Who needs stuffy old museums? The dining room of the Gallery at Sketch is one of the most playful – and most pink – places to be enveloped by art. The walls have around 200 original prints and drawings by Turner Prize-winning David Shrigley, their cartoonish quality adding to the sense of fun. He’s even designed some of the crockery: ‘ghosts’, say the teapots, ‘forget about it’, quips the inside of your cup. You can come here for dinner, but afternoon tea is what The Gallery has become famous for, so much so that you can get it before noon (it starts, specifically, at 11.30am). Service is outstanding. Once your charming host has talked you through how it works, you’re looked after by a dedicated ‘tea master’: glam gals in slinky cocktail dresses and baseballs shoes. Who happen to really know their brews. After you’ve decided on drinks and a menu (standard, children’s or – if notice is given – a special dietary needs option), the fun begins. First, there’s the caviar man, in a panama hat and pale blazer. You get a spoonful of caviar (Russian Sturgeon, cultivated in France) alongside Egg and Soldiers: two slim, cheesy toast strips and a fake egg in a very real egg cup (the white is an exceptionally good Comté cheese mornay, the yolk is from a quail and cooked to an ultra-soft 63 degrees). There’s a similar level of creativity throughout the sandwiches and cakes. Star of the sarnies was a black bread Croque d’York, or the salmon and soured cream on rye, while a perfect pear t
It’s not easy to open a spate of brand-new restaurants and maintain high standards, but chef-patron Jason Atherton has clearly moved on from being the sorcerer’s apprentice (under Gordon Ramsay) to being the sorcerer himself. His Little Social deluxe bistro only opened in March 2013, right opposite his fine dining Pollen Street Social in Mayfair. He followed this up, weeks later, with an even more ambitious restaurant in Soho, by delegating the chef role to his buddy and long-time head chef at Pollen Street Social, Paul Hood. The ground-floor dining room has a mirrored ceiling to create the sensation of space in a low room; upstairs is a smart cocktail bar, called the Blind Pig, which also has a separate entrance. Most of the action is in the dining room, though, with a kitchen brigade who are clearly at the top of their game. Smoked duck ‘ham’, egg and chips is a dish that’s typical of Pollen Street Social’s playfulness. ‘Ham’ is cured and smoked from duck breast on the premises, served with a breadcrumbed duck egg that’s molten in the middle, but with an aroma of truffle oil. Umami – savouriness, the taste that enhances other flavours – was also plentiful in a roast cod main course that uses powdered Japanese kombu seaweed in a glaze, served with a creamy sauce of roasted cockles and just-in-season St George’s mushrooms. Presentation is a strong point of Hood’s dishes, just as they are for his mentor Atherton. A starter of ‘CLT’ – crab meat, a fan of blonde castelfranco
Sushi purists will struggle with Sushisamba. At this Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian fusion restaurant, the chefs do wacky things like put mozzarella in your sushi and serve your kobe beef with mustard. Crazy, right? So are the interiors. This jungle-like space has a balcony, plants dangling off every inch of the ceiling (one hit me in the face as we walked to our table), dining booths that look like birdcages and a sexy Latino soundtrack that thumps away constantly as you eat. In other words: buckets of atmosphere. The huge fusion menu features everything from plantains to wagyu beef and butterfish. Don’t be overwhelmed and miss the robata grill section, because the slightly chewy chicken hearts (‘corazon de pollo’) were the star of the show. Served anticuchos-style on a skewer, they came with a spicy sauce and a side of deliciously rubbery Peruvian corn. Also get the £8 kobe starter: a super-soft bun filled with tender wagyu beef and a tangy swirl of mustard on the side. Pad out the rest of your order with snacks, like some of that mozzarella sushi. I expected to hate it, but with its crispy onions and jalapenos, it tasted like a cheeseburger. We ended up polishing off the plate. The catch was the bill, which added up quickly. If you’ve got cash to spare, go to Sushisamba. It’s a memorable place to eat in a sea of semi-boring Covent Garden spots aimed at tourists. Get a table on the balcony and you can watch them walk around below you like cute, camera-toting ants.
