Eat Your Way Through London’s Thrilling Food Scene
Meet the culinary masters transforming London into one of the most exciting food towns in the world.
Photographs by Marcus Nilsson
WHEN I LIVED IN LONDON FOR A YEAR IN COLLEGE, food was a pretty abstruse interest, relegated to the sorts of people who, say, spent their Saturdays at the British Museum library getting boxes of original Whistler etchings delivered straight to their seats. I was one of those people. The London food scene was limited then. There were a few outdoor food markets on the Portobello Road. There were rare and bargain off-brand wines to find; London has ever been a wine-mad city. But anything much beyond that was left to pretentious hobbyists. Exotic food meant wind-dried duck at Poons, a cult restaurant in Soho’s tiny Chinatown, or lamb biryani at one of the cheap and cheerful Indian restaurants by every Tube stop. Sophisticated dining was straight-up French bistro food at Langan’s Brasserie or oysters at Bibendum.
In some ways, surprisingly little has changed since then. Langan’s Brasserie still sports its colorful neon sign, and Bibendum, after a several-year freshening, recently reopened. The pub is still sacrosanct — and, like the Tube, one of the few places where classes mix.
But London is also a more diverse and creative food destination than it’s ever been, as I learned on a recent six-day eating trip. A new group of young chefs (some of whom even call themselves the Young Turks) with a competitive spirit — they are both supportive of each other and hyper-aware of who’s succeeding and who’s moving where — makes eating in London now exciting in a way it’s never been before.
START WITH 40 MALTBY STREET, a combination wineshop and restaurant that has become an open secret among young London food lovers for its cheery, unpretentious setting and immaculate British food. Although open just a few years, 40 Maltby Street has an illustrious parentage. It was started by Raef Hodgson, whose mother, Anita Le Roy, founded Monmouth Coffee, a pioneer importer of single-origin coffees that has influenced other sellers like Chimney Fire Coffee. (More on Chimney Fire later.) His father is Randolph Hodgson, whose Neal’s Yard Dairy has influenced several generations of UK cheesemakers and cheesemongers.
At 40 Maltby, pretty much everything is right, and every London chef swears by it. The chefs also know that to nab one of the very few seats for Friday or Saturday lunch, they need to ford the crowds at the Maltby Street food market and arrive when the restaurant opens (12:30 p.m. on Fridays, 11 a.m. on Saturdays). Their rewards are foods like chef Stephen Williams’s smoked Yorkshire ham, sliced and served at room temperature — a dish to rival any parsley-coated jambon de paysanne and as wonderfully straightforward as the meringues with poached rhubarb.
Another forceful presence on the contemporary London food scene is Yotam Ottolenghi, the author of the international blockbuster cookbooks Jerusalem and Plenty. He masterminds the kind of carryout food you dream of being able to take home a couple of times a week, familiar flavors sufficiently spiced by the exotic (sumac, tamarind paste, nigella seeds, pomegranate molasses) to be new and alluring. His four delis, with tiered trays of jewel-toned Mediterranean-spiced salads and couscous and stews, are strategically located in well-heeled residential neighborhoods and are worth planning a stay around.
Ottolenghi’s restaurant Nopi in Soho serves what might be the freshest and most exciting food to be had downtown: It’s an extension of his cookbooks and delis, including what the lanky and handsome Ottolenghi, ordering for guests, will call “really good chicken, okay?” Said chicken has been marinated for three days in a complex rub of Chinese herbs and a master stock and has a deep mahogany color and a matching dark intensity of flavor. (Says Ottolenghi: “My friends always wonder what I am doing ordering them chicken.”) You’re also likely to leave vowing to make a red pepper and chile spread that is creamy with whipped unsalted feta — one of those tossed-off dishes you turn into a household staple.
Ottolenghi masterminds the kind of carryout food you dream of being able to take home a couple of times a week.
