England’s capital has come into its own as a food destination. Here's Qantas’s creative director of food, beverage and service hit list.
London is a vibrant food city. Fifteen years ago, I would have flown through it to get to Paris, never thinking of stopping for the food and restaurants, but now it's one of my favourite destinations. If you get lucky with the weather, there really isn't a better city to be in. Yes, it's full of amazing tourist attractions – from Buckingham Palace to walks through beautiful Hyde Park – but some of the best spots are indoors in its fine restaurants. Here are my top picks. Just remember to get organised and book ahead – you'll need to if you want to get into some of these great dining spots.
The Ledbury is owned by Brett Graham, an Aussie who has been ensconced in London for the past 15 years. He’s cooking up a storm and his restaurant has two Michelin stars as proof. The establishment is simple but elegant, as evidenced by the miniature copper-wire sculptures of trees on each table. It’s a sign that what you’re about to experience is in touch with nature and the seasons. The food is a procession of perfectly cooked and balanced plates; we had 15 snacks and dishes and all were spot-on. I loved the candy beet: beetroot baked in clay and served with smoked eel. It had the most perfect texture; firm to the bite yet yielding at the same time. The flame-grilled mackerel and the tomato salad were faultless. And the dish of grouse and pigeon with smoked blackberry was lifted by the texture and taste of both the game meats. We also drank some pretty impressive wines – the 2005 Frédéric Magnien Clos de Vougeot Burgundy was a delight with the grouse dish, while the 1985 Château Lynch-Bages was a great end to the savoury courses. Don’t miss this restaurant. Brett has it all going on.
127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is set in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, with great views over the park. I especially like the view at lunch, watching riders gallop their horses past the window. One side is peaceful and tranquil; the other side, at the front of the hotel, has busy Knightsbridge and the shopping hub of Harvey Nichols and Harrods. So a great lunch and some retail therapy fuelled by a couple of glasses of good wine is on the cards. Here, the cooking of Heston and Ashley Palmer-Watts is precise and focused on great technique and a sense of fun. Its philosophy of bringing classic British dishes of the past to life makes this a wonderful dining experience. The meat fruit, which features a perfect chicken-liver parfait encased in jelly to give it the appearance of a mandarin, is justly famous but the menu is full of great dishes. My two favourites? The powdered duck, which is slow-cooked with a crisp, sweet skin, and the chicken cooked with lettuce. Don’t go past the tipsy cake for dessert – it’s a booze-soaked cake with pineapple that has been roasted over a wood fire. Delicious! The wine list, as expected, is first-class, too. This is such a polished experience.
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London
The River Café
The River Café is just about my favourite Italian restaurant in the world and when you can sit outside, I can’t think of a more wonderful spot to be. The cooking of Ruth Rogers and head chef Sian Wyn Owen is totally focused on the best produce cooked simply but with great craft. On a warm spring, summer or autumn day, sitting on the terrace in the English sunshine is a great privilege, as is eating dishes such as wood-roasted langoustines (sweet and nutty) or cuttlefish braised with grapes and red wine (meaty and earthy). And I want to eat that carne cruda every day! All the dishes are amazing but my all-time favourite is the wood-roasted turbot with whatever seasonal garnish and vegetables they’re cooking it with. It’s juicy, tender and gelatinous on the bone. These larger flatfish from the Atlantic are one of the world’s best fish to eat. We enjoyed it all on a lovely sunny day with a cheekybottle of Isole e Olena Collezione Privata Chardonnay, a delicious Tuscan wine with almond, buttery aromas and a nice minerality. And, yes, we had dessert. There is always a seasonal fruit tart, the panna cotta is awesome and who doesn’t love the chocolate nemesis cake?
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London
Zafferano is a terrific Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge that famous Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli opened two decades ago. He is now cooking great food at Locanda Locatelli but despite his absence the food, wine and service are still really good at Zafferano. I love the vitello tonnato and tuna tartare to start with, followed by the lobster spaghetti with tomato and a touch of chilli – there’s a beautiful toothsome texture to the pasta and a rich tomato base with lobster flavours, not to mention the firm-fleshed lobster itself, tasting of the sea. I also really love the calf’s liver with onions, pine nuts and raisins. I had a lovely white pinot noir; the name escapes me but it was the only one on the list so ask for it!
