The restaurants I’ve listed here have little interest in transient trends and vacuous concepts. Nope, they’re all about the food. Sure, some might be off the beaten track, miles removed from the glittering pleasure palaces of the West End. Yes, there are certainly no ridiculous VIP tables. But if you’re after unpretentious, no-nonsense big flavors, these places should fill you with greedy glee.
Okay, so New Malden, a southwest London suburb, requires a train journey. But in a city where proper Korean food is hard to find, you’ll quickly discover why the neighborhood is nicknamed New Maldong. Home to the largest expat population in Europe, the restaurants are authentic, and none is better than Su La (79-81 Kingston Rd.; 44-20/8336-0121). Homemade kimchi, ethereally light pa jun with crisp, burnished edges; a softly seductive yukhoe, raw beef with sharp, cool slices of pear, a scattering of sesame seeds, then topped with a raw egg. Plus wonderful galbi and bibimbap, cold chili noodles, and offal soup. Close your eyes and you could be in Seoul. And in London, that’s a rare treat indeed.
A few years back, the only place to find real regional Thai food was at David Thompson’s Nahm. The room might have been a little cold and dreary, but the food was anything but. Since then, chefs who have trained under the great man have gone off and opened their own places. Andy Oliver’s pop-up, Som Saa (374 Helmsley Pl.; 44-20/7254-7199), at Climpson’s Arch, is rightly lauded. As is the Begging Bowl (168 Bellenden Rd.; 44-20/7635-2627; thebeggingbowl.co.uk), a Peckham gem whose chef proprietor, Jane Alty, also learned under Thompson. A lithe yet quietly vicious Burmese salad might be followed by gloriously sticky pork belly with cassia and star anise. Fillet of stone bass and cockles come in a coconut-and-turmeric curry sauce, while green chicken curry is fragrant and fantastic. It’s real Thai food, with heart, soul, honk, and bite.
Situated deep in the leafy streets of the well-heeled southwest London suburb of Barnes, a 30-minute drive from city center, is Riva (169 Church Rd.; 44-20/8748-0434). It’s one of those adored London restaurants that’s a favorite of critics and punters alike. Andrea Riva, the impossibly dapper owner, may hail from Lombardy (and the risottos are suitably fine), but his menu skips and gambols across Italy. Ingredients, from gently lactic fresh mozzarella to chewy, intense bresaola are impeccable. As is the pasta (don’t miss the cumulus-like gnocchi), frittelle (draped in crisp, negligee-light batter), and a veal Milanese that reminds one why this dish is so damned good. Add in an exceptional wine list and warm, grinning service and you have one of London’s great gastronomic gems.
You don’t go to Tayyabs (83-89 Fieldgate St.; 44-20/7247-6400; tayyabs.co.uk), in Whitechapel, East London, for slick silver service. Or thick linen napkins. Or anything other than the food, which is some of the best Punjabi cooking in the country. Spices are freshly ground and flavors bold and punchy. The lamb chops have attained legendary status, charred and chili drenched. But don’t miss the channa, in which soft chickpeas mingle and frolic with tart tamarind, caramelized onion, and fistfuls of fresh herbs. So simple but yet possessed with so much depth and delight. Curries are equally magnificent, especially the karahi lamb: rich, yet not overwhelmingly so, with good lamb, cooked until fork-soft then simmered in a tart tomato gravy, with lashings of dried chili and still more of that caramelized onion. This is real Indian regional cooking, stuff to make the taste buds grin and the soul sing.
Walking around parts of London’s Green Lanes (up north) can often feel like wandering around the back streets of Istanbul. The markets are filled with exotic pickles, while the smell of grilled meat and bread seduces the senses. At Gökyüzü (26-27 Grand Parade; 44-20/8211-8406; gokyuzurestaurant .co.uk), prices are small, portions huge, and flavors unfettered by any boringly bourgeois sensibilities. Bread is charred and airy, and comes with great mounds of salad, dusted with sumac and bathed in olive oil. Pides (Turkish pizzas) are fresh cooked and topped with minced lamb. Order the lavish sarma tavuk beyti, spicy chicken, wrapped in lavash breads, then drowned in a yogurt-drenched spiced tomato sauce, and casseroles such as güveç, where soft lamb meets even softer eggplant. Bliss. Oh, and kebabs are every bit as charcoal seared and spectacular as you’d expect.
Aside from the ubiquitous custard tarts, and the occasional sardine, grilled over coals, I knew little about Portuguese food. A bit like Spanish, I assumed. But how wrong I was. A lunch at Taberna do Mercado (Old Spitalfields Market; 44-20/7375-0649; tabernamercado.co.uk), in Shoreditch, changed all that. The multitalented Nuno Mendes—who got all London in a tizz with his food at Viajante, then at Chiltern Firehouse—is the owner. But don’t expect chef-y modernism, rather, thrilling Portuguese regional cooking. Delicate migas with egg and cod, light and lithe. Then braised cuttlefish and pig’s trotter: sloppy, sexy, and savory, with the most wonderful contrast of textures. The softest of beef sandwiches, with Portuguese mustard and piri piri oil, is seriously seductive, while desserts see the likes of crème caramel made with pork fat, sitting in a port sauce. Magnificent. Service is charming and unpretentious and the room small but perfectly formed. A Portuguese revelation.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Gokyuzu; Joe Woodhouse