Postcard From Tom: Top eateries in foodie haven London

By Tom Sietsema
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."

The food at the Harwood Arms is serious, and beautiful. The light-filled dining room, with its broad bare tables and specials penned on blackboards, is casual. Williams wouldn't have it any other way. Nor would I.

27 Walham Grove, SW6 1QP; 020-7386-1847 ; Entrees, $22-$26.

It takes patience and planning to reserve a seat and then find the quirky suburban restaurant that a discerning London food friend of mine likens to the revered Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Do whatever it takes to snare an antique garden table at the lunch-only Petersham Nurseries Cafe in Richmond, about an hour outside the city. As its name suggests, the 90-seat restaurant and its neighboring tearoom are set in a greenhouse in a working nursery, near the foot of the owners' Queen Anne home.

An uncommonly beautiful recent July afternoon found the six-year-old restaurant serving lunch alfresco, with guests surrounded by wisteria and wild roses and seated on mismatched chairs beneath an Indian-style tatty, or slatted roof. The cafe isn't the least bit fancy; the "floor" turns out to be red dirt.

Warm garlic-rubbed bruschetta drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar is brought out as we peruse the small menu. The nosh is soon joined by prosecco, fragrant with peach, and laughter from the adjacent table, where a half-dozen well-coiffed British women are swapping male tales over champagne. ("Real Housewives of London," my dining partner assesses the increasingly spirited scene.)

There are fewer than a dozen appetizers and entrees to consider, but if scallops from Dorset are among the choices, grab them. The sweet beauties come with their roe attached, and in this case, with accents of fragrant marjoram and intense red pepper. A chunky, burnt-orange gazpacho is fiery with red chilies and a little crunchy with ground almonds. It's vegan, and fabulous. Tender braised rabbit arrives in a broth that's gold with saffron, with a chunk of toasted bread for sopping up the heady juices. A mint-brightened puree dappled on fried sardines sends the little fish soaring. The food is at once straightforward and sophisticated, and there's no rush to eat it, since the table is yours for the afternoon.

In a conversation I later have with the chef, she tells me that her biggest inspiration is the mother of California cuisine, Chez Panisse's Alice Waters.

"Simple ingredients, put on a plate," is how Skye Gyngell modestly describes her style. A native of Australia who learned to cook at La Varenne in France (from former Washingtonian Anne Willan), Gyngell has had a career that includes a stint at the acclaimed Dorchester restaurant in addition to two well-received cookbooks.

Despite the pastoral setting, which includes a kitchen garden where lettuces and herbs are grown and trees from which cherries and plums are plucked for the restaurant's use, not everything served at Petersham Nurseries Cafe is organic or local. Gyngell appreciates those standards, but she'd rather have the best ingredients possible, so some of the olives and cheeses come from Italy and France, for instance. "It's more about flavor," says the chef, 46. Yet she's a stickler for what's fresh. Orders for fish are called in the evening before lunch; ice creams are churned the morning before service and never refrozen.

After we've polished off every sweet cherry from a plate of sharp Gorgonzola and every last crumb of buttery almond tart, our waitress suggests we take an alternate route from the restaurant to catch our aboveground train back to the city. The path takes us across a meadow and along the Thames River, near a palace where Henry VIII spent Christmas in 1509: dessert on top of dessert.

Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AG; 020-8605-3627 ; Entrees, $30-$45.

Vineet Bhatia didn't like what he saw when he came to London from Mumbai 17 years ago. "Everything was curry. It wasn't really Indian food," he recalls of the "greasy, oily, stodgy, heavy" cooking he found in too many restaurants. The wannabe-pilot-turned-chef set out to change that, first at a small place called Star of India and on through the years to Zaika, which opened near Kensington Palace in 1999 and in 2001 became one of two Indian restaurants that were the first ever to garner a coveted star from Michelin.

Since 2004, Bhatia has been serving what he likes to call "evolved Indian" food in a chic townhouse restaurant known as Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in Chelsea. The first part of the name translates into English as "my kitchen," and there's no doubt that anyone but this inventive chef, whose peppery duck rolls and pastry-sheathed lamb biryani I thrilled to at Zaika in 2001, is behind the cooking. The amuse-bouche at Rasoi sets the tone for the evening. Watermelon shooters spiked with fresh ginger, presented with one-bite lentil dumplings in the bowl of a spoon, make a refreshing and elegant introduction. But I also admire the physical menu, a wooden tablet fashioned from old railroad ties with the restaurant's name embossed on copper.

Bhatia, 42, aspired to create the "feel of someone's living room" at Rasoi, where you get in by ringing a bell at the front door. The restaurant's 11 tables are arranged in a little jewel box dressed with a skylight, saris and a collection of brass temple bells from south India suspended from the ceiling.

Ever had lasagna in an Indian restaurant? I hadn't, either, until I experienced Rasoi, where garlicky minced lamb alternates with rice cakes and coconut and coriander chutney. The "caviar" garnish is coaxed from black mustard seeds. Delicious theater infuses other dishes. Grilled lobster gets a table-side dusting of cocoa and curry leaf powder produced from a muslin pouch. It's a finishing touch that weaves bitter with sweet. A seafood medley includes a tempura-battered soft-shell crab, yellow with turmeric and racy with red chili powder, as well as house-smoked salmon, trailed by clove-scented smoke when it's unveiled from beneath a glass cloche. Tandoori chicken with wild mushrooms is graced with a scooplet of what tastes like tomato ice cream. The hot against the cold is fabulous. Meanwhile, an intermezzo of sorbet flavored with oranges and rose petals, offered with a tiny spoonful of same-tasting marmalade, does just what it should do: cleanse the palate and command our interest.

10 Lincoln St., SW3 2TS, 020-7225-1881. Three-course dinner, $88

Fergus Henderson, whose restaurant logo is a pig and whose signature dish is roast bone marrow, talks about innards the way other men rhapsodize about music or women.

Bring up kidneys, and the chef and owner of the groundbreaking St. John praises the way they "squeak when you first bite into them." He finds tripe "soothing and uplifting." For him, a taste of heart reveals "the essence of the beast it comes from."

Why the fascination with noses and tails and everything in between? Henderson thinks it's "impolite" not to use the whole of an animal. Besides, he adds, "It's the way I like to eat."

Henderson, 46, has been making a lusty case for offal since St. John opened 16 years ago, inspiring chefs in the United States in particular. In the past decade, the Smithfield destination has been repeatedly heralded as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world in surveys of critics conducted by San Pellegrino (2010 rank: 43).

A bite of that hot marrow, simply seasoned with gray sea salt and slathered on dark bread from the restaurant's superb bakery, rocks my world, too. So does brined poached ox tongue served with the best chips (fries) and ketchup (made with apples) I had in London, and warm smoked eel. "Thank nature rather than us," the chef says of that luscious eel, partnered with beets and zipped up with horseradish. Dessert - an intense chocolate terrine with Armagnac-punched ice cream, a moist ginger cake that teases the tongue with its sweet heat - is as decadent as everything that has come before it.

St. John acknowledges those who don't eat flesh, evinced by a menu that tucks dandelion salad and lemon sole among deviled kidneys and chitterlings; a salad of warm cauliflower, big butter beans and near-melting leeks was a beautiful balance to an otherwise wicked meal. But going to St. John for a green salad or a piece of fish is like going to a strip club for the music. (Henderson plans to extend his brand in October into Chinatown with a 15-suite St. John Hotel that will include a small restaurant "in the same spirit" as his original.)

My fattening and enlightening farewell dinner takes place at what a host calls "the action table," smack in front of the animated kitchen. Of all the famous dining rooms in the world, I'm thinking, this one surely is among the most austere. Back home in Washington, I call Henderson to ask whether the scarred concrete floors and simple white paint are intentional. I think he's smiling across the pond when he replies, "People eating happily - what more decoration do you need?"

26 St. John St. EC1M 4AY, 020-7251-0848 ; Entrees, $21-$36.

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