London’s three branches of “buzzing” Barrafina can hold their own against Spain’s finest, and Barrafina Adelaide Street, on a corner site in theatreland, is no exception. Each has its own personality and style, although the no-bookings policy, marble and glass interiors, long bar and attentive, enthusiastic staff are common to all three. As ever, dishes range from the dainty (little shells of zingy, sweet scallop ceviche) to the gutsy (gorgeous, creamy milk-fed-lamb’s brains breadcrumbed and served with a punchy olive and tomato sauce) – not forgetting the Harts’ lauded tortilla laced with spicy morcilla and piquillo pepper. “There’s always something new and wonderful to try”, and two of our favourites are hits from the daily specials board – grilled John Dory lathered in a silky olive oil, garlic and parsley sauce, and Josper-grilled baby vegetables atop romesco sauce. To drink, sniff out the owners’ hand-picked sherries, or pick something suitable from the carefully sourced Spanish wine list. If you’re used to Spanish pinxtos prices, you’re in for a shock – but then again, a trip to Barrafina Adelaide Street is cheaper than a flight to Valencia.
Barrafina Adelaide Street
It might be modelled on Barcelona’s legendary tapas bar Cal Pep, but well-travelled readers reckon Barrafina Dean Street surpasses the original. The Barrafina chain is a homage to the traditional tapas bar, refracted through a very London vibe – a feeling enhanced by this handsome space (all steel, marble and mirrors) which takes up most of the ground floor of Quo Vadis. Classic croquetas, garlic prawns and grilled sardines are done to tapas perfection, deep-fried courgette flowers combine fragility with a hot spurt of grassy goats’ cheese, octopus is rendered meltingly soft and sticky from the hotplate, and Barrafina’s made-to-order tortillas, bound with barely set egg yolk, are the finest you’ll eat anywhere. To drink, an excellent choice of all-Spanish wines includes own-label Manzanilla and plenty by the glass. However, serving such “delicious and exciting” Michelin-starred food does have its downside: you need to turn up at Barrafina Dean Street before 6pm to guarantee a place at the counter, and even then you could face an hour’s wait – although it’s no hardship with a glass of rosé cava in one hand and a plate of ham croquetas in the other.
Barrafina Dean Street
Although it’s named after the Greek goddess of pleasure, first impressions of Hedone’s striking interior are of post-modern Nordic severity, with lots of bare wood, angular surfaces, a weird triptych set against exposed brickwork and a ceiling splattered with surreal sketches. The dining room has its own genteel buzz, but we’re with readers who prefer to bag a stool at the counter overlooking the open kitchen. Swedish lawyer-turned-blogger-turned-chef Mikael Jonsson has cemented his position in London’s Michelin-starred hierarchy by virtue of his boundless creativity and almost manic commitment to sourcing. He buys in limited quantities and varies Hedone’s menus incessantly (often from table to table), but the results are never less than startling. Extraordinary umami-rich creations come thick and fast, from a pairing of confit and semi-dried tomatoes with Amontillado sherry ice cream and milky-sweet almond sauce to a meaty scallop brushed with soy butter and sprinkled with nori dust or unbelievably succulent crab claws served with dollops of hazelnut mayo, crab consommé, diced Granny Smith apple and horseradish. Sweet courses such as fresh figs partnered by sharp elderflower jelly, thyme-yoghurt ice cream and crème fraîche break the mould, and matched wine pairings are spot-on too. Ambitious pricing reflects the kitchen’s ambitions, but an “amazing experience” awaits – especially if you’re served by Mikael Jonsson himself.
“Mind-blowing food, exceptional wines and perfect service” – that’s what punters can expect if they venture into this semi-secret dining space behind a leather curtain at the back of funky Bubbledogs. True to its name, Kitchen Table’s U-shaped counter fits snugly around the kitchen, where up to 20 diners can perch on stools, elbow-to-elbow with their neighbours, watching and listening to chef James Knappett’s team as they prepare (and often serve) the day’s Michelin-starred menu. Nibbles of chicken skin, bacon jam and rosemary mascarpone generally open the show, while each of the subsequent 12 courses is described by a single word on the blackboard (‘oyster’, ‘shrimp’, ‘potato’). That said, the results are bold, ultra-modern and revelatory: a dish simply entitled ‘scallop’ might see a fleshy raw bivalve in harmonious company with lightly pickled cucumber, elderflowers and a frothy elderflower kombucha (a fermented beverage). James’ partner/sommelier Sandia Chang takes care of Kitchen Table’s 100-bin wine list, which plunders the exclusive ‘grower’ Champagnes on offer at Bubbledogs next door. “A little pricey, but you really pay for what you get – namely quality”, concludes one reader.
Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs
A quick glance at the website is essential before a visit to the tiny Sushi Tetsu as the chances are it may be may be fully booked. Still, once you’ve secured a perch and made it through the door, you’ll see a handful of punters, with chef/proprietor Toru Takahashi on the other side of the counter, calmly preparing the sushi and sashimi with near forensic precision. This is a husband-and-wife outfit, with spouse Harumi completing the perfect circle that is Sushi Tetsu. Since you’ve gone to all the trouble of bagging a seat, you might consider going for the bespoke ‘omakase’ menu at 96 quid a pop: what you get depends on what the chef decides is good enough, so glistening sea urchin, turbot, snow crab, black bream, octopus and (hopefully) seared otoro fatty tuna might be on the cards, all embellished with the necessary accoutrements (wasabi, soy, mirin, seaweed and chilli). From the rice to the saké, everything is impeccable.
A Fitzrovia hit since launching in 2004, Roka’s trailblazing modern Japanese cuisine and “sophisticated atmosphere” are still a universal smash with readers. Some enjoy “chilling out”, others love its “romantic vibe”, but the expertly fashioned food is what really turns heads. Most diners are old hands at navigating a menu packed with modern-day classics (black cod in yuzu miso, wafer-thin truffled yellowtail sashimi, scallop and shiso lollipops, baby spinach in creamy sesame dressing) although clued-up staff still offer ever-changing seasonal tips – perhaps grilled cobia fish with mushrooms and truffle, or indulgent Wagyu tartare sushi rolls topped with caviar. The sleek glass-fronted room is all polished wood and industrial ceilings, with in-demand seats ringing the frantic action around the fierce robata grill (mercifully with an efficient extraction system). Prices merit either an expense account, or a very careful eye, so maybe grab a tasting menu to keep bills in check or skip the ostentatious dessert platters. Wine fits the top-end bill, but eye-opening saké and classy, shochu-based cocktails steal the show.
Roka Charlotte Street
Roka’s brand of high-gloss contemporary Japanese dining is showcased beautifully at its largest branch on Aldwych, where a stylish mix of natural stone, grey timbers and dried green oak creates a subtly sophisticated setting. Like its siblings across the capital, this outlet puts the robata grill centre stage, and many favourite items from Roka’s back catalogue are on display – from tender Korean-spiced lamb cutlets to black cod marinated in yuzu miso. There are also dazzling platters of sushi and sashimi showcasing impeccable sourcing – witness translucent slivers of yellowtail and morsels of sweet-fleshed shrimp with caviar. Elsewhere, top calls range from juicy grilled scallops with a textured wasabi topping to velvety Wagyu beef offset by pickled mushrooms. The high-end list of sakés, global wines and sexy shochu-based cocktails can also be sampled at the elegant bar, while smooth service is a hallmark throughout.
“What an experience!” shouts a fan of The Palomar – a fun-loving foodie hangout driven by funky chef Tomer Amedi’s infectious joie de vivre. The whole place feels like a house party, complete with hard drinks, kooky cocktails, loud beats, kitchen banter and “laid-back staff”. A grill-focused menu references the cuisine of modern Jerusalem, so be prepared for highly original food with a seasonal slant: we’re hooked on the ‘chicken under pressure’ with citrus, lentils and courgettes, the ‘Josperised’ octopus with chickpea msabacha, and the Persian pappardelle with artichoke, lemon and mangetout. Elsewhere, the bread is “fantastic” and the chopped liver is “sublime”, while the pick of the puds has to be ‘kiss kiss bang bang’ – a wicked confection of pomegranate ‘basbousa’ semolina cake, halva ice cream and almond palmier. You’ll need to queue for a seat at the no-bookings counter, but it’s worth it just to watch the kitchen’s livewire performances. When it’s really firing (and that’s most of the time), The Palomar is Soho at its best – and the perfect spot if you want to “impress your friends”.
“Great food, informal and fun” sums up Social Eating House, Jason Atherton’s regularly rammed Soho outpost – a noisy Michelin-starred hangout that mixes cool-dude vibes and moody lighting with cooking that bears all the chef and restaurateur’s culinary hallmarks. Chef/patron Paul Hood (previously at Atherton’s flagship, Pollen Street Social) oversees proceedings day-to-day and his seasonal menu shows a trademark commitment to native sourcing as well as a fondness for all things creative and cheffy – we’re huge fans of the mushrooms and toast, a richly flavoured, artful melee punctuated with pickled girolles, creamy cep purée and onion marmalade. In a very British twist on steak tartare, tender chunks of Buccleuch Black Angus are paired with beetroot, horseradish and egg-yolk jam, while baked Cornish hake is served with hispi cabbage gratin and textured slices of Tokyo turnip laced with saffron. Simpler pleasures range from aged native-breed steaks with triple-cooked duck-fat chips to the addictive mac ‘n’ cheese with chanterelles and luscious sundaes for afters. Social Eating House’s well-curated wine list and spot-on cocktails are further pluses, while staff are hip, happy and on point (well, most of the time).