YOU WOULD EXPECT THE CENTER OF YOUNG CHEF ENERGIES to be where hipsters gather, drink coffee as well as wine, and work in technology start-ups. The northeast London neighborhood of Shoreditch checks all those boxes. For a snapshot, walk at any hour into the Hoxton, a hotel, café, and club full of laptops and style and attitude. Or look for the Tea Building, full of tech and fashion and branding businesses — and Lyle’s, a cult restaurant favored for its clean approach to English-Continental food, where James Lowe, a founding member of the Young Turks, has created an essential lunchtime gathering spot for the young execs in the glass-fronted start-ups with their carefully partitioned play spaces. It’s just down the street from the Clove Club, a loud, spare space in the former Shoreditch Town Hall, where Young Turk Isaac McHale won a Michelin star; like Lyle’s, the spirit is “Copenhagen Noma” cool, with an emphasis on local and wild ingredients.
The Young Turks, like all London chefs for the past 20 years, were imprinted by Fergus Henderson, who reintroduced nose-to-tail cooking to Great Britain and whose influence is still felt in the whole gastropub movement. His spirit prevails at an offshoot, St. John Bread and Wine, where you should have a glass of claret and a meaty starter, and then give into the restaurant’s British-themed desserts, or “puddings,” like their madeleines, little lemon-scented shell-shaped pound cakes fresh from the oven.
The Shoreditch restaurant that most won my heart is a short walk but a world away from the hip Tea Building. Rochelle Canteen is best at lunch, and it’s really simple, with communal white laminate tables that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a studio or a primary school. In fact, the appealingly domestic-scale Dutch-style brick building was originally a school, and the small restaurant was once a bicycle shed. Rochelle was started by Fergus Henderson’s wife, Margot, who with Melanie Arnold still supervises the restaurant and affiliated catering business from an office in the complex. Raised vegetable beds in the courtyard grow cress and cabbage; white French garden chairs are covered in floral prints in hot reds and gay colors that cheer you however cold the weather; and the grass in the courtyard stays emerald. It’s an enchanting scene.
At Rochelle Canteen, where the communal white tables wouldn’t be out of place in a studio or a school, everything is cooked to taste of itself.
What I like most about Rochelle is that the menu makes instant intuitive sense, and you know that everything will be cooked to taste of itself. Here the turbot is roasted till the flesh is tender and translucent at the bone, with a wakeningly fresh jade-green herb sauce.
Equally enchanting is Leila’s Shop, across the way, where you’ll be directed upon arrival at Rochelle should you need a bottle of wine with dinner. As at so many of the wineshops in London, Leila’s selection is marvelous, but its food — like the imported honey in the comb, jamón, tuna, and Neapolitan pasta — is what you may linger over, not to mention the cakes served at its adjoining café. Leila McAlister has created a perfect space, with one tall, narrow bookcase filled with the best writing on food done anywhere. It’s a place to write a novel. If Rochelle Canteen and Leila’s Shop had existed when I was a student, they would have started charging me rent.
NOT ALL THE FUN IS IN SHOREDITCH. Dandy, which started life in shipping containers in London Fields, has newly relocated to a stylish space in Newington Green. It’s the product of two thirtyish Australian pals named Dan Wilson and Andy Leitch. (“Dandy,” get it?) The white-cinder-block-and-blond-wood restaurant offers a small but sensational selection of “natural” (unfiltered and unsulphured) wines. Wilson, trained as a sourdough-bread baker, played traveling caterer to help finance the venture, to which he has brought all the pied-piper charisma I saw him use at Whisker Jack’s, a brunch restaurant he ran every Sunday from his shared student apartment when he studied (and I taught) at Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, south of Turin, Italy. His homemade pop-up brought together groups that seldom mixed but should have, on days when everyone needed a place to gather — and happily did — over food, like chocolate-hazelnut waffles, that was simple, nostalgic, and satisfying.