15 Lowndes Street, London
Babaji Istanbul Pide Salonu
￼Babaji Istanbul Pide Salonu is Alan Yau’s new Turkish place in Soho. Alan is famous for starting Wagamama, Hakkasan, Yauatcha and many other great London restaurants. His new place in Soho is inspired by the pide parlours of Turkey, which are really just pizza joints. The food is relaxing and fun, especially when paired with a few good Turkish wines from the list. We started with a little meze of several dishes. The samphire with garlic, red pepper and tomato was deep-green and salty – seriously delicious – and made me wish we had such good samphire in Australia, where we have native species of the succulent. The hummus was fine, nutty and very silky in texture, while the chargrilled red peppers with garlic and lemon were sweet and had a roast flavour from the charred skins before they were removed. The manti – Turkish lamb dumplings with yoghurt and burnt butter – were delicious. All of the pide were really good. And don’t miss the sweet pumpkin with walnut and clotted cream for dessert; the texture is wonderful. We also had the pistachio baklava; our waitress said it was the best in London and she may be right about that.
53 Shaftesbury Avenue, London
Rochelle Canteen, which is open only during the day, is part-owned by Margot Henderson – she is the better half of the famous Fergus and is no less talented a cook. When you arrive at Rochelle Canteen, you have to buzz to get into the grassy courtyard. It feels like a delicious secret as the café/restaurant is hidden behind high brick walls. Luckily for us, the weather was stunning and we were able to eat outside in the sunshine. The food is not fussy but it’s very tasty. You get dishes such as cuttlefish with fennel and saffron or veal sweetbreads with kale, lentils and green sauce. It’s not licensed but you can bring a bottle. (The staff recommends picking up wine from Leila’s Shop, around the corner.) This is good, simple cooking that delivers.
Rochelle School, Arnold Circus, London
Zuma is the brainchild of Rainer Becker, who is German in body and Japanese in soul. Rainer and I met when he was chef at the Park Hyatt Sydney. When he went to Tokyo, I was lucky enough to do a few events with him there. He took all he learned from Tokyo and journeyed to London to open a restaurant with a distinct izakaya (Japanese pub) vibe. The result is a restaurant that feels busy and warm and is wrapped in a beautiful organic design by Super Potato. And the food? It’s awesome! I love the dynamite spider roll of soft-shell crab with lashings of wasabi tobiko sauce and the raw tuna with chilli and ponzu. You must also try the spicy beef with sesame, chilli and sweet soy from the robata grill. The cocktails are renowned (I’ve sampled many over the years) and you’ll want a few jugs of chilled saké to go with all that food.
5 Raphael Street, Knightsbridge
Riva is a local restaurant in Barnes, not far from The River Café. It serves simple but delicious Italian food and counts chefs Heston Blumenthal, Phil Howard and Brett Graham among its regulars. Food critic A. A. Gill also pops in. I had dinner here with a couple of those blokes and some of the dishes I really enjoyed were an autumn salad of figs, nuts, pomegranate and culatello (prosciutto made from the butt of the pig); octopus with borlotti beans; and a cracking spaghetti with pig’s cheek and pecorino. We had fabulous crisp-skinned suckling pig to finish. I vaguely remember a wonderful barolo, too. Can I remember the name of it? No. That always happens to me when I have dinner with Heston – it’s very dangerous but lots of fun.
169 Church Road, Barnes
The Sportsman is a pub about two hours east of London in Seasalter, Whitstable, that has one Michelin star to its name. When booking, you need to let them know in advance if you’d like the tasting menu. Each dish on it seems to perfectly complement the next. One example is the sea broth, served in a teapot filled with clams, fish stock and several types of seaweed. It was the perfect support act to the next course – the slip sole in seaweed butter, which is grilled on the bone with homemade butter and flecked with seaweed. Delicate and beautiful – I would make the journey for this dish alone. This is no ordinary pub. ￼
Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent
Brawn is the brainchild of the team behind Terroirs, which is a really good wine bar. The space is simple: two rooms with whitewashed walls and comfortable furniture. We went at lunchtime and sat in the front room by the window on a gorgeous sunny day. We started with two negronis (the best I’ve had in London) and delicious pork rillettes served simply with some cornichons and crusty bread. We then had an incredibly rich and more-ish mushroom soup with Gorgonzola. The clams with ham and sherry were a highlight. The service was friendly and attentive, the price point very reasonable and the food super-tasty. Brawn impressed me beyond expectations and I shall be back!
49 Columbia Road, Bethnal Green
The Fat Duck
The Fat Duck is, of course, one of the most famous restaurants in the world and rightly so. Heston Blumenthal has recently renovated it and put even more effort into the journey every diner takes. This isn’t just lunch or dinner – it’s an extraordinary experience (three Michelin stars!) and well worth the time and money. I can’t do justice to it and will instead here repeat Heston’s words: “The whole experience is a Journey, centred around a nostalgic trip full of playful memories, filled with curiosity, discovery and adventure. This nostalgic trip is based on a collection of some of my favourite childhood holiday memories, spanning a whole day. The menu is your itinerary for the day…” Oh, and, by the way, the food is delicious and delightful but I won’t spoil the surprise by telling what you can expect, other than the unexpected – truly a unique experience.
High Street, Bray, Berkshire