Social Eating House
Roka’s brand of high-gloss contemporary Japanese food continues to wow the crowds on Charlotte Street and Canary Wharf, and owner Arjun Waney has now launched a further outlet – in the one-time
bank premises formerly occupied by short-lived Italian restaurant, Banca. Once again, the robata grill takes centre stage and many favourite items from Roka’s back catalogue are on show – from lamb
cutlets with Korean spices or black cod marinated in yuzu miso to soft-shell crab with roasted chilli dressing or rice hotpot with king crab and wasabi tobiko, plus a galaxy of sushi and sashimi
recast for glamorous big-city appetites. There are also a cluster of new dishes, and drinkers can enjoy the usual high-end list of sakés, global wines and sexy shochu-based cocktails.
The feel-good factor kicks in the moment guests touch the discreet door button, revealing this Kyoto-style kaiseki enclave in all its Zen-like purity – although you may be distracted by the smiley keen-as-mustard staff shouting their words of greeting. Two-Michelin-starred Umu is strictly old-school and chef Yoshinori Ishii’s attention to detail is legendary – whether he’s teaching his Cornish fishermen the Japanese ways, organising supplies of organic wasabi or fashioning handcrafted tableware for the restaurant. He’s responsible for every aspect of the food and leaves himself no room for error. Not surprisingly, the results are extraordinary: featherlight kombu-cured mullet with chrysanthemum and sudachi; gloriously limpid ‘nimonowan’ soup delicately garnished with autumn ‘leaves’ made from chanterelles and carrots; omakase fish platters with an astonishing variety of textures and flavours. Make it through to dessert for a construct of fig, sesame, chocolate and sesame that appears to defy the laws of physics, before coffee with hybrid Euro-Japanese petits fours. Wines are worthy of the food, but adventurous cocktails and saké seem more appropriate. Dining at Umu is an unforgettable experience, and (for those picking up the tab) so is the bill.
Located in a strange, transient part of Pimlico, Chinese big-hitter A Wong is an eye-opener for those used to provincial versions of the genre. Done out with blonde bentwood chairs and tables, it looks more Ikea café than Asian destination, and there’s plenty of bustle too. That said, there’s expertise and precision in the kitchen, along with a menu of regional specialities that begs to be explored. Dim sum rule at lunchtime; some items such as Chinese chive pot stickers are reasonably familiar, but we’re sold on the more esoteric stuff – both the rabbit and carrot glutinous puffs and the steamed-rice rolls stuffed with gai lan and poached yolk deserve to be tried. In the evening, you could settle for gong bau chicken with peanuts and Szechuan aubergine, although Cantonese honey-roast pork with wind-dried sausage and grated foie gras or Yunnan wild mushroom, truffle and red date casserole are hard to ignore. Tables turn quickly and there’s occasionally space at the kitchen bar.
The converted Victorian warehouse that houses Angela Hartnett’s Merchants Tavern used to be trailblazing Cantaloupe back in the 1990s. Some of the diners occupying its curvy leather booths might well recall those days, though they’re grown-ups now, schmoozing clients and drinking better wine. The kitchen's “solid combos” appeal to the assembled company: credible rather than cool, their classical foundations are leavened with contemporary touches and true seasonal flavours.
Some dishes, such as the “dynamite” deep-fried oysters with chilli and ginger or quail with hazelnut pesto and foie gras live up to their promise, while others verge on the “polite”: our sea bream with heritage carrots and preserved lemon was one such creation, although a brown-bread parfait with kirsch-laced cherries was impeccable. For an even more relaxed vibe, eat at the kitchen counter or hit the bar for sausage rolls and cool cocktails. “These guys are good”, affirms one reader.
Like its neighbour The Ivy, this hotspot hides its interior from the gaze of casual passers-by, so there's a delicious sense of anticipation as you arrive. To begin, sip a chic aperitif in the bijou bar with its secluded rooftop terrace. Located on the first floor, the restaurant is the largest space (good for groups or business lunches), but we think the ground floor holds most appeal, with its shiny red stools and open kitchen dramatically framed by sleek black decor. Meticulously choreographed chefs can be seen preparing intricate multi-layered plates notable for their complex flavours and textures: a silky poached egg coated in crisp rice batter topped with caviar; juicy tiger prawn spun in vermicelli and laced with exotic lime and sumac; velvety hot foie gras with a ‘rolled heart’ of tangy green apple and hibiscus juice. Service never disappoints, and satisfied customers rightly deem the whole experience “excellent”.
