In London, old can be the new “new.” Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill (11–15 Swallow St.; 44-20/7734-4756; bentleys.org), in a crescent connecting Piccadilly and Regent Street in Mayfair, opened in 1916, but the year that concerns us is 2005, when Richard Corrigan becomes chef-owner. The smile of the Irish roaring boy is one of broad contentment; 12 years previously he was one of the kitchen staff. Now with many fish to fry, including most recently at Virginia Park Lodge, in County Cavan, Ireland, he continues to run Bentley’s with bonhomie and brio. A table at the ground-floor oyster bar is the place to be for a dozen natives with the excellent soda bread on the side, a platter of shellfish from the seashore, impeccable dressed crab, the classics such as fish pie and fish and chips, or dishes of the day to which Corrigan’s travels contribute inventive, sometimes Asian influences. Equal emphasis is given to the provenance of meat, with, naturally, Irish beef.
During a gap year before starting at Cambridge University, Jacob Kenedy walks into the revered Iberian London restaurant Moro and asks for a job. He then trains in their kitchen and also at Boulevard in San Francisco, with Nancy Oakes. Fast-forward to 2008, when, with his partner, Victor Hugo, he opens the “Mouth of the Wolf” in a scabby Soho side street. His passion now at Bocca di Lupo (12 Archer St.; 44-20/7734-2223; boccadilupo.com) is Italian food (and wine), encompassing, as he puts it, a taste of the 20 main dialects of Italy, served in small or large quantity, per piece or by weight. A marble bar leads into a small dining room hung with oil paintings by his mother, Haidee Becker. The menu content is fluid, mutable, creatively responsive to seasonality. More than one serious critic judges Kenedy’s offering the best Italian food in London.
After 25 years located in the far reaches of Chelsea, Chutney Mary (73 St. James’s St.; 44- 20/7629-6688; chutneymary.com), which opened the eyes of many to a world of Indian cooking beyond curry, moves to St James’s in June this year. The new premises are spacious, elegant, and literally shimmering with expectation and promise. Sisters Camellia and Namita Panjabi, who have researched and studied their native cuisine with the thoroughness and purposefulness of archaeologists, have compiled a menu that encapsulates “New Wave India.” Dishes have been rethought with an eye to how we like to eat now, but without losing their potency. Long meandering—as opposed to shortcuts—leads to assemblies like the bone-rich chicken broth shahi nihari and the mix of mustard leaves, sorrel, butter, and jaggery called sarson ka saag. Kid gosht biryani and duck jardaloo are two main courses not to miss. Dress up. The restaurant invites it.
The forward-thinking Clove Club (380 Old St.; 44-20/7729-6496; thecloveclub.com), in Shoreditch, is the first in London to adopt the Tock system for selling tickets to a meal. Isaac McHale, chef and co-owner, has pointed out that an ambitious restaurant has to spend more on ingredients and staff, and tickets help keep prices down. The Clove Club exemplifies recent London restaurant-related developments: migration to the east; fixed but oft-changing tasting menus; educative wine matching; parity between chefs and front of house, all revelling in the ownership of an idea; homemade charcuterie; interesting, sometimes overlooked, ingredients in trailblazing partnerships; vegetables vindicated, banging cocktails, momentum sustained right to the end; a sort of Methodist simplicity in the surroundings. More than two years on, the Clove Club shows no sign of loosening its grip on the culinary Zeitgeist.
In the decade since chef Brett Graham opened the Ledbury (127 Ledbury Rd.; 44-20/7792-9090; theledbury.com) in Notting Hill, the restaurant has several times and in different assessments been voted the best restaurant in the U.K. A protégé of Philip Howard’s at the Square, Australian Graham is happy to immerse himself deeply in the business of pleasing his customers rather than obviously pushing his profile. Front of house reflects this approach, making the experience of eating here relaxed and indulgent. Graham has an almost occult empathy with ingredients and presents them flawlessly, poised to interact in a fascinating manner. His love of the English countryside is manifest in dishes driven by game, some of which will have been shot by the chef. If you ask other top chefs to put their money where their mouth is, they will invariably put it here.
The Quality Chop House (88-94 Farringdon Rd.; 44-20/7278-1452; thequalitychophouse.com) opened in Farringdon in 1869 as a “progressive working class caterer”—a legend that remains etched on the glazed frontage. The rules of listed-interiors protection in the dining room means that the straight-backed benches, despite new uphol- stery, are still punishing. Book in the adjacent room. Chef Shaun Searley, fast making a name for himself in the industry as one of the brightest and best, offers changing menus inspired by what is plentiful and in its prime. An in-house butcher’s shop and a deli next door buy into the approach. Whatever you choose, be it partridge—this is a top place to order game—pollack, or pork, do not omit an order of confit potatoes, an extraordinary confection with a cult following. Co-owner Will Lander is the son of wine guru Jancis Robinson. The fascinating wine list reflects that agreeable fact.
Arguably the most beautiful dining room in Europe, Mayfair’s the Ritz (150 Piccadilly; 44-20/7300-2370; theritzlondon.com) has a steady, enlightened executive chef in John Williams, who does the surroundings justice. Understanding that “grand hotel” is more than a state of mind, he encourages public performance in the section of the menu headed “Arts de la Table,” whereby a member of the waiting staff displays and carves in the presence of the customers dishes such as poulet de Bresse demideuil en vessie or beef Wellington. Other menu items are similarly classical but prepared with a light hand and unusual attention to duty. In one assembly the peas are peeled, each and every one. On Friday and Saturday evenings, an orchestra plays and dancing is encouraged. If lunch or dinner seems too extravagant—wine prices alone guarantee that—try breakfasting: It’s grander and more ensconced than the famous tea.
Photo Credit: Katie Wilson; Courtesy Bocco di Lupo