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Taste of Travel: London

A Buzz of New Restaurants

From mammoth to minuscule, hot spots offer a range of new-wave cooking

September 15, 1996|JOHN WHITLEY | Whitley is associate editor of the London newsmagazine "The Week" and the former restaurant critic of the Daily Telegraph

LONDON — Over the past 18 months, London's restaurant culture has rediscovered its fizz to become the liveliest in Europe. While the Continent is still so deep in recession that in Paris or Milan tables can be found at even the best establishments without reservations, Britain has rediscovered its appetite for eating out.

Dozens of seriously fashionable--and seriously competent--new places have opened recently, but these are less self-indulgent, over-the-top affairs than the restaurants that transformed the face of London dining a decade ago.

This second wave has learned, through bankruptcy and bitter experience, that customers are sophisticated enough to rate value-for-money higher than flashiness or prettily arranged food on the plate. The days of conspicuous consumption, of serving a wedge of foie gras with almost every dish, have been replaced by competition to keep the price of a meal below 30 pounds--or about $46--a person.

The best of the veterans still flourish, of course. The Ivy in the heart of the West End has rediscovered its old magnetism under new management. And out by the Thames at Hammersmith, the River Cafe, designed by the architect Richard Rogers and run by his wife Ruth, continues to set the pace for the new-wave Italian kitchens.

But the newcomers hit two extremes: gigantic and minuscule.

Led by Terence Conran--creator of the Habitat housewares shops and the luxury restaurant Bibendum--the more affluent entrepreneurs have launched vast, 300-seat establishments inspired by the great French brasseries. The best of the big ones have the same buzz of excitement as Paris' Brasserie Lipp or La Coupole, and draw equally large crowds, but they are quite different beasts. Their design may be fin de siecle, but the century in question is the 20th, not the 19th. There are no ornate wall hangings or fussy lighting; everything is pared-down simplicity in primary colors.


The food is different too. The French bourgeois classics are still on most menus, but they are losing the battle to the scents and spices of the Pacific Rim or of southern India: lemongrass, chiles and chutneys are as ubiquitous as garlic. And the cooking is often better. Certainly the kitchens at L'Odeon, Mezzo or the Criterion, three of the best of the newcomers, are superior to La Coupole, though they have not yet achieved the consistency that comes from decades of experience at feeding 2,000 people every night.

At the same time a younger generation of chefs, in reaction to the lack of control and personal touch that is inevitable in grander kitchens, have opened restaurants in tiny front rooms or derelict shops where they can cook for 20 customers a night with only one or two assistants.

The decor has the same simplicity as in their giant competitors, but staffing tends to be a family affair, with wife or brother waiting tables. Their cooking leans less to Asia than to a delight in the robust textures of traditional British produce--now so much improved that relatively little is imported from France. This is where you find long-forgotten, seasonal treats such as the buttered fingers of sea kale and the richness of mutton stew.

The restaurants listed below in no particular order are my favorites of the establishments that have opened in the last year and a half. Prices are for a two-course meal for two people, including bottle of house wine, tax and service, computed at the rate of $1.55 per British pound. Fixed-price menu prices are per person. Reservations, except where noted, are essential.

Mezzo, 100 Wardour St., London W1; telephone 011-44-171-314-4000.

In the center of Soho, this flagship among Terence Conran's recently opened restaurants was dug out of the derelect Marquee, once London's most crowded jazz club, to provide two equally crowded and noisy spaces with 700 seats. Mezzonine is the quick-turnover cafe on the ground floor, and Mezzo is a more leisurely and expensive restaurant in the basement separated from the kitchen by glass panels. The latter features big tables, comfortable chairs, informal but expert service and shrewdly adapted Pacific Rim cuisine: crisp quail grilled with pickled vegetables, charred salmon with Thai herbs, scallops and nori spring rolls, lobster pot-au-feu. The cooking is never dull and can hit high notes in spite of the pressure. Regulars like rock star Bryan Ferry and Calvin Klein seem to prefer the wall tables. About $90 for two.

Sugar Club, 33a All Saints Road, W11; tel. 011-44-171-221-3844.

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