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
This “marvellous” Basque kitchen has always served the food and drink of San Sebastián and its environs against a backdrop of purest white, with touches of grained wood and marble – although it’s now reaping the benefit of a 2016 refurb. The food doesn’t need much flattery, even if the act of pouring natural Basque cider from great heights does add a certain ceremony to the experience. Excellent charcuterie dominates the selection of cold plates, while pintxos could be foie gras with walnuts and PX vinegar, jamón croquetas or tempura prawns with ham and mango. Bigger tapas dishes give meat and fish a starring role, as in Ibérico pork shoulder with romesco sauce, crispy-fried cod cheeks with squid-ink aïoli or marinated quail with spinach, pancetta and truffle oil. There are classic extras including blistered Padrón peppers and masterfully made tortilla too. Donostia’s owners started out in the wine import trade, and there’s quality in every glass.
Fifteen years on and London is still deeply in love with world-class Zuma: “fabulous” says one fan, “can’t beat it” exclaims another avid supporter. And the waves of adoration stretch far beyond the capital itself: this high-gloss, big-money rendezvous draws in a global cast of A-listers and jetsetters, all attracted by the age-defying industrial-Zen interiors and the sleek designer mix of rough-hewn wood, polished granite and shiny steel. Tables are predictably hard to come by, but we prefer chancing our arm with the no-bookings ringside seats by the kitchen. Kick off with a trend-setting cocktail (perhaps Wild Yasei, a macho yet graceful blend of rye bourbon and wild-cherry tea syrup), and expect to pay top dollar for the food. In return you’ll be offered some of the finest Japanese cuisine in the capital: sliced seared tuna with chilli, daikon and ponzu; warm aubergine in sweet miso (an umami-laden masterpiece); robata-grilled jumbo tiger prawns with yuzu pepper; marinated baby chicken roasted on cedar wood, and – of course – the much-imitated, but never-bettered black cod. Service is flawless, and for the final flourish, we suggest asking the dedicated saké sommelier for a tour of his exquisite list. In a word, awesome.
The fervour that surrounded André Balazs’ Marylebone hotspot has died down and you no longer need to be famous to secure a table, but Chiltern Firehouse still delivers in spades. Readers praise the outdoor-themed interiors as well as the high-decibel “party vibe”, and we’ve also been impressed by the all-inclusive attitude of the staff, who happily laugh and chat with diners. Meanwhile, in the open kitchen, chef Nuno Mendes and his team send out plenty of likeable big-time successes. Snacks such as bacon cornbread and the famous coral-dusted crab doughnut kick things off nicely, but there are other highlights too: char-grilled Ibérico pork comes with the unexpected additions of grilled peaches and red pepper kimchi, while a side of mac ‘n’ cheese is given a fiery kick with jalapeño peppers. Early risers pack in for breakfast (potted eggs with caramelised onions and curried potatoes), freelancers take advantage of the indulgent lunchtime offers (crab and lobster omelette, say), and we’d also recommend Chiltern Firehouse for a pre/post-meal trip to the botanically themed bar for cheekily named cocktails. Be warned – the bill (with impressive wines included) may have you reaching for the fire alarm.
There’s something very noughties about a star-spangled foreign chef opening a black-and-red basement dining room in Mayfair and charging top dollar for cooking influenced by street markets. With a booming house soundtrack, a no-bookings neon counter (recommended) and a theatrical open kitchen to gawp at, this is event dining with a vengeance, although plenty of chef David Muñoz’s dishes certainly merit the hype.
His signature Pekinese dumplings – filled with pig’s ear and presented on greaseproof paper splattered with strawberry hoisin sauce like a crime scene – offers an intriguing combo of sweetness and savoury crunch, while tandoori-grilled pigeon is a sublime take on a classic game dish, completed by miniature papadum’s topped with sticky tamarind chutney.
Sometimes, Street XO’s penchant for spectacle becomes rather jarring, with (delicious) cocktails served in plastic eggs and outlandishly large wine glasses rendered almost impossible to drink from, while the menu’s fondness for daft names and exclamation marks can become tiring. Despite this, we weren’t surprised that the place was packed on our mid-week visit, as there’s clearly a market for this brand of fast-paced, zany dining. There are many ways we could describe a meal at StreetXO, but boring certainly isn’t one of them.