London has my heart. It was the first European city I ever visited. I fell in love instantly, and I shall never fall out of love. (As Samuel Johnson said to Boswell in 1777: “when a man is tired of London…he is tired of life!”)
Of course, London and I have had our ups and downs. I’ve always devoured London theatre, never been disappointed…but, truth to tell (Samuel, don’t listen!), there were a few visits in the 1990s, and early aughts, when London seemed a little…well, dull. I’m thinking a lot had to do with where I was in London, exactly…because in those growth years parts of London started looking like A Big Booming City from Anywhere.
My recent weekend in London, however, starting with my stay on the edge of Mayfair, confirmed my suspicions: if you wander the London-y streets of London, you will give the old city your bleedin’ heart, every time.
Of course…a great hotel, and great food…help a lot! And don’t let anyone tell you differently: there’s plenty of both in Merrie Olde.
On this weekend in March, I chose to stay at one of my oldest, favest London hotels,The Dorchester, located on Park Lane, at the border of Mayfair, just across the street from a beautiful stretch of Hyde Park. Is there a place in London with more of the old-fashioned London feel?
For starters, The Dorchester drips with history. It sits on an old, well-trafficked London site…once famous as a cynosure for public-attended hangings! The first large building was built on the site in 1751, later named Dorchester House…a grand house for 19th-century landed gentry to inhabit when they visited London from their country residences. (Intriguingly, the site was sold in 1929, the original building was demolished, re-erected in Scotland, then transported to an American buyer in Texas!)
The new owners of the London site in 1929 set out to build a “perfect” hotel on it. The Dorchester first opened its doors to a private luncheon on April 18, 1931…and then opened to the public two days later. Since then, it has been the storied home to many a grand event in English history. Queen Elizabeth (then Princess Elizabeth) and Prince Philip announced their engagement from here in 1947…and old Phil held his stag party at The Dorchester later that year! A little earlier, even the Yanks got in on the Dorchester action; the hotel had the reputation during World War II as the sturdiest building in London—impervious to air raids—and General Eisenhower set up his headquarters in the hotel (you can stay in the Eisenhower Suite today!)
After various updates, refreshings and refurbishments, it is today the flagship hotel of The Dorchester Collection…a glittery international group which also owns the Meurice and the Plaza-Athenée in Paris, the Principe de Savoia in Milano, the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Bel-Air in Los Angeles, among a few other monuments.
But the cool thing is…from design to service, The Dorchester absolutely retains its English flavor. Eight of the suites right now come with butler service…just press the button on the phone, and yours will help you with anything you like! At the end of April, 2013, the popular butler concept will be expanded to 30 rooms.
The Dorchester is also home to five diverse restaurants, including Alain Ducasse’s London outpost (which has three stars from Michelin; among Ducasse’s dozens of restaurants, only this one, Ducasse’s Paris restaurant at the Plaza-Athenée, and his Monte Carlo base at the Louis XV have three stars from Michelin).
I wanted to eat my way around London on this weekend, so I didn’t get to indulge in the Dorchester dining spots…with the delicious exception of breakfast in the Promenade…which you can turn into a very British experience if you like!
At breakfast time, there’s a lovely if unsurprising set of breakfast items…but…I’d advise going for the specialties that are hard to find elsewhere! I loved the grilled lamb kidneys with fried eggs (God, I felt like Leopold Bloom sitting there!)…and one of my favorite bites of the weekend was the kipper.
A kipper, of course, is a cured whole herring—that turns a little copper-colored during its curing. Therefore, it has been “coppered,” or, as it came to be known, “kippered.” One of these fish, today…is a “kipper!” You may have yours on The Promenade at either room temp or heated; I kipper-indulged on two successive days, and far preferred the room temp kipper (juicier, more tender).
I rarely do the following, but I’m now going to share with you the chronological flow of my next eats that weekend, just so you can imagine the gastronomic rhythm…
For starters, I went to Amaranto, the Italian restaurant at the neighboring Four Seasons Hotel, an eatery which had been recommended by a friend. I had the pleasure of spending some time with extremely affable head chef Davide Degiovanni, from Piemonte, who was kind enough to tour me around the wonderful facility. Don’t expect regional Italian cooking here…but do expect a very subtle, skillful rendering of what you might call “modern” Italian (I loved my black-truffle-filled dumplings in a buttery sauce best!) This is a great spot in a beautiful corner of London for a high-end business lunch. With a good Italian wine list, avoiding the too-obvious Italian vinosities!
Next up: how could I avoid a fish-and-chips shop in London? Did you know that I’m connected to an upscale, über-healthy fish-and-chips restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland? So it is my duty to visit other upscale versions ’round the globe. But London especially! Several recommendations led me to a cool place with an old “chippie” counter on one side of the establishment, and—through another entrance door—a “respectable” place to eat fish and chips, kind of a London trend.
The quality was…good. A good find. But you gotta stick to the very, very basic. Usually at London chippies, I prefer all the kinds of fish they typically serve aside from the common cod.
Skate, and plaice, are usually my faves. However, here…the cod was the big winner! Why? It was the thickest cut of all, which meant the oil had not reached inside to the snowy, sliding flesh. The skate and plaice were thinner slices of fish, and—much as I love oil!—these two other fish came off as greasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
My second-favorite meal came next…a wonderful weekend dinner at the hottest brasserie-style restaurant in London, The Delaunay. Oddly enough, I think of this as the “Balthazar” of London…even though Balthazar itself opened there recently! I hear that Balthazar is doing well…but this place, The Delaunay, opened a year ago, has exactly the thrill in the air that Balthazar had in its early days in New York. And I love the food!
The Delaunay, right near the old Aldwych Theatre (where Willy the Shake and I spent some serious time together in my youth), is owned by the two lions of London restaurants today, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, who were described in the New York Times as “the wizards of neo-retro restaurants.” That perfectly describes the spectacular Delaunay…
…where moneyed Londoners across several generations come to eat the air, premise-crammed…you can feel the excitement…along with some of the best brasserie food in London.
King and Corbin are the owners of The Ivy, long the toniest spot in London’s West End (the theatre district). In 2003, they opened the hugely successful Wolseley, on Piccadilly, with a new flavor for the big, boisterous, NY-London-Paris brasserie: the culinary ideas of Central Europe. The Wolseley has now spawned the Delaunay, which happily goes even Hapsburg-ier.
This is a brasserie, right? So there have to be oysters! But why do people overlook Britain as one of the world’s greatest oyster sources? I threw back a dozen Carlingford Lough Rock oysters, from Northern Ireland, which were filled with the watermelon-rind flavors of crassostrea gigas. The house offered a carafe of 2011 Muscadet from Quilla, which was spot-on as oyster wine. And…my favorite part, for the English-ness of it all…they serve a platter of crust-trimmed, already-buttered bread on the side!
But the real fun begins with the sections of the menu that are topped with German words. There’s a section of schnitzels…which is a spiritual relative of sushi, in that a perfect piece seems so simple…but a lot of work goes into that simplicity. And perfect is not something oft found outside Vienna. If you have one in the style of Vienna, which means plain, just a perfectly crumbed and fried veal cutlet…it’s a Wiener Schnitzel (Vienna Schnitzel). The Delaunay also offers a Cordon Bleu Schnitzel (with ham and cheese, natch), and…my fave!…a Schnitzel a la Holstein!
This dish is one of the great triumphs of old-fashioned German cuisine: a fried veal cutlet garnished with a runny fried egg, capers and anchovies. You rarely see it anymore! But The Delaunay’s may be the best I’ve ever had. Perfect thickness of the veal, perfect golden-crunchy exterior. Garnishes predictably delicious. And…a thin splatter of veal jus all around puts this cutlet over the border into juicy/irresistible country.
As good as the schnitzels are, the sausage category marked “Wieners” may be even better! It is kinda funny, of course, to refer to sausages as “Wieners” when authentic Austrian Wiener Schnitzel, fried veal cutlet, is close at hand. In Wien (Vienna), they don’t call a sausage a “wiener.” But most of the world does, and so do they at The Delaunay. Don’t fret over the linguistics; instead, sample as many sausages as you can (you get two kinds for only about 9 pounds (that’s just 14 bucks!) Beef frankfurter, bockwurst, thuringer, nurnberger, käsekrainer (the famous Austrian cheese dog), berner wurstel, and New York hot dog—they’re all fab, real-tasting, texture-laden! My favorite was the porky berner wurstel, wrapped in…guess what?…bacon. All wieners are served with delicious mustardy potato salad, onions caramelized to dark-brown perfection, and accurately thin-cut, fluffy-light sauerkraut.
I’m recommending The Delaunay powerfully to anyone visiting London right now. Listen…if you dig Hogarthian scenes painted in the tones of the 21st century…ya just can’t miss here. Javol, guv’nor!
On my first visit to London, 44 years ago, I was taken to an Indian restaurant on New Year’s Eve. My excuse for jumping in the fountain at Trafalgar Square that night was that I was burning up from the vindaloo!
