I’ve just been in London for a busy round of meetings and interviews to publicise my TV series Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook, which has just launched on UKTV’s Good Food Channel. And while I there I was grandly wined and dined in that great foodie city. I left home with a list of must-visit restaurants as long as my arm – every time I mentioned to someone that I was heading to London they added another name to the list, and over my week there every foodie I met regaled me with yet another must-visit dining spot. There weren’t enough lunches and dinners in the day for me to get through them all but I did my best!
There’s a big trend in London for small plates – lots of little dishes that you can share amongst everyone at the table. This allows you to indulge new taste sensations in a way that a single main course just can’t deliver on. Restaurants that specialise in this kind of eating tend to stick to a certain regional cuisine so you can choose a range of dishes and not feel your palate is jumping all over the globe. It’s a very satisfying way of eating.
Described as the mouth of Italy in the heart of Soho, Bocca di Lupo is the hottest Italian eating spot in London right now. The menu and wine list are in the world's smallest font, which conveys the sense that it’s targeting a hip young crowd, and so it is. It’s buzzy and fun with a great Italian wine list and slick Italianesque service. The menu is coded by region: I was wowed by the fried duck egg with golden polenta and gorgonzola sauce, the fried soft-shell crab with blood orange and lamb's lettuce salad, the monkfish cheeks with gremolata, the roast suckling pig with grapes and the Cime di rapa with garlic and chilli.
Just across the road in Charlotte St, Mennula isn’t a tapas-style offering but it is my favourite Sicilian restaurant. The atmosphere is intimate, the service excellent and the food sublime – elegant and yet packed with flavour, contemporary but with a Sicilian influence. Each time I go it just seems to get better!
For Spanish-style tapas, the more established Fino Restaurant at 33 Charlotte St, is famous for its order-ahead suckling pig but also offers a stunning lineup of elegant yet simple tapas plates including pan con tomate, grilled sardines, fried Padron peppers, octopus with capers (the most tender ever), bunuelos de bacalao, a range of egg tortillas cooked as only the Spanish can with a thick crust (perfectly tender paper-thin slices of potatoes and onions and a runny centre) and a superb baby gem salad (quarters of crisp gem lettuce with a parsley, shallot and sherry vinegar dressing topped with anchovies and crispy pancetta). Plus there’s a fantastic wine and sherry list. We had a fabulous long lunch here, eating our way through the menu.
Across town in Notting Hill, E&O offers a terrific selection of pan-Asian small plates. It’s just down the road from Books For Cooks (a sure fix for any cookbook lover) at 14 Blenheim Cres, Notting Hill. Here we enjoyed grilled aubergine with miso sauce, a fantastic dish of layered tofu with po choi, pork belly with black vinegar, honey roast pumpkin in a coconut sauce, and fried soft shell crabs with jalepeno.
Places we did not get to this time that local foodies were raving about include:
Dishoom (modern Indian, Covent Garden)
Vanilla Black (vegetarian, Chancery Lane)
Scandinavian Kitchen (Scandinavian food, great for lunch, Oxford St)
Akari (some of London's best sushi, Angel)
Wahaca (Mexican, Trafalgar Square)
North Road (Nordic, St John St)
It’s an exciting time to be launching Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook in the UK. There seems to be a huge appetite there for the kind of fresh, simple cooking I champion in the series, as well as an insatiable thirst for information about New Zealand as a gourmet paradise and adventure travel destination. I’ve just heard from UKTV that it’s rating way beyond their expectations, so that’s exciting news!