You know what’s better than new? Old. Not ‘old old’, like when your housemate leaves a packet of chicken at the back of the fridge and goes on holiday, but the good kind, that evokes the best of a bygone era. Vintage. That’s the vibe at Xu. (Which, btw, is pronounced ‘Shu’. Not ‘Joo’. Not ‘Sue’.) The first ‘smart’ restaurant from the crew behind cult hit Bao, it’s a love letter to 1930s Taipei. It’s got class, but no hanger-up-its-bum. Our waiter was in black tie, yet effortlessly switched from ‘chummy and attentive’ toward those of us obvious Bao groupies, to ‘polite and obliging’ for the ostentatiously wealthy family that arrived, took umbrage with their table and demanded to be instantly rehomed. True, it’s not a perfect site. It’s one of those narrow, awkward Soho spaces, but the Xu crew have been fairly clever about it, carving up the two small floors into a bundle of mini-spots, each with its own air of intimacy. There’s dark wood panelling, crisp air con and ceiling fans idling overhead. The upstairs room has a teeny bar at its centre, offering a few more seats and a railway clock. It’s the louder of the two floors, with lively chatter and Dean Martin singing ‘Papa Loves Mambo’ (anachronistic but fun). At street level, there’s another central bar – more of a hatch, really – with someone polishing not glasses, but porcelain tea cups. Tea is big at Xu. But you didn’t come for the tea (though it’s very good). You came for the food. And oh my. It’s magnificent. There’s a
Venue says The team behind Bao bring you Xu, a Teahouse & Restaurant reminiscent of the original social clubs and luxury dining rooms of 1930's Taipei!
Hipsters: prepare to be outraged. There’s a new kid in town, with dishes as retro as a Rubik’s Cube, but without the side of irony. That’s because it’s the latest gaff from Corbin & King, the chaps behind The Wolseley, The Delaunay, and Brasserie Zédel. Like those, it’s named in connection with classic cars (backstory: The Wolseley site was originally built as the showroom of the Wolseley Car Company). Bellanger is a nod to the Société des Automobiles Bellanger Frères, a French car manufacturer from 1912 to ’25 (fun fact: Monsieur Bellanger sold Delaunay cars). And once again, it pays homage to the golden era of all-day ‘grand cafés’. Formerly home to a popular-but-uninspiring branch of Brown’s, the site’s potential has at last been realised. The layout’s much the same (airy front section, intimate rear space, bustling middle to connect the two), but the refit by David Collins’s protégé Shayne Brady is all new. If you can call interiors straight from the Alsatian brasseries of turn-of-the-century Paris ‘new’, that is. (Bit of history: these were set up by refugees fleeing the Alsace after the region was annexed by Germany). It’s gorgeously art nouveau, all polished wood panelling, smoky mirrors and flattering golden lighting. An abundance of booths encourages group dining and café chatter. You can’t buy this kind of buzz. The food – a Venn diagram of French, German and Alsatian – is simple, yet flawless. If Angela Merkel and François Hollande embarked upon an illicit affair
Venue says Visit Bellanger on a Tuesday & Wednesday evening for their new steak frites & wine and sausage, sauerkraut & beer specials from £14.50
Most Londoners will have heard of Hawksmoor. Since the first opened, back in 2006, it’s been the darling of the steak scene. That original branch is near Christ Church Spitalfields, built by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor – hence the name – and is a full-of-character but smaller space. But this Covent Garden offshoot, launched in 2010, just as the area was becoming fashionable again, is the group's well-deserved flagship. Set in a big, buzzy basement, with low, flattering lighting, it’s great for a long lunch, a birthday dinner, a hot date and everything in between. A converted brewery, it's hugely atmospheric, with plenty of original features including the gently arched brick ceilings and cast-iron columns. As for the food, it’s still great. You can’t really put a foot wrong here, and though the beef is of course excellent, it does a mean line in seafood, too. On a recent visit, a slice of toast buried under an avalanche of delicate white crab meat was a hit; as was a skin-off, on-the-bone monkfish swimming in garlicky, herb-flecked butter. Don’t overlook the huge selection of sides: they’re stars in their own right (especially the moreish cauliflower cheese). One tip: you'll find standard steaks on the menu at any time, but to get your pick of the larger blackboard cuts before they’re crossed off, you’ll need to arrive early. All the better to sink a few killer cocktails and settle in for the night.
Every table in the seventh floor restaurant of the South Place Hotel (part of the D&D empire) has a view over the surrounding rooftops and cranes; it’s a serene spot, with pristine white tablecloths and chic flower arrangements, though on summer weekends it’s more of a party space, complete with DJs. This relaxed style permeates the building – staff are as switched on as you’d expect from the restaurant’s Michelin star, but charmingly unstuffy with it, and that blend suits a restaurant poised between the old-school City and the new world of the Silicon Roundabout. British fish is the speciality, impeccably cooked and presented, from a menu by executive chef Gary Foulkes. The star of the show was cuttlefish bolognese with basil rigatoni, Amalfi lemon and olive oil, a sprightly, springtime starter bursting with flavour. A main of john dory with mousseron mushrooms, three-cornered leek (a wild allium with a short season of only a few weeks) and Tuscan lentils was also splendid, with beautifully crisped skin and tender fish. Both dishes came from the set lunch menu, brilliant value at £34 for three courses (which is less than a single main course from the à la carte). Alongside the fish there are a few meat options, but when the fish and seafood are this good, it seems pointless to stray. Chocolate pavé with banana and reduced milk ice-cream was a pleasing mix of fancy and comfort food to finish. Special mention should also go to the yeast butter, delightfully light and with a
Venue says Michelin your lunch at Angler, enjoy two-courses for £30 per person with an optional wine flight for £20 per person.
‘Come back to my place’, shouted my Uber driver. ‘We’ll look after you!’ This exchange, back in May, was more innocent than it sounds. Having found out that I was half Sri Lankan (upon which he immediately high-fived me, causing the car to lurch thrillingly to one side), my Colombo-born taxi driver was now trying to solve my personal problems, namely how long it had been since I’d last had a decent hopper. These bowl-shaped savoury crepes, you see, are technically a breakfast item. So attempting to order them in a traditional Sri Lankan restaurant at the ‘wrong time’ is typically met by a baffled expression. Hence his offer to drive us to his place in Hendon, where his wife would cook. If I weren’t already running late, I might just have said yes. (And by the way: inviting a total stranger to your house for food is completely normal behaviour in Sri Lanka). But now I wouldn’t have to. The Sethis, who are basically Midases of the restaurant world (Gymkhana, Bubbledogs and Bao are just three of their restaurants), have only gone and opened a Sri Lankan restaurant, specialising in…well, you know. And it is an absolute joy. As you might expect from a no-bookings joint in Soho, it’s small but stylish, effortlessly mixing old and new. Exposed brick meets wood panelling; pretty patterned tiles meet carved-wood devil masks. The menu, likewise, gives traditional Sri Lankan street food a fashionable lift. Slender breaded and deep-fried mutton rolls came with a ginger, garlic and c
You can always judge a restaurant by its loo – which is why I was pleased to see the tapestry of frolicking nudes at Blanchette East. This toilet said: naughty but nice, fun with a certain je ne sais quoi. There’s another naked babe above the bar; clearly, this Shoreditch spin-off of popular Soho hangout Blanchette doesn’t take itself too seriously. Foodwise, think decent bistro fare with a few twists – North African-inflected, with Provençal and Basque overtones – rejigged into small plates you’ll want to share. I could’ve left happy after the snack alone, a merguez sausage roll with harissa mayo for dunking – spicy, flaky and ever-so-slightly sweetened by the onion confit. Ooh la la. A divisive-sounding escargot surf n’ turf of seared hanger steak topped with (shell-less) snails, parsley, garlic and a velvety onion purée was a highlight. Lamb tagine was no less gorgeous, speckled with almonds, its richness cut by whipped labheh. Green bean and comté salad and pomegranate couscous were also exquisite. My rose-tinted specs did have to come off when dessert arrived; a chilled peach and saffron ‘soup’ was redolent of shop-bought smoothie and a coconut macaroon was inedibly brittle. Zingy basil sorbet fared better, but I’d stick to post-prandial cocktails instead. Because hey, not everything can be perfect. Blanchette East is a solid-gold date night option; or, if you want to romp in a group, request the lovely back table, secluded by frosted glass and velvet drapes. Like I
‘Visitor bag search’, the sign read. Next to it was a walk-through metal detector and a burly security guard. He had a glint in his eye, the kind that says, ‘I’ve got a box of latex gloves here, and if I find so much as a nail file in your purse, I won’t be afraid to use them.’ So we approached the receptionist instead. ‘Is this the way to City Social?’ ‘No,’ she sighed, ‘this is the main entrance, you’ll need the side door, opposite Wagamama.’ Happily, there’s only a single gatekeeper at the alternative entrypoint, so once you negotiate a long, oppressive tunnel and an express lift so fast it’ll make your ears pop – boom – you’re in. Floor 24 of Tower 42, in what is now the third-tallest building in the City. Atop a hive of financial firms, this is one heck of a dining room with a view. You’re so close to the Gherkin you can practically see its office workers photocopying their bottoms. It’s a gorgeous space: nocturnal, sexy and full of art-deco flashes. Against the windows are the best seats – deep, curved booths, rather like waterless hot tubs. Even the vistas from the glass-walled loos provoke a sharp intake of breath (and afford fellas the giddy sensation of weeing above the heads of overpaid bankers). Relative to all this excitement, Jason Atherton’s menu verges on the tame. He’s built a reputation for creating playful, groundbreaking dishes, but this is a venue managed by contract caterers Restaurant Associates in the heart of the Square Mile. The City’s unspoken comma
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