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Big Ben is big, and you may or may not spy the Queen peering out of one of Buckingham Palace’s windows—but the reason you really need to get to London is for the food.
Unfortunately all of that has been off limits for much of the last year. Big Ben is covered in scaffolding, the Queen is hiding out in the country, and a lockdown means that all of the restaurants are closed.
Things are looking up, however. With a thus-far-successful vaccine rollout ongoing, restaurants are now hoping to gradually reopen from later this spring. In the meantime, it’s still possible to get a taste of what to expect thanks to a little bit of sharing and caring from its top chefs.
The city’s unique, historic, and diverse food culture is home to a number of restaurants that have achieved iconic status, both among Brits and foodies around the world. At the heart of these are the signature dishes that Londoners can’t wait to get back to, and should be on the bucket list for any visitor to the city—luckily, we’ve got the recipes for anyone who can’t wait a moment longer.
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Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John
St. John means many things to many people—but to London diners, he is the patron saint of British restaurants. When Fergus Henderson first opened his so-named restaurant a little over 25 years ago, the international reputation of the country’s food was, well, non-existent. Henderson delved into the very guts of historic English cooking, and emerged with recipes that weren’t just Michelin star-worthy, but globally influential, prompting the likes of fan and friend Anthony Bourdain to declare it “one of his favorite restaurants on Earth.”
At the very heart of this is a dish of roasted bone marrow. The unctuous liquor that spills from the bone cavity onto slices of sourdough toast is served with a salad of parsley, shallot and capers—the effect is at once visceral and enlightening. “It changes people’s behaviour,” said Henderson of the dish. “It is physical and architectural; it fills the room with joy. Then, as you eat the marrow, grappling with the bones, gnawing, scraping, scooping, it has another joyous effect on the senses altogether.”
Fergus’s tip? “The joy is its simplicity, but the bones can play tricks. Different thicknesses need different cooking times. If you take your eye off the ball the marrow can run away. The wet salt, parsley, capers, shallots, all add to the experience. And it really is an experience.”
12 x 3 inch pieces of veal marrowbone from a calf’s leg: ask your butcher to keep some for you.
A healthy bunch of flat leaf parsley, picked from its stems
2 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 modest handful of capers (extra-fine if possible)
For the dressing
Lemon oil (2:1 extra virgin olive oil to lemon juice)
A pinch of sea salt and black pepper
A good supply of toast
Put the bone marrow in an ovenproof frying pan and place in a hot oven, hole side down.
The roasting process should take about 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the bone. You are looking for the marrow to be loose and giving, but not melting away, which it will do if left too long (traditionally the ends would be covered to prevent any seepage, but I like the coloring and crispness at the end). Meanwhile lightly chop your parsley, just enough to discipline it, mix it with the shallots and capers, and at the last moment, dress.
Here is a dish that should not be completely seasoned before leaving the kitchen, rendering seasoning by the actual eater unnecessary; a last-minute seasoning, especially in the case of coarse sea salt, gives texture and uplift at the moment of eating. My approach is to scrape the marrow from the bone onto the toast and season with coarse sea salt. Then a pinch of parsley salad on top of this and eat. Of course once you have your pile of bones, salad, toast and salt it is “liberty hall.”
Soufflé Suissesse at Le Gavroche
If it weren’t for Le Gavroche, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article. When it first opened back in 1967, London didn’t have a restaurant “scene,” let alone a fine dining one. French brothers Michel and Albert Roux were determined to change that—and they did.
The Soufflé Suissesse has been on the menu at two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche since its earliest years. “It's always incredibly special to see different generations of families come in and enjoy the dish together,” said Michel Roux Jr., Albert’s son and owner of the restaurant. “I was introduced to it as a young boy by my own father, and so now it's wonderful to see grandparents bring their grandchildren to Le Gavroche, and say how they remember their parents bringing them in and introducing them to their first cheese soufflé.”
Both Michel and Albert Roux sadly passed away in the last year, but their unparalleled impact on UK restaurant culture will be felt for many generations to come.
Michel’s tip? “The trick really is to make sure you follow the recipe to the letter—this is not a time to be winging it! Another tip when using egg whites for things such as meringues or souffles, is that you can freeze and thaw the egg whites in advance. You should whisk them up firmer which will result in a lighter soufflé.”
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp plain flour
2 1/8 cups milk
5 egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
6 egg whites
2 1/2 cups double cream
7 oz Gruyere or Emmental cheese, grated
Heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Melt the butter in a thick based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook, stirring continuously for about one minute.
Whisk in the milk and boil for three minutes, whisking all the time to prevent any lumps from forming.
Beat in the yolks and remove from heat; season with salt and pepper. Cover with a piece of buttered greaseproof paper to prevent a skin from forming.
Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form firm, not stiff, peaks.
Add ⅓ of the egg whites to the yolk mixture and beat with a whisk until evenly mixed, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
Spoon the mixture into four well-buttered three inch diameter tartlet molds and place in the oven for three minutes, until the tops begin to turn golden.
Meanwhile, season the cream with a little salt. Warm in gently and pour into a gratin dish.
Turn the soufflés out into the cream, sprinkle the grated cheese over the soufflés, then return to the oven for fivec minutes. Serve immediately.
Credit: Le Gavroche Cookbook, by Michel Roux Jr. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Smoked Eel Sandwich at Quo Vadis
For anyone who said that Brits have no food culture, we have one word—“sandwich.” While it wasn’t the first time bread was ever wrapped around food, the Western popularizing of placing two fluffy slices either side of a filling can be traced back to 18th century England, and the dining habits of the 4th Earl of Sandwich.
While Quo Vadis isn’t quite that old, it is nearing its 100th birthday. “It is one of the last great institutions,” said chef Jeremy Lee, the revered current incumbent of a restaurant once home to Karl Marx, and long known for entertaining the capital’s cultural trailblazers. “Walking through the great rooms and many stairwells of Quo Vadis never ceases to cause wonder.”
In latter years, it has served London’s best sandwich. Between two buttered slices of toasted sourdough, smoked eel is served with horseradish cream and pickled red onion—little else is needed. “It is a dish of beautiful simplicity and harmony,” said Lee. “A combination of few ingredients which all must be as fresh as can be.”
Jeremy’s tip? “The key is to seek out the same quality of producers and suppliers that we pride ourselves on. Poilâne sourdough bread is a must. We have tried many over the years, and even in this great age of sourdough, only Poilâne will do for this sandwich.”
A slice of sourdough
1-1½ ounces fillet of smoked eel, taken from an intact fish is best
A heaped teaspoon of horseradish cream, of a fiery temperament
Quarter of a small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tbsp of good white wine vinegar
A good pinch of sugar
First things first. Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar. Steep the sliced onion in the pickle and let stand for an hour or so beforehand.
Warm a grilling pan over a gentle heat. When all is ready, lay the sourdough on the grill and brown nicely.
Cut the eel fillet into three large-ish pieces. Butter the toasted side of the sourdough. Cut this in half and spread with Dijon mustard. Lay on the eel and then the horseradish cream.
Lay on the other piece of toast and return to the grill. Let brown, then flip and cook similarly on the other side.
Put on a plate and heap the drained pickle alongside. Serve swiftly.
Pork Pie at Holborn Dining Room
Calum Franklin made pork pies sexy again. Since the restaurant opened in 2014 inside Rosewood London, the executive chef of Holborn Dining Room has not only become known as London’s pie king, but earned a 125k-strong Instagram following thanks to his aesthetically breathtaking pastry work.
Not only is Franklin championing prettier pies, but he’s revolutionized their pub-grub image by putting them at the heart of his luxury hotel restaurant, having even opened a designated Pie Room where diners can see them being made.
His most striking makeover has been reserved for the pork pie, a densely packed meat pie that is traditionally served cold as a snack.
“About 10 years ago I had a hot pork pie in a lovely pub in the Cotswolds, and it was a game changer for me,” he said. “I saw the potential for a really well made, slightly larger hot pork pie to be a cracking main course.”
Calum’s tip? “For the pastry, I would try to keep it a little thinner than the classic pork pie pastry—if it's a larger pie for a main course, then you don't want it to be too heavy to eat.”
For the hot water pastry
12 cups plain flour
6 whole eggs (beaten)
2 1/2 cups water
2 1/2 cups lard
2 tbsp salt
1 tbsp rosemary
For the pork pie mix
2 1/4 pounds pork shoulder meat, diced and chilled well
1 pound back bacon, half minced and half roughly chopped
3/4 pounds ham hock meat
1/2 pound lardo, 1cm diced
2 tsp white mustard seeds
3 tsp table salt
½ bunch sage
1 tsp fennel seeds
For the hot water pastry
Pass beaten eggs through a sieve to remove any excess whites.
Pour flour into mixer on medium speed with paddle and slowly add egg mix. Bring water, lard, rosemary and salt to simmer in a pan, and infuse for five minutes.
Remove rosemary and bring water/fat mix to a boil and slowly pour into flour/egg mix, scraping the bowl and paddle halfway to avoid any lumps. Mix until well combined.
