Club Gascon, 57 West Smithfield, EC1A 9DS, Phone: 020 7796 0600. Tube: St Pauls/Barbican
Club Gascon is the Michelin-starred top tier of a small group of Gascon venues that includes a bar and bistro within the same vicinity near Smithfield market and the Barbican. The space is cosy, intimate and smartly minimal, with a bar at one end and plenty of wood, stone and natural textures. A seasonal tasting menu is offered for the whole table, but we ate a la carte from a small selection inspired by southwestern France. But this is not the place to come for rustic cassoulets and steaming bowls of boulliabaise (and nor is it the place for vegetarians). Rather, Club Gascon offers very precise, sophisticated haute cuisine. A small procession of canapés and amuses arrived before the main event, and from a menu that features eight variations on a theme of foie gras, I started with a grilled version, deliciously topped with caramlised grapes and sitting on a mound of sweet onion compote. My main course was a slightly odd dish. King scallops were the main ingredient, and delicious they were too, sweet and just crusting on the outside, an accompanying oyster was meaty and delicious, but then a pungent, herby little soup was difficult to eat with a fork and flat ‘pusher’ spoon. Pudding was less of a challenge, and very delicious, little constructions of white chocolate served with a boozy, aromatic cherry sauce. Coffee and petits-fours rounded off a really interesting and generally delicious meal, and washing it all down with a bottle of Charles Hours Jurançon brought the bill to less than £90 per head, including service and bottled water, which seems OK for food of this quality and invention. Two people: £200. Monday-Friday lunch and dinner, Saturday dinner only. Closed Sunday.
Galvin at Windows, Hilton Park Lane, W1K 1BE. Phone: 020 7208 4021. Tube: Hyde Park Corner
On the 28th floor of the Hilton, with absolutely stunning 360 degree vistas over London from full-height windows, I have the occasional lunch here for the views as well as the food. But it is a slick operation with friendly and professional staff, beautifully cooked food and lunch-time deals. The space is cool and contemporary, with lots of polished wood, soft, shimmering gold and cream colours, and a raised central platform so that everyone enjoys the views, not just those lucky enough to be by a window. From a short set menu, I chose a terrine of foie gras, chicken and bayonne ham that came in beautifully dense yet light layers, and was served with a caramelised hazelnut dressing. I followed with slow-cooked breast of lamb, rolled and served on a bed of spinach and a rich jus. A pungent little quenelle of tomato and aubergine relish and a melt-in-the-mouth miniature bubble and squeak cake. For dessert, a very dark, bittersweet chocolate fondant was well cooked, and served with vanilla ice cream on honeycomb, and a little mound of PX-soaked raisins. Delicious coffee may be £6 per cup, but is served with petit-fours and marshmallows. Along with a glass of Cahors and Sancerre, a £170 bill for two that includes service charge is good value. The wine list is good, with a decent slection of glasses and half bottles. (Lunch every day, dinner closed Sunday)
Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street. Phone: 020 7835 0874. Tube: Bond Street
This was dinner, and probably the eleventh or twelfth time I’ve eaten in this wonderful restaurant, which more or less defined modern gastronomic London. Many of my previous visits were to partake of their superb value lunch menu. The Roux brothers opened their clubby basement restaurant just off Grosvenor Square 30 years ago, immediately setting the standard by which all that followed would be judged. For the past decade or so, Michel Roux junior has been at the helm, and he worked the tables on my recent visit as always, helping set the scene on a very personal, relaxed dining ambiance. We chose the eight-course tasting menu at £175, that started with a wondefully pungent and zingy tartare of tuna, doused with a ginger, sesame oil and pimento dressing that really got the gastric juices in tune. A classic Gavroche dish of Petit Soufflé Suissesse followed, an impossible balancing act of feather light and decadently rich cream and cheese. Other highlights in a hugely long and enjoyable evening where an escalope of seared foie gras served with a crispy duck pancake, and noisettes of venison, with wild mushrooms in a vivid pepper and cranberry sauce. One of two desserts was memorable layers of pear and puff pastry, laced with a salted butter caramel and pistachio sauce. The wine list is enrormous of course, but is not difficult to find wines to suit most budgets, including some fine by the glass selections, like the Mas Amiel Maury we enjoyed with the “other” chocolate dessert. Le Gavroche is classic but modern French cooking at its absolute best, enlivened by unexpected twists, and presented with consumate charm by the front of house team. Superb. Two people: £200 for lunch for two, £500 for dinner. Closed weekends.
Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, W8 5RL. Phone 020 7937 6912. Tube: Gloucester Rd
Launceston Place has had a fairly chequered recent history. Once Princess Diana’s favourite neighbourhood restaurant (it is a few minutes from Kensington Palace) it was taken over by the D&D group who run dozens of restaurants in the capital around 2008/9, its series of connecting dining rooms had a stylish makeover, and it promptly gained a Michelin star. That star was removed in 2015, but the restaurant continues a similar dining style and pricing, with dinner at £65 for three courses (as of 2019). I had eaten there very regularly over the past 15 years or so, but not for a while, so as we settled in to peruse the menus and fairly comprehensive wine list I had high expectations. I have to say I was rather disappointed. That was down to not only the food – which was generally very good without being exceptional – but also rather mean portion control for the high prices, and a slightly drab atmosphere in a half full dining room on a Wednesday evening. A starter of scallop and chorizo was exactly that: one smallish scallop and one crispy disc of chorizo on a little butternut purée. Halibut was a decent portion, with a leek velouté and, thankfully, a nice slice of pommes boulangère in a side dish. Overall, portions continued on the small side (like two small petit-fours with £6 a cup coffee), and the bill for £295 for two with £100 of wine did not feel like particularly good value. Lunch Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner open seven days.
Marcus, The Berkley Hotel, Wilton St. Phone 020 7235 1200. Tube: Hyde Park Corner
Once part of the Gordon Ramsey empire, Waering famously struck out on his own, launching as Pétrus but now simply restaurant ‘Marcus’. The young staff were welcoming and efficient, and worked the room well. The wine list is dominated by French wines, but I chose the single Austrian on the list, a Grüner Veltliner from Schloss Goblesburg. A little complimentary cup of Jerusalem artichoke velouté was outstanding, before my first course choice of pan-fried red mullet, served with a bouillabaisse. This was quite brilliant: crisp-skinned, just-cooked fish and an earthy yet delicate soup. I stuck with fish, moving on to a wonderful seabream served on a bed of langoustine, saffron potatoes and a tongue-tingling escabèche dressing with sliced black truffle. Dessert was an absolute highlight: a mind-bogglingly precise block of Seville orange parfait with dark chocolate and caramelised kumquats; one of the most dramatically bittersweet desserts I’ve ever eaten. Coffee is served with chocolates and petits-fours. I would have liked to linger an extra half-hour rather than having to take coffee in the bar, but Marcus does offer a brilliant food experience. Expect a bill of £300 for two at lunch, dinner will be more. Closed Sundays.
Nathan Outlaw at The Capital, 22-24 Basil St SW3 1AT. Phone 0207 589 5171. Tube: Knightsbridge.
I’ve always considered the set menu with wine at Le Gavroche as arguably London’s best lunch-time deal. But Cornish 2* Chef Nathan Outlaw has thrown down a serious challenge with his Thursday deal – especially for the wine-loving foodie. On Thursday’s patrons are invited to bring along their own wine to the 1* Outlaw at The Capital with no corkage charge – lunch or dinner. As the delightful lunch is only £39 for three courses, that’s one hell of a bargain – two can eat sublimely well for less than £100 all-in. I always loved this dining room, a favourite haunt under former chef Eric Chavot. It is bijou, just like the charming Capital hotel itself, but so handily tucked away behind Harrods and so far from the madding shopping crowd. We settled in with some delightful fishy bob-bons and fine homemade breads, our bottle of wine having been taken and chilled by the head waiter. My first course of crisp hen’s egg, smoked mayonnaise and new season’s asparagus was just perfect on an early summer day, the deep gold, soft-yolked egg deep-fried in a light and crisp breadcrumb, the asparagus packed with a slightly char-grilled flavour and the smoky mayo delighfully double-creamy but sharp. My main course of Ling wrapped in pancetta with braised chicory and spinach and Outlaw’s signature sardine ketchup was lovely, especailly the bitter bite of the chicory against the sweet ketchup. For pudding, a double chocolate cheesecake with passionfruit syrup was lightly and cleverly done, the crunch of passion fruit seeds in the thin layer of biscuit base giving texture and flecks of flavour. Coffee came with petit fours, and service came with a smile. A terrific lunch and a stonking bargain for Knightsbridge. Dinner is £69 for three courses as of 2019. Closed Sundays.
Noizé Restaurant, 39 Whitfield Street W1T 2SF. Phone 020 7323 1310. Tube: Goodge Street
Casual but excellent and authentic fine French dining in a relaxed atmosphere. Choose from the slightly more formal upstairs restaurant, or the larger basement area and bar, for apparently simple cooking that focuses on ingredients. The restaurant is run by Mathieu Germond, former co-owner and manager of Pied à Terre, and his passion for wine shows not only in the very personal and non-corporate wine list, but in his willingness to accommodate wine enthusiasts looking to BYO. It’s unfair to place Noizé in ‘fine dining’ in some ways, because there is no pretension here: it is all about the food and wine, and though dishes are fairly simple, with four or five components on the plate, the ingredients are superb and cooking excellent, like a recent fillet of hake, served with a creamy white bean purée, and piquant, fresh accompaniment of salsify, caper and lemon. The menu changes according to the seasonal produce available, and three courses will cost around £50. Closed Sundays and Mondays but may open for larger bookings.
Pollen Street Social, 8-13 Pollen St W1S 1NQ. Phone 020 7290 7600. Tube: Oxford Circus
Having dined at Pollen Street Social a few times in the last year, we decided it was time to try out the 8 course ‘British Nature’ Tasting Menu. A lively atmosphere was very much in evidence on a Saturday evening, and the staff worked well to make the experience an enjoyable one for everyone there. As we sat down to a glass of Champagne, Jason Atherton’s amuse-bouche of pork crackling with apple sauce, teased our palates. We started with Sea (Colchester oyster ice cream) and Farm (Romney Marsh lamb with a gribiche sauce). Both dishes set our mouths salivating for the remaining courses. The presentation of the next dish entitled ‘English Breakfast’ was amazing, an egg shell filled with a tiny portion of scrambled egg, smoked bacon and beans. This treat with stunning flavours and textures was just like the real thing. Cornish Crab salad, avocado, beetroot sorbet and crab toastie soon followed. What a delicate mouthwatering experience. The menu remained focused on fish, Orkney sea scallop sashimi entitled ‘Trip to Japan 2012’ certainly made us move Japan further up on our gastronomic places to visit list. The final fish course, line caught Cornish turbot, squid and langoustine ‘ministrone’, coco bean, and baby courgettes, was pure elegance in a bowl. For my main course I chose the roasted Creedy Carver duck, spiced pear gel, braised duck leg, turnip and English Ale-Gar reduction. Sensational. Two desserts completed the tasting menu: Scottish raspberry and yuzu sorbet, aerated Devon cream cheese, matcha green tea, followed by Asian mango pudding, mango sorbet, yoghurt, freeze dried mango. What struck me most about this well balanced menu was the lightness and freshness of all the ingredients: a truly delicious and extravagant experience. £350.00 for two with wines, water, coffee and service. Closed Sundays.
Gordon Ramsay, 68 Royal Hospital Rd, Chelsea. Phone: 020 7352 4441. Tube: Sloan Square.
Gordon Ramsay’s original Chelsea restaurant is, without a doubt, the complete dining experience. The food may not be the most innovative, the wine list may not be the most comprehensive, but we left here feeling like we had been hit by a gastronomic juggernaut. From the first sip of Champagne to the last sublime liquorice-caramel petit four, your ears strain to hear the wheels of this perfectly-oiled food machine working. Our first course of many was a perfect example. Fois Gras Terrine with wonderful marbled layers of smoked and confit goose, surrounded by delicate morel mushrooms. Not the craziest mixture of flavours, but my God it was well done, and looked stunning too. Six more courses followed, with plenty of ‘intermission’ bits and bobs too. None really disappointed, and even when I didn’t take a great shine to Bream in a Cos lettuce sauce, I had to argue that it was still a good recipe well-cooked. Canon and leg of lamb was painfully good meat cooking, with its wide spectrum of textures, and the strawberry soufflé is simply the best I have ever tasted. The cheese board groaned under around fifty cheeses, all displayed in complex matrices of strength, texture and origin. The wine list starts at £25 a bottle, which is not bad for one of the most highly-rated restaurant on the world. Obviously, you can move well into five figures, but we found plenty of interesting choice in the £75-100 bracket. Gordon Ramsay Chelsea is like your rich uncle. He’s bigger, cleverer and more stylish than you will ever be, but he welcomes you with open arms. Closed weekends.
Theo Randall at The Intercontinental, Park Lane. Phone: 020 7318 8747. Tube: Hyde Park Corner
Theo Randall is by now a familiar face thanks to television appearances, cookbooks and acres of coverage for his authentic Italian cuisine. Ex-head chef at the River Café, his eponymous restaurant has attracted a steady stream of awards and plaudits since opening in 2008. Randall is one ‘celebrity chef’ who can still be found, night after night, behind the stoves in his open kitchen, ensuring that the food goes out to his exacting standards. A life-long Italiophile, Randall’s food philosophy is all about impeccable ingredients, classical techniques and, ultimately, simplicity. The dining room is large and comfortable, and although housed within a 5* hotel, has a relaxed, smart, but very informal atmosphere. Settling in, a bowl of delicious, hot-from-the-fryer zucchini fritti were brought to nibble on whilst we perused the menu. In the lightest batter, beauitfully seasoned and sensationally moreish, these set the tone for a terrific meal. We opted for the tasting menu at a very reasonable £70, which commenced with two of the highlights of this star-studded trip through Italian cooking: seared scallops on a bed of agretti (monk’s beard), followed by heavenly tagliatelle (the kitchen has a pasta-making team on duty eight hours per day). The latter was served with fresh peas and prosciutto, Speaking to Theo Randall afterwards, he said the peas he uses are imported directed from Italy and are in season for only around one month each year. It is those, with their incredibly vibrant and memory-provoking freshness of childhood summers, that inspired the dishg. Fillet of longhorn beef was a superb steak, fabulously tasty served with spinach, a sweet celeriac mash and some piquant salsa verde. After some good and beautifully conditioned Italian cheeses, one of his signature desserts: an Amalfi lemon tart that was sharp and sweet, with the finest of crumbly, short crusts. It really was a beautifully balanced meal, packed with intense and fresh flavours from start to finish. And a word for the wine choices from the eager young sommelier team: the choices were all spot-on in terms of food matching, but also managed to spring a few surprises including a sparkling Nebbiolo from Piemonte and a sour cherry-infused Cabernet Sauvignon from the Marche. This is undoubtedly one of the UK’s best Italian restaurants. Open seven days.
The Square, 6-10 Bruton St, Mayfair. W1J 6PU. Phone: 020 7495 7100. Tube: Green Park
I was a huge fan of The Square under the direction of chef Phil Howard, so it was something of disappointment in 2016 to hear that the business had been sold, albeit to the MARC group, a small wine-focused chain that already boasts the 2* Michelin The Greenhouse. We were warmly welcomed into the familiar surroundings of The Square, its airy, light-filled dining room containing the usual mix of business lunchers, regulars and foodie tourists enjoy the grown-up and calm, but never sombre atmosphere. Nothing much seems to have been done to fix what wasn’t broken. Although one of its two Michelin stars has been lost, it was a terrific meal. I started with roast foie gras with poached apricot, camomile, tarragon and fresh almonds. An essentially simple dish, but marvellous flavours with caramelised half apricots, the creamy texture of the almonds and little pools of sweet sauce. My main course, aged fillet and glazed shortrib of Cumbrian beef, was magnificent too. I guess the fillet had been cooked sous vide such was the perfect, moist evenness of the cooking all the way through, but then it had been seriously seared to add crunch to the outside. The rib melted in the mouth and the soulful accompaniments were some piattoni beans, bone marrow and a fine red wine reduction. This was shaping up to be a terrific lunch, and a Goldrush apple soufflé to finish ensured we went home so very happy to see the Square in capable hands. We chose to dine à la carte rather than take the £37 lunchtime set menu, and with Champagne, water, coffees and a half bottle Bandol from Domaine Tempier, the total bill just north of £300 was very good value.
La Trompette, 3-7 Devonshire Rd, Chiswick W4 2EU. Phone 020 8747 183. Tube: Turnham Green
Undoubtedly one of my favourite restaurants in London, holding 1* Michelin, and generously wine-friendly, often hosting tasting groups from the wine forum on this web site. La Trompette is the model of graciousness without stuffiness, a lovely space with crisply-napped tables and glittering crystal and silver, yet welcoming and just informal enough to be totally relaxing. Under the same ownership as Chez Bruce and The Glasshouse, it’s a tone shared by this small group and majors on the guest experience – food, wine and service. After their superb signature gougeres to whet the appetite, a typical dinner might start with caramelised veal sweetbreads, Jerusalem artichoke and sunflower seeds, followed up with Cornish turbot, pumpkin gnocchetti, trompettes and a hazelnut pesto – and not forgetting some of the best sourdough in London. Puddins are elegant yet satisfying, for example a Bramley apple and gingerbread crumble soufflé, served with a scoop of buttermilk ice cream. It’s a noteable wine list here, with dozens of wine available by the glass, a good selection of half bottles, and a world of fine wine with fair mark-ups. Two will dine well for under £200, lunch menu too. Closed Mondays.
Alyn Williams at The Westbury Hotel, Bond St. Phone 020 7078 9579. Tube: Bond Street
Artisan restaurant at The Westbury was always a real bargain, but at the tail end of 2011 the space was taken over by chef Alyn Williams and given a stylish and chic makeover too. Williams spent five years as head chef for Marcus Wareing, flying the two-Michelin star flag with superbly refined cooking. Now out on his own (and with one star) the feel of the dining room is comsmopolitan and chic, with a towering wall of wine fridges concealing a private dining room. A shimmering, silver-threaded carpet adds a bit of glamour. Four of us chose the tasting menu – well priced for this level of dining at £90 – but decided to select our own wine rather than add another £60 per person for matching wines. We chose a bottle of Fixin white Burgundy and a bottle of Pinot Noir from Cristom in Oregon forwhilst we nibbled on feather-light gougères. First course proper was Crab/pot au feu/milk/smoked bacon bun. This was a martini glass containing a delicate mousse of crab, with the little bacon-stuffed brioche bun served on the side. Orkney scallop/pumpkin/cuttlefish/ wild marjoram came next, for me a slightly underwhelming dish, the small scallop nicely cooked but the flavours on the wan side. Foie gras semi fredo/heritage beets/liquorice/pumpernickel was an interesting concept: two thin cigars of semi-frozen paté de foie-gras. Mackerel/marsh samphire/ cockles/toasted cauliflower was another fine if subtle dish: not the fish, a fat tranche of which could perhaps have been slightly crisper-skinned for me, but the rest of the ingredients with a soft, fresh and sea-breezy character. Glazed Goosnargh duck/confit leg/cavolo nero/cashew nuts was entirely successful, the meaty breast of duck firm-textured, juicy and full-flavoured without being gamy. Dessert was a curate’s egg – a delicious crème fraïche sorbet, very slightly under-poached pear and a mousse described as ‘chestnut’ but jarring with the other flavours on the plate. As I thought back on the food over coffee and delicious chocolates I thought it was extremely precise, quite inventive, and whilst not flawless, showed a real attention to detail. I’d happily try this restaurant again. Expect to pay at least £250 for dinner for two. Lunch and dinner Monday to Friday, Saturday dinner only.
L’Anima, 1 Snowden Street, Broadgate West, London EC2A 2DQ. Phone 0207 422 7000. Tube: Broadgate or Liverpool Street
L’Anima is lively and bright, the decor is startling, 3 walls of glass and one of French limestone, cream marble floor and crisp white linen and crockery, with matching white leather and chrome upholstery. The menu is versatile, with an eclectic choice of modern Italian cuisine, 6 starters, a range of 7 soups, pastas and risottos, 8 elaborate main courses, 6 grill options, side dishes and salads, 8 desserts and 4 Italian cheese offerings. Portions are very generous! The wine list is compact but well focused on Italian wines listed by region, with a few wines from other European countries and a token listing of wines from the New World. There are a dozen wines by the glass ranging from £5 to £15, including a new RosÃ© Prosecco from Bisol. There is a small but selective list of Fine Wines including ‘Super Tuscans’ and French ‘First Growths’. We started with a Wood Roast Aubergine and Burrata (mozzarella filled with fresh cream and mozzarella strips) deliciously light and creamy, and a Black Angus Beef Carpaccio with pickled vegetables and slivers of Parmigiano, a very delicate and spicy dish. We followed with a grilled swordfish and a grilled veal T-bone paired with side dishes of sauted potatoes and peppers and a tropeo onions and tomato salad. We really enjoyed the simplicity and freshness of our salad and the grilled dishes. Dessert was a sampler of sorbets (lemon, peach and strawberry), a poached peach with passion fruit, amaretto and lavender, and a rhubarb tarte with a rhubarb sorbet. All were scrumptious. We chose a fruity and aromatic Chardonnay from the Valle D’Aosta which was an excellent match for our disparate dishes. The restaurant is buzzing and alive, with a good atmosphere and great food and service. Two people: £170.00. Open for breakfast 7.00 am to 11.00 am, lunch 12.00 noon to 3.00 pm and dinner 5.30 pm to 12.00 midnight, Monday to Friday.
Bistro One Ninety, 190 Queens Gate, SW7 5EX. Phone: 020 7584 6601. Tube: South Kensignton.
