50 Best, Chelsea, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Epicure, Fat Duck, Gordon Ramsey, Harry Potter, Hedone, Heston Blumenthal, Koffman's, Le Bristol, Le Servan, Ledbury, London, Michelin, Niege d'ete, Notting Hil, Paris, St John
It certainly has been a while since we touched down in London town. At the time of our visit earlier this year Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had not yet open, Brexit was still a much debated topic, the pound was valued more than twice the (Canadian) dollar and David Cameron was Prime Minister. The combination of indecision and laziness has now seen the weather come almost full circle since our visit with no words to account for it.
The last time we were here in 2011 we were at the tail end of a trip around Spain. We were exhausted. We ate. We shopped. We visited major tourist areas and braved the daily torrential downpour of rain and hail. To say our time in London left us allured and wanting more was a gross overstatement. Aside from an A+ shoe game and a heck of a meal at the Fat Duck, there was very little magic. This was not Harry Potter. This was Bridget Jones.
With few intentions of returning, it was the appeal of an updated menu at the Fat Duck that set our sights in that direction once again. Although we did not in fact return to the restaurant, it did bring us to London (with a side trip to Paris). Giving us a second chance to explore what we barely scratched the surface on before.
Moments after arriving, the feel of the city already felt like night and day. Near King’s Cross station we walked through the streets of Bloomsbury and were brought face-to-face with terraced houses reminiscent of Sirius Black’s 12 Grimmauld Place. Congested alleys and cobblestoned streets on the way to St Johns Restaurant in Smithfield felt like we were the young Harry Potter walking the streets of Diagon Alley for the very first time. Towards the River Thames, we took in the scents of roasted nuts wafting by the foot of the Millennium Bridge now fully repaired after being destroyed by Death Eaters a few years ago. And with the sun shining on our faces almost the entire week, we were finally able to experience the life that made up this global hub. Here and there, we found the magic even without Rubeus Hagrid as our guide. Walking for hours on end we began to appreciate the uniqueness of the city unlike we had in the past.
Some places however continued to remain elusive. Our attempts to follow Diana’s footsteps into St. Paul’s Cathedral proved unsuccessful. St. Peter must not have been ready for us just yet as we found ourselves out of there as quickly as we entered its revolving doors proclaiming this is none other than the house of God this is the gate of heaven. Westminster Abbey once again refused to accept us. Perhaps the shroud of Catholicism loomed over us and they could sense we truly were not there for worshiping hours. Nevertheless the churches were not the only places to reject our presence. The golden walls of the Palace of Westminster may forever be out of reach. And a fully booked Leavesden Studios settled a pre-trip dilemma as to whether or not we should cancel a lunch reservation in favour of drinking some butterbeer on the set of Hogwarts.
Instead, the infamous Platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross Station catered to our Harry Potter whims. And its adjoining Ollivander’s-inspired souvenir shop welcomed us with steep price tags. Years after the release of the 7th book and final movie, J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers continue to find ways to open our wallets. Yet somehow we always find ourselves doing it so willingly.
But the real magic of this trip came from the food – an aspect of this city we admittedly did not get to fully explore several years ago. A la carte menus, French cuisine and pigeon filled our stomachs and our minds. And a quick two-night trip to Paris in between brought us to the heart of what has influenced so much of the London fine dining scene.
Koffman’s was our first stop upon arrival in London. With its hearty sauces, rich flavours and excellent service on the cold winter evening of our visit, Pierre Koffman and team could not have created a better brasserie epilogue to their former three Michelin starred restaurant, La Tante Claire. It purposely did not have the bravado of a three-star French fine dining establishment, but it was solid French food. After a nine hour sleep deprived flight followed by a walk through the chilly streets in the middle of winter, the pig’s trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels and the warm fluffy pistachio soufflé with bits of a crunchy crust and a bottom soaked in pistachio ice cream were exactly what we needed at the time. The experience we had that evening makes it a bit sad to know that the restaurant will be closing soon.
Perhaps it was because we were not expecting much that made Koffman’s such a pleasant surprise. And when it came to dinner at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey, our expectations were much the same. Although both Gordon himself and Clare Smyth no longer helm the restaurant, the name Gordon Ramsey still dons the entrance. With the name Ramsey diluting its brand throughout the world, we had a fear that this celebrity chef might not live up to his reputation (whether one calls themselves a celebrity chef or not). Mains such as roasted pigeon served alongside melting-to-the-touch foie gras or linguine with a butter, truffle and parmesan cheese sauce topped with Périgord truffles brought cuisine that bordered on the thin line between perfectly opulent and unbearably rich. It was a tried and true French-inspired menu and delivered on its solid reputation. But perhaps time bred complacency and we could not help but wonder if the same level of service would have been acceptable under the leadership of the main man himself.
