Postcard From Tom: Top eateries in foodie haven London

Post food critic Tom Sietsema reviews four restaurants in London, one of the best food cities in the world: the Harwood Arms, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, Petersham Nurseries Cafe and St. John (not pictured).
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; 12:35 PM

The man with the badge behind a glass window at Heathrow Airport wants to know why I've come to London. "I'm a journalist," I tell him as he examines my passport. "I'm going to write about restaurants."

"Stressful job!" the inspector shoots back.

There's no time to question him, not with a planeload of people behind me, so I'm left to guess what he meant as I walk into the summer night.

Perhaps he was ribbing me. Wasn't I about to eat in one of the best food cities in the world? Then again, maybe the recession has taken a toll on the scene in the five years since I last dined here. At any rate, I've come prepared with a few reservations, some promising leads, plus open lunches and dinners in the event that I hear about something good on the ground.

Four days later, I am glad to have had reservations for the Harwood Arms, now my new favorite gastro pub, and Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, one of the city's most innovative Indian restaurants. Lunch at Petersham Nurseries Cafe outside London was a delight, as much for the bucolic setting as for the lush seasonal cooking, and dinner at St. John, home to chef Fergus Henderson's truly gutsy menu, proved a quiet revelation.

My expedition taught me something else: More than in any other major city I know, save for Amsterdam, if you don't do your homework in London in 2010, if you walk into a random restaurant, your chances of encountering middling (or worse) fare is high. Unless you're willing to pay handsomely for it, service in a lot of places is mixed, too. Don't risk a meal that doesn't leave you with memories. Eat here instead:

It's the only pub in London proper that can claim a Michelin star, but that hasn't stopped the Harwood Arms, in the quiet residential neighborhood of Fulham, from continuing to host its popular Tuesday night quizzes or to wet the whistles of the sports enthusiasts who crowd the two-room restaurant on match days. (The Stamford Bridge football stadium is nearby.) Indeed, all the attention that followed the two-year-old pub's award in January only deepened the commitment of chef Stephen Williams, 28, to keep the prices affordable for his regulars - and keep the experience earthbound.

"I want people to get involved with their food," says the rising star, an alumnus of the esteemed Ledbury, a modern French restaurant in Notting Hill. "I want them to use their fingers," to touch what's on their plates. "They should be licking a bit of juice off their hands."

Looking back on my leisurely lunch at the Harwood Arms, I recall doing just what Williams had hoped one of his customers would do. I picked up a sliver of toasted baguette, glistening with coins of marrow that had been smoked over hay, listening to the crackle give way to a rush of liquid fat on my tongue and admiring how the sprinkle of parsley kept what the chef calls "naughty" marrow in check. (Yes, I licked more than my lips.) The slender bar of bread and fat was intended as an accompaniment, but it nearly stole the show from the stout-braised beef cheeks and meaty snails it escorted to the table.

Come with a sense of adventure, and be prepared for some surprises. Deer is a staple here. (Co-owner and TV personality Mike Robinson is an avid hunter.) During my visit, the meat took the form of a plump and juicy-with-pork-fat sausage whose garnish of Douglas fir explained the link's intriguing citruslike note: There were also finely ground pine needles in the mix. Meat from the boiled head of a pig, or brawn, is chopped up with onions, carrots, marjoram and mace, then rolled in crumbs and fried to a gentle crisp. The porcine pleasure, which shows up with broad beans flavored with smoked bacon, is even better with a dab of zingy tarragon mustard.

Game and offal aren't the only hooks. A brilliant puree of zucchini, olive oil and garlic also sings with fresh basil; the soup is served chilled, with lacy and lemony fritters. Silvery smoked sprats, similar to herring, teeter atop a soft-poached egg dusted with dried seaweed, which in turn rests on radishes and a creamy base of diced beet, apple, cucumber and celery bound with horseradish mayonnaise. Butterflied mackerel is staged beneath a delicate cage of thinly sliced sourdough, with summery tomatoes to keep the fish company, and a stuffing of thyme, lemon zest and onions to make the taste buds dance. English raspberries drew me to order the buttermilk pudding, Williams's twist on panna cotta, but the custard's shimmering cubes of lemon verbena on top of the fruit gems were what compelled me to finish the cool comfort. And my new favorite flavor of ice cream marries bitter marmalade with honeycomb. The confection comes with buttery oat cookies called hobnobs.

Williams's plates are successful in part because every garnish, every escort, is special on its own. Or, as a guest of mine summed it up, they're all "great ensembles."

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