But…it changed my life. I’d never had food this hot before. I’d never had Indian food before. A star entered the firmament and, five trips to India later, it still lights my way.
So, I’ve always been emotional about Indian food in London. I’ve also been cautious. Clearly, this is THE Indian-restaurant city of the Western World…on volume alone. Just as I grew up in the suburbs of New York with a Chinese restaurant on every corner, so did my counterparts in Hampstead grow up with an Indian restaurant on every corner. Recently, in a national English poll, chicken tikka masala triumphed as England’s favorite dish!…above fish & chips and the rest!
Yada yada. So why have I often found nothing truly different in London’s Indians from New York’s Indians—except the excess of them? The funkies of Brick Lane are like the funkies of Sixth St. in NYC. Mid-range are good (Bombay Brasserie, Red Fort)…but not too far above our mid-ranges. I went to the opening of the fanciest place, Tamarind, about 15 years ago…and it struck me as Indian fusion does everywhere. “Interesting! Where’s my keema paratha and my toovar dhal?”
Now you’re ready to know the surprise I did. Various opinionators whom I asked about local Indian food were telling me I had to go to the fancy Benares, in Mayfair. No, no, no I resisted. I wanted tradition and funk. No no no, they returned. Just try Benares.
I did. And…
I have no doubt that this is the greatest fancy Indian restaurant with creative food I’ve ever been to. I know nothing in New York—or India!—that can match this for quality. On my next trip to London I will return immediately, maybe twice!
The entrance is not inspiring…a soulless lobby, next to a fancy car dealership, headed by a long, dispiriting, monochromatic staircase. Colors do not run wild in the interior design, either…nor windows…
But Holy Vishnu…is all that white-and-black filled with riots of color once the plates start coming out!!!
The food story starts here with Executive Chef Atul Kochhar…
…who once worked at local rival Tamarind. Intriguingly, the two most exalted high-end Indian restaurants in London are right near each other, in Mayfair (and both a ten-minute walk from the Dorchester). There are two Michelin one-stars in London…and these are them!
But Atul was restless, and, about ten years ago, left Tamarind to set up Tamarind’s rival, Benares, with more of the Kochhar imprimatur on it. Today, for him, it’s all cookbooks, TV, rock star status…and pride of place, I’d say, in London’s Michelin Indian star-wars.
I haven’t visited Tamarind in 15 years, but I hear that it has settled into a very authentic version of northern Moghul cooking, before that cooking got transformed by Anglo influences. I want to try that!!!
So comparisons, right now, are odious. But I can tell you that the explosiveness of the flavors at Benares, combined with the elegance of the cooking, and the attention paid to textures, blew me back. Only later did I notice something of a conceptual pattern, which local critics have confirmed in print: Tamarind may be pre-Anglo, but Benares is decidedly post-Anglo!—paying respect, in their very Indian food, to some of the staples of British dining. Is it a concept gone awry? Absolutely not! It is a concept gone a-right! Brilliant…and brilliantly delicious!
Exhibit A: the Lamb Livers and Kidney Masala Pie, with Minted Kachumber Salsa. Not knowing what to expect, I lit up when I saw a round mini-casserole that was basically an Indian-style shepherd’s pie. But the lamb and kidney flavors, while referring to steak and kidney, brought the creation into a funky world of flavor that seemed about 6,000 miles from London. And it has been a long time since I’ve had any Indian stew as skillfully spice-infused as this.
Another killer was Wild Fish Kebab from the Catch of the Day (a mild reference to England’s seafood shops), Chili Mayonnaise and Pickles.
I was also enamored of a great vegetarian biryani in the style of Lucknow—absolutely elevated by the inclusion of chewy, satisfying jackfruit, and more-than-the-usual masala/fried onion taste. Another big winner was Roasted Organic Chicken Supreme, Bok Choy ‘Saag-Aloo,’ Lentil Sauce.
I don’t usually order chicken breast. And a plating like this in an Indian restaurant ain’t what I’m looking for. OK…cancel all that noise! The components of this dish were so marvelously intense in Indian flavor, almost more than any chicken tandoori I’ve ever had. And the texture of that breast! I’m sure they employed the soaking-in-cream method—making it a kind of “Chicken Malai”—and transforming an English breast into one of the most succulent, running-with-juice chicken breasts I’ve ever tasted.
So there you have it. Stay in love with life. Go visit Samuel Johnson. And immerse yourself in modern Britannia at any of these restaurants…but, whatever you do…do not miss the last two!!!
Lead photo courtesy of Bigstock