Dandy does the same thing on a more polished scale. Leitch, who was a friend of Wilson’s brother in Brisbane, Australia, has a friendly-panther sleekness, with his slicked yellow-blond hair and horn rims that belie the master’s degree he earned in publishing. The strawberry-blond Wilson has an ebullient, constantly energetic warmth; he makes friends of everyone who comes for a glass of wine and stays for supper. One afternoon, I was watching him stir polenta he’d found in Italy (like many of his ingredients) for cod he would serve with candied kumquat and big browned kernels of corn, when he dropped his wooden spoon and erupted in a yelp of joy as a friend walked in. The small menu, not posted online, is food Wilson says he wants to eat and reflects his upbringing and time abroad. An irresistible starter is burrata flown in from Puglia napped with bagna càuda, the warm and silken anchovy-garlic sauce everyone in Piedmont dips raw vegetables in. Wilson sprinkles toasted pumpkin and coriander seeds over the glowing white ball of mozzarella and thickens the sauce with a secret ingredient: pistachio paste from Sicily. Toast for sautéed mushrooms comes from big thick loaves of sourdough from the no-yeast sourdough Danish bakery across the road. Breakfasts become an all-day affair: There are stacks of egg crates beside the stove one Friday evening in preparation for the morning deluge, though Wilson says the neighborhood has embraced dal and Indian-style yogurt bread with an enthusiasm he would never have expected. Partly for the original but comforting breakfasts, the influential Observer Food Monthly named Dandy among the 50 best London restaurants straight out of the gate.
I loved being at Dandy and feeling part of a self-elected club. But what I loved even more was trying to find it, having come down the stairs from the Overground rail, a Tube alternative, and walking through the lush park it borders (under a railway arch, like everything cool in London) and stopping to ask a young man and his date for directions. “Oh, yes, it’s a lovely place for a glass of wine,” he said, reminding his girlfriend they’d been there the week before. It was clear from his accent that he would never dream of trying to look cool in Shoreditch. He was the pub-going sort and had been won over by Dandy’s come-on-in spirit.
Shipping containers, like railroad arches, are the hallmarks of young people with more dreams than money, and they were key to another success: Kricket, an Indian-British restaurant launched by two young Brits, one who’d worked in corporate finance and one who’d spent two years cooking as a chef in Mumbai. Their converted container grew so crowded that they expanded into a two-story, impressively designed restaurant in Soho close by Nopi. Their food feels personal, fresh, and spirited, unlike the chain most Indian-food connoisseurs will direct you to — Dishoom, with its serviceable Indian food that somehow causes young people to stand in the cold for hours to get a spot. The crowd at the Soho Kricket is as vibrant as the food. Angle for a seat at the white counter, where you can watch naan being rolled out and baked. And don’t miss the grilled sweet potato with gunpowder spice and black garlic, the flesh gooey-soft and the roasted skin blackened, and a yogurt-hazelnut blanket that’s much better than Thanksgiving marshmallow and just as satisfying.
NOTHING WAS MORE HOMEMADE, or inviting, as the Airbnb experience we booked at Chimney Fire Coffee in Kingston-upon-Thames, a green residential area a 30-minute Uber ride from central London. Dan Webber spent five years tracking coffee beans from origin to export, living first in Ghana, then taking frequent trips to coffee-origins countries such as Kenya, Peru, and Ethiopia. He settled in Kingston, married, and had his carpenter neighbor build a tiny coffee- roasting cabin behind his tiny house. There Webber gives seminars in tasting and roasting, having guests taste four flights of coffee and showing them the proper method of raking spoons across the top of a small cup of just-ground beans and hot water, first smelling and then slurping. He gives good information and serves very good coffee: for example, a delicately flavored Peruvian and a clean-as-a-whistle Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.
Petersham is Instagram heaven with its completely fresh food in an elegantly rustic environment.
Nearby Richmond also offers an excursion to the most English experience we had: Petersham Nurseries, a labor of love by a well-heeled family who believes in organic methods and sustainability and also beautiful design. They’ve converted two large, long greenhouses into restaurants, one with table service and one, the place to go, where you sit with wooden trays that you carry out from the tearoom. The chicken pie and rhubarb cake are exactly what you hope completely fresh English food will be. The cyclamen everywhere and elegantly rustic environment enchanted the Los Angeles friend I brought, who lives on Instagram and felt she’d entered a magic kingdom. I couldn’t get her to leave. It came as no surprise that Dan Wilson first worked at Petersham when he arrived from Slow Food U. Its careful but unpretentious harmony with nature and awareness of how food should be grown is what he, Dan Webber at Chimney Fire Coffee, and a new generation of London chefs are bringing to life in a city joyously learning to eat.
About the author: Food writer and Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer is the winner of five James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards.