The preconception that you can't get much worth eating in England lingers on. But with increasing regularity, great new restaurants appear and old standbys gain further acclaim.
This past winter, the Waterside Inn, not far from London, became the second restaurant in Great Britain to receive three stars from the "Michelin Guide."
The Waterside is a ravishing place with a decor of pastoral opulence, where you sip your drinks on a terrace overlooking the Thames at Bray. It is owned by the inimitable Roux brothers (Albert and Michel), who also own Le Gavroche in Mayfair, the other three-star restaurant.
Formal and elegant, Le Gavroche is the place for power lunches and celebratory dinners. Contrary to rumor, it is not impossibly expensive, especially given the current state of the pound. If the wine list has bottles for hundreds of dollars, there are plenty under $20, and a prix fixe luncheon menu goes for around $25 a person. Like the Waterside, the food at Le Gavroche is French, classic and superb.
Having trained innumerable local chefs in their kitchens, the Roux brothers -- as much as anyone -- have taught the English how to eat.
Nonetheless, many still believe that in England the preferred color for food is gray, the preferred cooking method boiling. And I did, in fact, watch a man on the express train from Manchester to London making his way methodically through steak and beer, fried potatoes, boiled potatoes, creamed cauliflower and cheese on thickly buttered biscuits.
But the man from Manchester notwithstanding, there has been an explosion of interest in good eating in England, a trend recently chronicled in "The Official Foodie Handbook." A tome by turn pretentious and hilarious, it describes everything from The Funghi Bore to Gastroporn. And the natives have taken to gastronomy with the adolescent fervor of the newly initiated.
What's more, the diversity of -- and passion for -- ethnic eats is downright astonishing. There are Jewish and Italian, Greek and Lebanese. Even en route to London, the British Airways steward engaged me in some banter over the best bagels.
But London's main claim to great ethnic cuisine is perhaps Indian. Not the Indian of your student days, either, not that enormous plate of mutton curry for around five shillings and sixpence. The hot new eatery in London is the posh Bombay Brasserie in South Kensington. Its glamor reflects the current rage for the Raj induced by the television series, "The Jewel in the Crown," and in fact it looks like an art director's dream of empire.
You can sip a Bombay Blues cocktail in the bar before you enter the dining room, which is all latticework, rotating fans and wicker chairs. You can eat in a conservatory complete with pool and palm fronds. The kitchen here ranges the subcontinent to produce Parsi, Goan, Moghlai and Punjabi dishes. There is wonderful quail stuffed with minced lamb pillau, for instance, or chicken tikka. And there are some of the best tandoor dishes I've ever tasted -- the most memorable a trout tandoor, the fish tender inside, charred and crackly outside.
There are chutneys both hot and sweet on the tables at the Bombay Brasserie -- and for dessert, the best sorbets (mango to bitter chocolate) this side of Paris. Dinner for two, including a decent bottle of wine, comes to around $40.
Chinese restaurants also abound; for the best dim sum, try Chuen Cheng Ku, where they serve them from a trolley in a manner reminiscent of Hong Kong's Food Street. Also evocative of Hong Kong is the new Tiger Lee. It reminds you of a very expensive eatery in a deluxe Hong Kong hotel, and the pale green leather chairs are the fattest ever.
The specialty at Tiger Lee is seafood, and it is extraordinary: steamed fish in black bean sauce, saute'ed crab and winter melon soup, saute'ed eel, enormous prawns, abalone, lobster. The toffee bananas, quick fried and dunked in ice water, came out crackly sweet. An outrageous dinner for four that included course after succulent course, as well as plenty of white wine, and ended with a vast platter of fresh lichees, came to around $120.
A new restaurant in favor with the movie folk who seem to have invaded every corner of London (80 features will be made this year) is Toto. The pasta is very good (a rarity in London), the minestrone hot and thick, the langoustines big and fresh, and the veal with lemon perfectly cooked. The helpings are enormous -- the salad of mozzarella and tomato (often served in London with avocado and known as insalata tricolore) could have served four.
Toto is theatrical, big and airy, and there's a charming garden at the back. With lithographs by fashion designer Zandra Rhodes on the wall, the style is elegant, laid back and slightly self-conscious. Like New York, London is beginning to take the decor as seriously as the food and wine. (Dinner for two at Toto, with wine, runs about $50.)
Media and film folk also make for L'Escargot in Soho, which was a publishing hangout for decades. A few years back it was updated and the pale green decor gives it a vaguely Post-Modern feel. The nouvelle cuisine is good; the wine list, which includes a number of great California vintages, is outstanding. But the real reason everyone goes to L'Escargot, where chocolate snails in green foil are served with the coffee, is because of the woman in charge. She is known to everyone as Elena, and she can remember faces she hasn't seen in years.
Dinner for two with wine at L'Escargot runs around $35-$45, but at the Brasserie downstairs it is a good deal less.
For lunch and brunch and snacks, there is the Cafe' Pelican on St. Martin's Lane or the Cafe' Express in the basement of Joseph pour la Maison on Sloane Street.
The best-looking shop in London, to my mind, Joseph sells a potpourri of modern design; the cafe', in black, white and chrome, is where the hip (and trying hard to be) gather for great salads of smoked chicken or club sandwiches. The shelves behind the bar are, tellingly, lined with military ranks of Perrier and Coca-Cola bottles.
There are at least two restaurants any serious gourmet ought to try; these are Chez Nico and l'Arlequin, both first-rate French eateries, both located -- for some obscure reason -- on the same street in a boring backwater on the unfashionable south side of the Thames. But the best new French restaurant is Rue St. Jacques on Charlotte Street.
The small, narrow room has been wittily decorated with plush banquettes, pink walls and mirrors -- which means if you catch your reflection, you look great. The service is expert but friendly and the food is magic. This is what nouvelle cuisine was meant to be: exquisite but never silly.
One night we ate a galantine of fresh eel stuffed with lobster mousseline, followed by medallions of calf sweetbreads and kidneys on a bed of spinach in a mustard sauce. At another meal, there was breast of duck with bone marrow, succulent little scallops, a beef paillard with shallots. Not to mention the salad of roast duck marinated in a Thai dressing or the fresh salmon with lime and ginger. The cheese is spectacular, by the way, the desserts run to chocolate and rum souffle's, and for those who don't want sauces or can't eat them, there are perfectly prepared sole and salmon and grilled steaks and chops. The wine list is the best edited in town and there's a table d'hote three-course lunch for around $15, including tax. A great meal here with really good wine might run around $60 for two.
Hotel eating is often off-putting, but some of the best food in London is served up at various hostelries. The Capital Hotel, which has changed its dining room from high tech to high country, serves good French food. The Berkeley, which has just foregone its Italianate modern dining room for a plusher, more romantic look, serves the best kind of English fare: sublime smoked salmon, great grills. For a light supper after the theater, you might want to try the Ritz because you get to sip your consomme' and eat your omelette in the prettiest dining room in England. But it is the Dorchester, together with the Connaught, that serve not only the best hotel food, but some of the very best food in London.
Under the supervision of Anton Mosimann, the young Swiss chef who (with the Roux brothers) has done a lot for eating in England, there is marvelous English food in the Dorchester's Grill Room. In the Terrace Room, there is Mosimann's own extraordinary brand of nouvelle cuisine. What's more, the menu now lists a sampling of the chef's brand-new cuisine naturelle -- dishes made without cream, fat, butter or alcohol and a minimum of salt and sugar. Some of them, such as the Hollandaise made of yellow peppers, are almost unbelievable.
The flamboyant Terrace Room is all gilded columns and couples celebrating on a polished dance floor. Dinner here would make a marvelous finale to a London visit. Two of us drank several glasses of champagne, we consumed all of Mosimann's "menu surprise" (six courses of whatever the chef feels like cooking that day), half a bottle of good white Burgundy and a bottle of great Boldeux. The bill, including tax and tips, came to $125.