truffle ‘salsa’ – insanely good and worth every penny.
Read Dinings restaurant review
£6.80, 33 Charlotte Street, entrance on Rathbone Street, London, W1T 1RR
Salad isn’t something we usually get excited about. Too often, it’s merely a derisory nod to calorie-counters. But every so often, a salad comes along that deserves attention. Such is the baby gem assembly at this upmarket Spanish venue: tiny, bitter-centred baby gems layered with a sharp shallot and sherry vinegar dressing; soft, subtle anchovies; and crispy pancetta. If the prices are a little out of your league, here’s a tip: sit up at the bar (where you get a great view into the kitchen) on any Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday lunchtime, and you’ll get 50% off your food bill. That’s the kind of maths we like.
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£3, 74 Welbeck Street, London, W1G 0BA
As well as their renowned burgers, this is another US import done fiendishly well by the Meat Liquor team. Tangy, juicy pickles are coated in a crunchy batter, ready to become vehicles for an artery-clogging blue cheese dressing (one we think even blue cheese phobics will like). We preferred it when they served them sliced up into dippable medallions rather than as long unwieldy slices, but it’s still a darned good snack.
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£4.50, 22 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 2NB
There are some essential flavours of the Japanese kitchen that you’ll never find in Pret A Manger, and uni is one of them. These orange-yellow ovaries and roe of the sea urchin are a great treat for connoisseurs, but they’re best not attempted in budget establishments; ‘cheap sushi’ is not the way to go. Instead, try uni somewhere mid-range, such as Nizuni. The sushi here is well-made, and the uni speaks reassuringly of decent sourcing; the creamy roe tastes clean and sweet, with none of the musky, fishy odour of less-than-fresh versions.
Read Nizuni restaurant review
£39.50, 438 King's Road, London, SW10 0LJ
Medlar is a modern French restaurant at the unfashionable end of King’s Road. Although the menu changes frequently, you can bet almost everything on it will be delectable. The duck egg tart is a case in point. Robust flavours are introduced here with the red wine sauce, lardons and sautéed duck heart accompanying a fried duck egg – one of several starters on the £39.50 three-course, prix fixe menu. Whatever you order, you can expect dish after dish to wow with its balance of flavours and subtlety of expression.
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£6, 194 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3TQ
Ham croquettes may be a humble dish – breadcrumbs, béchamel, and a bit of meat – but the Spanish are proud of their croquetas, and every tapas joint has its own signature recipe. If you want to sample an A-class version, Pizarro is the place to head (but beware, no bookings are taken at evenings or weekends). Chef José Pizarro substitutes butter for olive oil in his silky béchamel, which is speckled with tiny ham cubes and snuggled within a crisp coating of deep-fried breadcrumbs. Proper, tapas-sized comfort food.
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£3.10, 13 Queensway, London, W2 4QJ
When ordering dim sum, it’s important to consider a balance of textures: after all, that’s what Cantonese cooking is all about. So once you’ve chosen the standard slithery, sticky and doughy dishes (cheung fun, steamed dumplings and buns), make sure you ask for this delightful creation. Tiny pieces of mixed dried meats nestle at the epicentre of a deep-fried dumpling made from slightly sweet puréed yam. It’s light and crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside. You get three per plate, and they’re fairly rich, so you’re usually happy to let one go. But not two. Oh no.
Read Royal China restaurant review
£9, 27 Battersea Rise, London, SW11 1HG
Soif considers itself a wine bar, but the happy eaters of Battersea know otherwise; this is the best rustic French bistro for miles. The menu changes daily, is set out on a brief page and, like all good bistros, is seasonal. But if you’re lucky, you might chance upon the ceps with bone marrow. Little sections of bone marrow are served like squidgy scallops that dissolve in the mouth; they arrive with cep mushrooms and a stunning crust of garlic, parsley and fried breadcrumbs.
£4, 1 Green's Court, London, W1F 0HA
A staple at modish Lebanese café Yalla Yalla, the pan-fried chicken livers (sawda djej) isn’t going to scoop first prize at any beauty pageant. But if you’re looking for big, bold flavours, give it a whirl. Glistening pomegranate seeds add glamour to an otherwise brown mass, but in a single mouthful you’ll get the lingering hit of chopped sautéd liver and mellow garlic, ahead of the faintly sweet aftertaste of the fruit molasses. Best eaten with warm flatbreads and the fresh and feisty house tabouleh.
From around £8, 1A Argyll Road, London, W8 7DB
At Yashin, we are told, individual seasonings are paired with each piece of flesh to bring out the flavours of the seafood or meat; some pieces are lightly blowtorched, resulting in contrasting textures and smoky flavours. Each meticulously crafted morsel has its own merits, whether yellowtail with black pepper, or torched fatty tuna with a dollop of fresh wasabi. Consistently well-formed, supple rice completes the formula for perfect nigiri. New-style sushi, all is forgiven.
Read Yashin Sushi restaurant review
£4.50, 15 Broadwick Street, London, W1F 0DL
The Yauatcha head chef, Tong Chee Hwee, is highly innovative, as demonstrated in dishes such as the venison puffs. Egg-glazed and garnished with sesame seeds, they look like char siu puffs ( with a crumbly, samosa-shaped layered pastry on the outside), but bite into them and you get a very different intense but sweet flavour. Life-affirmingly good.
Read Yauatcha restaurant review