Chill on a flat tray between greaseproof paper till heat has dissipated and it has become workable. Weigh out 10 balls of pastry at 6 ⅓ ounces and keep remaining pastry for lids.
For the pork pie mix
Freeze mince components until very cold before using. Grind pork shoulder and seven ounces of the back bacon on the largest grind plate setting for a rough mince.
Fold in the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Weigh into 7 ounce balls and chill.
Roll out remaining pastry to .5 inch thickness, cut out 10 lids with 33.5 inch, and set aside.
Flatten the dough balls with the dolly on a well-floured surface and work it up to make a cup shape. Pop in the meat and, using a little water, seal the lids onto cups and crimp edges together. Brush with a little egg yolk before cooking and make a small hole in the top of the pie.
Cook at 400 degree Fahrenheit for 25 minutes on greaseproof paper.
Either serve hot as is, or chill overnight for cold pork pies. To jelly cold pies, add six leaves of gelatine soaked in cold water to one pound of warm roasted pork stock. Pour into hole in pie until full and set in fridge for at least one hour.
Kid Goat Keema Pao at Gymkhana
For a real taste of how the British actually eat, go to an Indian restaurant. Chicken tikka masala regularly tops polls as the nation’s favorite food (saying that, it’s a fusion dish, probably first concocted in 1960s Britain by Bangladeshi chefs), and curry houses are an immovable staple of any neighborhood.
While traditionally seen in the UK as a cuisine suited to informal dinners and takeout, Londoners have started to have other ideas. An Indian fine dining revolution has seen stylish, celeb-packed restaurants scoop up Michelin stars—with Gymkhana the most celebrated of the lot, attracting the likes of Ed Sheeran and David Beckham on the regular.
Among its signature dishes is the kid goat keema pao, a dish of spiced ground meat, ready to be loaded into buttery brioche-like pao buns. “Keema would look incongruous in most Indian fine dining restaurants,” said co-founder Karam Sethi, “but you’ll find it all over India from roadside dhabas, street food vendors to almost every gymkhana club. It’s the ultimate comfort food.”
Karam’s tip? “If you can’t find goat mince, you can substitute for chicken, lamb or mutton. The main thing is that you find a finely minced meat with a decent level of fat. Add marrow bones for more richness and potatoes and peas if desired.”
14 ounces goat mince
2 medium onions, chopped
3 large tomatoes, chopped
2 tsp kasoori methi
1 tbsp kashmiri chilli powder
1 tsp garam masala
3 tbsp rapeseed oil
2 tsp salt
2 tsp ginger and garlic paste
1 bunch of methi (fresh fenugreek leaves)
2 whole black cardamom pods
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ginger, chopped
1 tsp green chilli, chopped
1 tsp black cumin
4 tbsp single cream
For the garnish
4 tbsp potato salli (straw potatoes)
4 tsp coriander, chopped
2 tsp butter
8 pao buns
4 fried green chilis
1 Indian lemon
Remove the fresh fenugreek leaves from the stalks. Add half a gallon of water to a large saucepan and bring it to the boil, then add the shredded leaves. Once the leaves have changed color, add them into a bowl of cold water and let them cool for two minutes. Then drain, squeezing out any excess water and keep aside.
In another pan, heat your oil and crackle the black cumin, black cardamom, cinnamon stick, and the bay leaves.
Add in the chopped onions and sauté until golden brown, then add the ginger garlic paste, salt, Kashmiri chilli powder, turmeric powder and the garam masala.
Now add your minced lamb and sauté until brown, add the chopped tomatoes and braise until the tomatoes are cooked and the masala starts to release oil on the sides of your pan.
Add your blanched fenugreek leaves you set aside earlier, and the kasoori methi and cook for a further 5 minutes. Finish with chopped ginger, green chilli, and cream. Serve hot and top with some finely chopped onions and salli. Garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve your keema alongside warm buttered pao buns, fried Indian green chilli and a wedge of Indian lemon.
Fish Pie at J Sheekey
For musical theater fans, the lure of London is all about the West End. But after the curtains close, nights out in the capital’s Theatreland aren’t complete without a proper post-theater dinner. Nearby Chinatown is an excellent bet for tight budgets, but J Sheekey is a hallowed favorite for those going all out.
Nestled between the Noël Coward and Wyndham’s theaters, the seafood restaurant has been a favorite with performers and theatergoers for more than 120 years. The best loved dish for decades has been the fish pie. “It has become our most iconic dish and will never come off the menu,” said chef director Tim Hughes. “Our guests always know the J Sheekey fish pie is going to be exactly as they remember.”
Fun fact: not all British “pies” are made with pastry. This pie comes topped with mashed potatoes, similar to another national favorite, shepherd’s pie—if that sounds familiar, J Sheekey’s famed sibling restaurant The Ivy does a particularly fabled one.
Tim’s tip? Don’t overcook it, stick to the timings so you want to cook it and then eat it straight away, as otherwise it will keep cooking and the fish will begin to break down. Make sure you get a firm white fish—nice chunks, not trimmings—or it will go mushy. Mustard is the secret ingredient and if you like more of a kick add more in!
7 oz boneless cod (or a white chunky fish) fillet, skinned and cut into rough 1 inch chunks
7 oz boneless salmon fillet, skinned and cut into rough 1 inch chunks
7 oz boneless smoked haddock fillet, skinned and cut into rough 1 inch chunks
4 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
For the sauce
3 1/2 tbsp butter
3 1/2 tbsp flour
1/2 cup white wine
2 1/8 cups fish stock (good quality organic fish bouillon is fine)
6 tbsp double cream
1 tbsp English mustard
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp anchovy essence (optional)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
For the topping
2 1/5 pounds King Edward potatoes, peeled, cooked and mashed
3 1/2 tbsp butter
3 1/2 tbsp milk
4 tsp fresh white breadcrumbs
2 tsp grated parmesan cheese
To make the sauce, melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan over a low heat, then stir in the flour gently.
Gradually add the wine, stirring well; then slowly add the fish stock until you have a silky smooth sauce. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
To finish, add the double cream and briefly bring to the boil again.
Stir in the mustard, Worcestershire sauce and anchovy essence—add more mustard and Worcestershire sauce if you like it spicy. Add salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste.
Gently fold the raw fish and the parsley into the hot sauce, and pour into a large pie dish up to about 1.25 inches from the top of the dish. Leave to cool, so that the topping will sit on the sauce when piped over it.
Mix the butter into the mashed potato, season with a little salt, and add the milk so that the mixture is soft enough to spread over the fish mixture. Gently cover the fish with the potato.
Preheat the oven to 375 degree Fahrenheit and bake for 30 minutes, then scatter on the breadcrumbs and cheese, and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden.
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Chocolate Nemesis at The River Cafe
British dining isn’t all about pie and mash—or at least it hasn’t been since The River Cafe came along. When American-born chef Ruth Rogers and her British collaborator Rose Gray opened the restaurant on the banks of the River Thames in 1987, the nation’s knowledge of Italian food went about as far as being able to pronounce “spaghetti,” and stopped abruptly.
Having both lived in Italy for years, the duo introduced London to a whole new way of cooking and eating: seasonally, with fresh ingredients sourced from independent producers, and served in a relaxed fashion (out in the garden, if you’re lucky with the weather).
An enduring symbol of The River Cafe’s joie de vivre and its ability to subvert tradition is the Chocolate Nemesis. “Nemesis is the essence of chocolate,” said Rogers. “It is chocolate mousse as a cake.” The flourless cake has become the stuff of legend for chocolate lovers, impossibly light, fluffy and served with a dollop of crème fraîche to balance out the sweetness impeccably.
Ruth’s tip? “Drop the filled baking tin down on the counter before baking to get the air bubbles out.”
1 1/2 pounds best-quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), broken into small pieces
11 cups caster sugar
1 3/4 cups unsalted butter, softened
Preheat the oven to 265 degree Fahrenheit. Grease a 12-inch round cake tin that is 3 inches deep, then line the base with greaseproof paper.
Whisk the eggs with a third of the sugar with an electric mixer until the volume quadruples—this will take at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the chocolate and butter together in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (the water should not touch the base of the bowl). Remove from heat.
Heat the remaining sugar with one cup water in a small saucepan until the sugar has completely dissolved to a syrup, stirring occasionally. Gently pour the syrup into the melted chocolate, stirring.
Reduce the speed of the mixer and slowly add the warm chocolate and syrup mixture to the eggs. Increase the speed and continue beating until completely combined. The mixture will lose volume.
Pour into the prepared cake tin. Put the tin into a deep baking tray on top of a tea towel to prevent the cake tin from moving. Fill the baking tray with hot water so that it comes at least two-thirds up the sides of the cake tin. Bake for 1½ to 2 hours or until set—test by placing the flat of your hand gently on the surface of the cake.
Remove the cake tin from the water. Leave the cake in the tin to go completely cold before turning it out (don’t refrigerate it). Serve with crème fraîche.
All recipes have been converted to the imperial system, but the chef’s original measurements are still in parentheses.