The really good neighbourhood restaurant remains analmost mythical beast. In Paris every single Quartier overflows with casual places offering excellent food at moderate prices, but why are they so difficult to find in major British cities? The lucky denizens of South Kensington have just such a place on their doorsteps. Bistro One Ninety is the ground floor dining room of The Gore, one of London’s most idiosyncratic but delightful hotels. The clubby bar next door was thronging on my visit, and whilst still alive with happy chatter, the Bistro is a more traditional setting with Victorian plasterwork and tall windows giving a sense of occasion.This is comfort food done with panache and a modern twist. A starter of ham hock terrine consisted of a meaty slice of coarsely shredded ham that retained plenty of texture, with piccalilli and a pungent mustard sauce. My partner’s Caesar salad was a ‘proper’ one, with plenty of croutons, garlic and Parmesan. My main course of roasted duck breast was cooked as well as any Mallard of my acquaintance: just pinkand tender, with a crisp, moreish skin. The accompanying shredded red cabbage was superbly sweet and spicy, and – holy of holies – a perfectly cooked fondant potato. Sticky toffee pudding to finish was heroic: heavy with dates and spices, it was served with home-made ice cream topped by a textural spoonful of streusel. A bottle of Six Vineyards Pinot Noir from Oregon was my choice from an excellent wine list with moderate mark-ups. Two will eat and drink well for under £150. Closed Mondays.
Camino, 28 Westferry Circus, Docklands. Tel: 020 7841 73315. Nearest DLR: Westferry
Camino had already established an excellent reputation for the authenticity of its tapas at their original Kings Cross location before they opened this sister branch in the little restaurant row of Westferry Circus, part of the Docklands development. Inside there’s a funky vibe going on, with the large space divided equally into a lively bar and more relaxed restaurant by a full-height chain-link fence. There’s a fairly industrial feel with lots of exposed brick and reclaimed timber, though the seating is comfortable and there’s good space between tables. The menu is divided into ‘De la Parilla’ (fish and meat from the charcoal grill), ‘De la Tierra’ (other meats and sausages) and ‘del Mar’ (fish and seafood), as well as cheeses, vegetarian dishes and desserts. Everything is for sharing and the concept of first, second and third courses is abandoned. Mathers Black Gold rib-eye steak from Scotland, matured for 28 days and served sliced for sharing was delicious I have to say, the bustling open kitchen turning out each dish cooked to perfection. The wine list is good, and all Spanish, with a fine range of Cavas, Sherries as well as table wines, many of which are available by the glass. There’s also the ‘Canones Grandes’ (Big Guns) with some terrific and hard-to-find wines topping out with Vega Sicilia and the like. Camino is a well-executed concept, the food and wine presented with authentic passion and flair. Two people: around £110. Open daily, Sunday brunch only
Cheneston’s, the Milestone Hotel, 1 Kensington Court, W8 5DL. Phone: 020 7917 1000. Tube: High Street Kensington
The Milestone is a wonderful five-star hotel tucked discretely inside a beautiful 1880’s building immediately opposite Kensington Palace. The hotel is the antithises of the soulless corporate five-star, with picture-perfect, cosseting rooms and very personalised service. Fine dining is provided by the small Cheneston’s restaurant, in an ornate Victorian dining room that is cosy with seating for only around 30 people, yet has plenty of elbow room between tables. I ate at one of their regular wine-matching dinners, where merchant The Vineyard Cellars where presenting the wines of Terre Rouge in California alongside a set menu of five courses. A little seared scallop wrapped in apple-smoked ham was a delicious appetiser, followed by an open ravioli of Maine lobster and crab, in a fragrant lobster broth scented with ginger and coriander. Prime fillet of beef with hash browns and creamed corn was simple and straightforward – just as it should be – arriving sizzling on the plate, the beef seared but pink in the centre. A twice-baked Monterey Jack soufflé continued the thoughtful and very nicely realised American theme, then finally, a baked American cheesecake was good, if not quite as densely-textured as the best New York examples. With a superb 300-bin list covering France, and a world of carefully chosen wines, Cheneston’s may not serve the absolute peak of 3-star cuisine, but it offers a delightful package. Two people: dinner around £160. Open every day.
The Don, 20 St. Swithins Lane, EC4N 8AD. Phone: 020 7626 2606. Tube: Bank
In a lane close to Bank Station The Don occupies the atmospheric old Sandeman Port cellars, where sherries, madeiras and ports were bottled for 200 years. Upstairs is a bright, bustling dining room with large picture windows to the lane, but there is also the option of dining downstairs in the barrel-vaulted cellar. Food is Gallic-focused comfort food with dishes like Soupe de Poisson, Saddle of Rabbit and Roast Suckling Pig. I was guest at a private wine dinner, with a menu that included some flavoursome smoked salmon, nicely marinated and rich in lemony, herby flavour and roast rack of lamb, served juicy and pink, with slow-cooked lamb breast with a roasted aubergine mousse. The quality of ingredients and cooking was very good. Prices are moderate with starters at around £10, mains at around £20 and puddings at £7.00. A handy place to know in the City. Two people: £120 for dinner
Fifth Floor, Harvey Nichols, 109 – 125 Knightsbridge. Phone: 020 7235 5000. Tube: Knightsbridge
In some ways the Fifth Floor restaurant is a bit of a hidden gem. Even on a madly crowded Saturday lunchtime, whilst the fifth floor’s food market is choc-a-bloc, and the large and open plan café-bar queued back to the lifts, surprising few venture through a discreet doorway into the restaurant proper. The menu makes a big play of seasonality, and indeed that was evident in this pre-Christmas set lunch at a very reasonable £29.50 for three courses. The space is glamorous, a large oval room with Art Deco-style glass ceiling and chic, comfortable leather chairs, it really does cocoon you against the shopping madness of Knightsbridge. We started with a little amuse of cream of celery and apple soup that was deliciously nutty and tangy, then I chose a salad of beetroot, bitter mixed leaves and toasted pine nuts. My main course choice of sage and pecorino risotto was in truth rather disappointing: too salty, and though served with shavings of pecorino and torn basil, rather bland. My partner’s roasted atlantic halibut was the much better choice. To finish, a millefuille of caramelised apple with layers of cream and flaky pastry raised the bar again, and with a couple of glasses of very good Viré-Clesse white Burgundy a bill of £100 including service made this a fine escape into refined, relative tranquility. Open daily for lunch, Mon – Sat for dinner
Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial St, E1 6BJ. Phone: 020 7247 7392. Tube: Liverpool Street
Hawksmoor (which now has multiple branches) established a huge reputation as one of the capital’s best steak houses in rapid time. A bustling room with exposed brick walls, lovely wooden floors and simple tables crammed reasonably cosily together, it is a carnivores delight with the day’s special cuts – Chateaubriands and the rest – chalked up with price and weight on a blackboard, and ticked off as they are sold out. But worry not, the main menu has steaks aplenty for hungry carnivores. I started with Dorest crab on toast, which was simple and delicious: a mound of snowy-white and succulent meat layered on rustic bread, and served with a pot of creamy, garlicky and lemony sauce. Then onto the main event: I chose a 300gm fillet steak, to be cooked medium-rare and to be served along with buttered greens, triple cooked chips and some Stilton hollandaise sauce on the side (all charged separately). The steak (yes, even fillet) was full of flavour and with a bit of bite to the texture. We drank some fine Pulenta estate Malbec from a pretty serious wine list, and noted that Mondays are BYO nights. Feeling somewhat replete, I had a single scoop of salted caramel ice cream to finish off a truly excellent dinner. Hawksmoor is not cheap, it was buzzy and noisy on a busy Friday night and our particular waiter was a bit distant (others were not). But the experience here is a fabulous one for foodies. Around £160 for two drinking modestly. Open seven days a week.
House at The National Theatre, South Bank SE1 9PX. Phone: 0207 452 3600. Tube: Embankment.
Handy if you are in the area without a restaurant reservation, because the restaurant is open to all and after the pre-theatre rush there’s a calm and often rather empty dining area that stays that way through until the bar fills up again with the post-theatre crowd. This is very good, modern and largely unfussy comfort food, always with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options alongside distinctly non-vegetarian dishes like lamb cutlets served with a sweet potato mash, a tangy and intersting, not overly-salty anchovy & parsley sauce. Desserts are lighter version of classic comfort food like a chocolate mousse, served with a little tranche of hazelnut cake and espresso ice cream. Three courses a la carte will run to around £40, with a restricted choice set menu at £28.50. Closed Sundays, dinner only unless a matinee performance.
Pizza Express, Coptic Street, Bloomsbury. Phone: 020 7636 3232. Tube: Holborn.
Is Pizza Express not what it once was? Arguably the answer is ‘yes’, and yet it still delivers a better experience than the other chain Pizza places. There are branches all over Britain, but Coptic Street – one of the originals – is still by far and away my favourite. A huge corner site with white-tiled walls and high ceilings, the restaurant is busy and bustling. Staff are cheerful and competent and the food is exemplary of its type. My favourite is the pizza Fiorentina, with mozzarella, parmesan, spinach and a free range egg cooked in the middle. The house wine – a Montepulciano from Zonin – is fruity, gutsy and perfect at £13 a bottle. Coffees are really good – even the espresso decaff. I never book, but just turn up and join the short, good-humoured queue if necessary. A great antidote to too much high-class eating. Two people: £60 lunch or dinner, open 7 days.
St John, 26 St John Street EC1M 4AY. Tel: 020 7251 0848. Tube: Barbican
St John is a London institution and pioneer in the revival of British gastronomy and the championing of British ingredients. A thronging bar and lively dining area, where white-aproned waiting staff bearing groaning platters of superb food squeeze between tightly-packed tables, it is not the venue for a quiet tete-a-tete, but St John has a terrific atmosphere to match the quality of the food and wines. On my most recent visited I started with an old favourite: roast bone marrow served with toast and parsley salad. A tray of bones is brought from the oven, and a long, skewer-like fork used to scrape and cajole the comforting, creamy marrow onto the toast, to be topped with a pinch of sea-salt, handful of piquant salad, and devoured. I followed with pheasant and pig’s trotter pie: a beautiful pie, with buttery but short pastry, filled with chunks of meat in a delicious gravy. All meat is off the bone of course, and the flavour is robust yet delicate, earthy yet clear. To finish, a plate of wonderfully tangy and dry Lancashire cheese was served with Eccles cakes – flaky, sugary pastry cases crammed with spicy dried fruits. Wonderful food, that evokes the best of traditional British cuisine, accompanied by an interesting, good value and exclusively French wine list (many imported direct by St John), makes for a unique dining experience. Highly recommended. Two people: £140 for dinner. Lunch and dinner Monday to Friday, dinner only Saturdays.
Tate Britain, Millbank SW1P 4RG. Tel: 020 7887 8825. Tube: Pimlico
The restaurant at Tate Britain has a much more grown-up feel than the Tate Modern (below) and a renowned wine list, thanks to a fine wine buying policy started by sommelier Hamish Anderson. The dining room is one large, busy space, reminiscent of a great Parisien brasserie, the mood set by the bucolic Rex Whistler murals around the walls. To be honest, I was rather disappointed by the food one recent Sunday lunchtime, where a tranche of foie-gras terrine was excellent, but the layers of black truffle through it overpowered the flavour the presentation was rather artless with two chunks of cold brioche piled on the plate. Main course roast beef was flavoursome, but probably 60% fat, and my dessert of a spiced tarte tatin was good, though a little stodgy from being reheated in a microwave Iâ€™d guess. But that wine list… It is a formidable and beautifully balanced list offered at rock-bottom prices (for London) and withan excellent selection of half bottles. We drank a half of Chateau Suiduraut from the excellent 1990 vintage for £38 with the foie-gras and dessert, and a half of Dujacâ€™s 1999 Morey St Denis in the middle for £22. With many mature bottles, it really is a mouthwatering wine list. Summing up? The food is ok, the surroundings quite striking, the staff friendly and the wine list just brilliant. Given that you can also take in the permanent and temporary exhibitions of the Tate too it is still a great way to make a full day out – especially for the dedicated oenophile. Two people: £140 for lunch with wine. Open Every day for lunch only.
The Wolseley, 160 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EB. Phone 020 7499 6996. Tube: Green Park
Built in 1921 as a car showroom for Wolseley cars, the building had a chequered past until its recent transformation into a very grand European Café-style Emporium. The tall arched ceilings in the main dining room are stunning, with a vibrant buzz as it copes with 700 covers a day. We chose to eat dinner in the non-smoking lounge, a pretty, elegant art deco room, on the right as you enter the restaurant. The menu is like a throwback to the 1970s, an eclectic mix of French Brasserie dishes such as Escargots à la Bourguignonne, Boudin Blanc with Caramelised Apple, and Duck Confit with Ratte Potatoes. British favourites include Severn and Wye Smoked Salmon, Eggs Benedict, and Roast Rump of Lamb with crushed Jersey Royals. European specials are listed, like Wiener schnitzel for a main course followed by Kaiserschmarren for dessert. I went for the Croustade of Quails Eggs and Hollandaise, my partner chose Caramelised Onion and Goat’s Cheese tart. Both were good choices. I elected to try the Fegato alla Veneziana with a side order of creamed mash, delicious! My partner tried the Grilled Fish of the Day: Sea bass served on a bed of garden vegetables, with fabulous frites. Desserts were shared, followed by an Espresso Coupe (espresso and chocolate ice cream with hot chocolate sauce) yummy! The wine list is short but well chosen, with about 30 wines by the glass (from £6-£15) and a 50-bin European selection (with 10 wines under £25). Three courses plus coffee and service came to £135. Open seven days. Restaurant serves from 7.00am for breakfast, through lunch and afternoon tea, to dinner from 5:50pm. The café serves from 11.30 am, and both close at midnight.