When it comes to French haute cuisine though, we have yet to experience anything more opulent than Paris. Being so close to London, we could not help ourselves. A few hours through the Chunnel on the 300 kph Eurostar allowed us to wake up in London and then snack on Pierre Herme macaroons at the foot of the Louvre then dine at Epicure in Le Bristol hotel for dinner. Open seven days a week, 365 days of the year, it’s quite ironic how machine-like yet welcoming this haute dining experience turned out to be. They seemed to do everything right on this visit with an ease and lightness to their step. Children with their families were also given Hippolyte bunnies for entertainment showing no matter how haute they may be, they never forget the foundation of family on which the hotel was founded. Fantastic service, a keen attention to detail and beautifully executed complex dishes – such as the evening’s pièce de résistance, poulet de Bresse cooked in a cow’s bladder spread over two courses – makes us look back on this dinner fondly.
There is something to be said however about the less haute establishments of Paris. Such as Le Servan, which we visited on a previous occasion and enjoyed so much we had to return. Or the combination of the skill of a Japanese chef with that of French ingredients which has really delivered for us on our last two visits to the city. We first experienced this fusion in Restaurant A.T. a few years ago and on this latest visit at Neige d’ete. At its price point, we could not find greater value for the refinement and flavour the five courses bestowed on us that afternoon. That is part of the beauty of Parisian dining. One does not have to eat at the lavish or expensive to experience superb quality and cuisine.
Not to say it cannot be found elsewhere. At St John’s Restaurant in London we found offal to be rarely cooked so well, with the simplicity of each of the dishes making them the highlight of each plate. Rabbit offal with green beans, devilled kidneys with mashed potatoes or ox heart with fries. A few ingredients well executed and packed with flavour and heartiness made it all “so British” as one of the servers at another restaurant told us. It did surprise us however that this visit saw considerably less people than five years ago to the point where, save ourselves and another table, the restaurant was pretty much empty. Perhaps it was simply a one-off. Nevertheless, it was a stark contrast to the bustling atmosphere five years ago. Maybe the social media enthusiasts have chosen to take their money to the new and trendy, but their loss is our gain and this restaurant can fill our stomachs any day.
When it comes to newer establishments, it was Dinner by Heston that caught our eye. After all, it was Heston Blumenthal’s updated menu at The Fat Duck that set our sights this way to begin with. At Dinner by Heston, we had items such as a ragout of pig’s ear served on toast, powdered duck breast and tipsy cake for dessert served alongside a spitroasted pineapple. Inspirations from the old lands of yore brought in by methods of the new delivered another very delicious and whimsical meal from Heston and team.
But what filled our stomachs on most of this trip were dishes of pigeon. The Ledbury in Notting Hill served one of four. With food focused on local produce and game, it was a serving of a bantam’s egg that turned out to be a new experience for us. Its huge yolk, with an almost equal ratio to its egg white, was as orange as it was rich. With shavings of truffle and bits of dried ham, it felt very reminiscent of the truffle and egg combinations we previously had in Azurmendi or Asador Etxebarri, except with a bit of a British flare. Neither over the top amazing or flat our horrendous, sometimes a restaurant does not have to blow your mind. Sometimes, it can just be good. And that is what The Ledbury was.
What was a disappointment though was the infamous “house with a blue door” used in the movie Notting Hill and about a 10 minute walk from the restaurant. With its surrounding pillars now painted white, it was almost unrecognizable. We had to Google the image just to be sure we were in front of the house. We suppose tourists like us must be a nuisance for the owners, and we wouldn’t be surprised if they painted the whole door another colour down the road just to get rid of us.
Before this city could get rid of us however, it was one final dinner at Hedone. A restaurant we were keen to try due to the chef’s much documented dedication to finding exceptional (mostly British) ingredients. Aptly named after the goddess of pleasure and enjoyment, Hedone was indeed a delight. When we cut into a serving of venison, our knife went through it like butter. In our mouth, the meat was succulent. It was absolutely perfect and we were convinced it was cooked using the sous vide. We were promptly corrected by the server passing by as she noted the chef hated the smell the meat produced after it is sous vide. Not that we needed much persuading as the meal itself did all the talking, but after that we were completely convinced of the strength of this restaurant. The staff was also kind enough to give us food to take back before our flight home the next day.
A great way to end a trip to this global hub we previously cast off as just another big city. From the history to the food to the people saying sorry at almost every turn (who said Canadians apologized so much?), this second visit afforded us an opportunity to delve a little deeper into the minutia of its people and culture. Giving us a mere muggle glimpse into the magic seeping out of this city.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny