August 2, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable
True Brit

It’s not horribilis just for the queen. The trauma seems contagious. The British soccer team has lost to the Americans. Upper-crusty Hampstead has lost to McDonald’s, an invasion of the burger snatchers. Even with promotional discounts, London feels expensive -- but in fact, the pound is creaky: down to about $1.55, a good excuse to visit. Our Brit cousins need cheer.

Yes, it’s true that eating here is better than ever. Classically staid Londoners have learned to love brunch, Italian, Japanese, Szechuan, Creole, and Tex-Mex. New Yorkers will recognize all the symptoms -- glitzy brasseries devoted to relaxed chic, celebrity chefs, the cross-cultural creep of Mediterraneanisms (Parmesan, balsamic vinegar, and focaccia know no boundaries), glorious bread everywhere, lentils and beans and dandelion greens. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the latest California fad got faxed in overnight.

If a giant spaceship landed off Piccadily and little green Martians in polka-dotted neckties began dispensing peppered foie gras and pigeon with broad beans, all of London would not be more atwitter than it is over Quaglino’s. “You must go. Don’t even try to book -- just stop by for a drink and see it,” a journalist friend advises. “The food’s not that good, anyway.” And the veddy social Fiona, a chum whose jet stream crosses mine from time to time, warns, “They bus them in, dear. Tourists. Thousands at a time. Awful food. Go anyway.”

So we don’t even attempt to book. We simply stop by after a morning of flea-market scavenging just in time for the 2:30 lull. Nothing can quite prepare you for the first shock of slick and flash. On the balcony, a titillating dessert display and the bar -- antipasti till midnight, dancing Fridays and Saturdays till 3 A.M. From the top of the stairs, it looks as if someone has pealed back the deck of the QE2 and there it is, an entire ship exposed with smart brass fittings; giant Q’s everywhere; fat columns, each painted by a different artist (homage to La Coupole); and a soaring fake skylight with hidden lights mimicking day, then dimming to twilight, and on into night.

It’s an airplane hangar in a cellar, for Heaven’s sake, boldly, brilliantly dressed for $3.75 million -- an amazing burst of exuberance in a somber economy from designmonger Sir Terence Conran, knighted, then benighted when his $1.95-billion retailing empire soured and his Butlers Wharf dream went into receivership. Now that mythic workaholic drive and perfectionism has focused on feeding.

We descend the staircase made for Ginger Rogers and Ziegfeld entrances behind a costumed cigarette girl (did she wander in from Joe Baum’s Rainbow Room?). Men and women of affairs linger over lunch. Cigar smoke plumes straight up in high-tech obedience. A chap in a striped sailor’s middy shucks oysters from the vast heaps of shellfish on ice at the “Crustacea Altar” in the prow of the ship. We settle into black metal chairs (“seat inspired by Betty Grable’s bottom”) with whimsical colored tassels, attended by stewards in dark suits and polka-dotted cravats.

Fresh from the spare cuisinary thrills of Ireland and with no expectations at all, we are shocked to find Quag’s food not just good but really good, even splendid, as in the crab dressed with sweet sake and soy on a crunch of seaweed, rigorously fresh mussels with vegetable julienne steamed in a pesto-enriched broth, and a pasta e fagioli gentrified beyond recognition with peas, cubes of carrot, and snips of basil rushed from a garden, streamers of pappardelle, and shards of Parmesan -- delicious.

From the prudently tailored seasonal menu, (let’s face it, friends, the turnover in these 400 Betty Grabled seats adds up to 1,000 mouths a day), we are wowed by fragrant spiced lamb with roast onions on black-bean purée with sweet peppers and an edge of olive oil, crusty roast cod (a shade too cooked, but we didn’t specify a preference) with a mash of artichoke and potato (entrées $12.75 to $23.25 at both lunch and dinner). Is this impressive lunch a quirk? Or are my friends cranky assassins? Do Brits just need to savage pop success? I’m afraid it’s a universal pathology.

So what if Quaglino’s is a tad commercial, with its own champagne for sale in the tiny shop (along with chocolates, espresso, toffee, balsamic vinegar, and the Q-shaped ashtray). The Sauternes custard with prunes is gossamer, though I suspect you have to grow up English to appreciate leaden Parkin pudding.

If you haven’t got a concierge with pull or a cousin in Parliament and it’s impossible to infiltrate Quaglino’s at prime time, try late supper, or loiter in the bar till the second turn at lunch.

Quaglino’s, 16 Bury Street, St. James’s, London SW1Y 6AL

***

The man is insatiable. Quaglino’s is just the latest bite. Terence Conran’s equally ambitious feeding complex Le Pont de la Tour rises in triumph from the economy-dashed dreams of his Butlers Wharf development on the Thames. It’s definitely worth the long detour, and even the indignities of an overaggressive captain, to linger on the riverfront terrace embraced by history -- the Tower Bridge of London across the way.

This is not merely a high-priced fueling stop ($150 or so for two, $37.50 prix-fixe lunch, $30 pre- and post-theater menu). With typical Conran exuberance, it stretches from the oyster bar with its custom-order shucker to the less-expensive grill (about $65 for two) to a delicatessen-market and bakery, a wine merchant, and the shellfish- and-smoked-fish shop, just steps from the bridge itself.

The setting is pale (with ivory linen-cushioned chairs cribbed from those designed for the second-class dining room of the Normandie), all the better to show off the open kitchens and a stained-glass emblem of the Michelin man (reminder that Sir Terence earned his bona fides as a serious restaurateur at Bibendum, in the old Michelin fortress). So why am I cranky? It’s the captain’s officious bustle -- his forced smile and wandering eyes as he pretends not to ignore us, his sneer when I ask for ice water. And the vegetable scam. “Would you like a vegetable or salad?” he asks an innocent guest. “Spinach, carrots, haricots verts?”

“May I have a little taste of all three?” she asks.

Meanwhile, I’m ordering aubergine provençale and pommes dauphinoise. “For yourself, Madame?” he asks. Witless, I respond, “Everyone will want to taste.”

Soon we are surrounded by a moat of veggies -- including $22.50 worth of eggplant. It’s my first confrontation with the ungarnished entrée -- I’m not nuts about it in New York steakhouses, either, but that’s the tradition. I could be a sore loser and complain how naked six $4.50 slices of venison look lined up in the center of a plate with an excess of sauce, but I won’t -- the venison is first-rate. Rare calf’s liver in caramelized chunks with onions is the best I’ve tasted in eons, and braised lamb shank with rosemary mashed potatoes is fine. Only the pot-roasted duck with broad beans and asparagus fails to thrill.

Best of the starters are the special of spectacular spiced herring with tabbouleh, fragrant shellfish bisque, and crab cakes with lentils and cilantro. The scallops in squid-ink risotto are overcooked; the grilled polenta is unremarkable.

Needless to say, no one bothers to advise that it’s a twenty-minute wait for the apricot-and-Amaretto clafouti -- too many prosperous burgers and demanding Brit-yups to fuss over. But a luscious chocolate-hazelnut tart with praline anglaise, stewed rhubarb with ice cream, and a sublime poached-pear feuilleté are consolation.

 

Le Pont de la Tour, 36D Shad Thames. Butlers Wharf, London SE1 2YE 

***

            “How about some real food?” says the Road Food Warrior. “What about some fish and chips?” So we’re off to the Sea-Shell in Marylebone. At another time, I’d love the scrubbed-up, bourgeois air of the dark-green dining room with its bustling waitresses. But we’ve just come from a classic English breakfast, and we want the afternoon to explore the Victoria and Albert Museum before tea. Tote-away saves the day.

            Deep-fried fish is what’s best here, anyway, and that’s what the Sea-Shell sells in the adjacent fast-food stall -- cod or haddock, huge slabs battered and sweetly fried, tartar sauce on the side. And giant fries -- surely one is enough, I think, as we share the ever-so-slightly greasy, wildly delicious grub on a nearby stoop. Till suddenly there is no more, and we’re fortified on the cheap to brave the underground.

Sea-Shell Fish Restaurant and Take Away, 49-51 Lisson Grove, Marylebone, London.

***

            What timing. Just as we discover that our four feet can no longer drag two bodies another step, it’s 4:30. Time for tea. Don’t call it high tea, luv -- high tea means low tea in the perverse way of our British cousins. We just want sumptuous tea. We could drop by a tearoom -- the Richoux in Knightsbridge, perhaps -- or line up outside the Georgian Restaurant at Harrods or hope to see the new Lanesborough Hotel, with all its neoclassical flourishes, rising out of the old St. George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner.

If we had $750 or so, we’d take a suite and bask in luxury -- a Rolls waiting at the airport, a butler to unpack, our favorite tipple in the decanter. But for $40, we can have tea for two brewed from water boiled in silver samovars and OD on sweets and clotted cream in the fanciful Brighton Pavillion-inspired Conservatory, with its arching palms and giant urns, romantic crannies, silly tasseled lanterns, and tinkling show tunes on the piano.

            What shall we drink? Smoky Lapsang souchong from Fukien? Lychee or Rose Congou “flavored with petals from hybrid tea roses”? Darjeeling “grown in the silver mists of the Himalayan foothills”? I must have Earl Grey’s Blue Flower, the emperor’s own tea “scented with oil of bergamot and blue flowers.” Tastes like tea to me. And the goodies on all three shelves of a tiered silver server are amusing if not downright tempting -- little crustless sandwiches (egg, salmon, cucumber), nut bread and pound cake, all sorts of tarts and cakes (passion fruit, lemon meringue), scones and buttered crumpets…but of course. We could have refills till we float right out the door, but somehow we’ve got to get ourselves into shape for dinner.

The Lanesborough Conservatory, 1 Lanesborough Place, Hyde Park Corner, London SW1 7TA

***

            It was Daphne’s before, raffish and bohemian until it ran out of esteem. Now only the name is the same. Bought by a handsome Scandinavian with a stylish following, it has a glow from rose brick and terra-cotta walls with small dabs of gold, and a glass-ceilinged garden room. The moment it reopened, it was an instant imperative.

            Just 24, the chef has so many prestigious credentials on his résumé, you wonder if he ever stayed anywhere past lunch, and his mostly Italianate cooking will make you feel as if you never left New York. That’s okay -- don’t love beans and polenta? This bruschetta with saffroned clams and mussels from the seasonally changing menu is wonderful, as are the intense wild mushrooms on polenta, and prawns with cannellini beans and rucola (arugula). Foie gras with Jerusalem-artichoke-and-potato galette, grilled goat cheese with aubergine, peppers, and trevisse lettuce…not bad at all, though the lobster ravioli is tough, stingy with the lobster, and overwhelmed by a too powerful tomato sauce. That flub is balanced by fine mushroom risotto, herb-crusted rack of lamb, and a wondrous perfection of seafood fritto misto (entrées $6.75 to $17.25 at lunch, to $21 at dinner). Except for the undressed créme brûlée (no crackle), there are no surprises on the dessert list -- a pleasant almond-and-plum tart, a flat disk of apple tart, sorbets with those deep-fried twists of dough they sell at the San Gennaro festival and Mamma Leone’s.

Daphne’s 112 Draycott Avenue, South Kensington, London SW3 3AE

***

            The Ivy has drawn off a measure of the crème de la crème from its ancestral root, Le Caprice, for years the choice hobnobbery of tout London. That’s left a breach for voyeurs and lesser tagalongs, my informants report, at Le Caprice. Still, after pulling a tangle of strings, all we can score is a spot for two at the bar. So (in cahoots with Sally Burton, looking remarkably sleek and glamorous) we opt instead for a prime perch at the Ivy, the likely after-theater hangout of Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Richard Harris, and (during Spider Woman’s warm up) Chita Rivera. Stained glass, bare wood floors, hunter-green leather banquettes, and cramped tables under a low-slung ceiling create a publike feel, and our waiter affect an air of ennui --well, it is Sunday, show folks’ night to stay home. So disappointing.

            But surprise…the food is mostly good. No show-off shocks, no high-wire somersaults --this menu is designed to comfort and soothe with nursery favorites, Grandma’s cooking, scrambled eggs all day, and an unchallenging sprinkle of newfangled notions. The perfect after-theater supper might be a couple of appetizers -- grilled sardines on black-olive toast, Caesar salad (made with iceberg lettuce, the menu boasts), steak tartare, or Cornish crab, perhaps focaccia or anchovy, avocado, and Parmesan for the jaded. A pastry galette of tomato and basil is a bit soggy. Crisp battered prawns are confetti’d with deep-fried parsley, and tonight’s crostini of lamb’s brains and sweetbreads has a lush voluptuousness.

            Exquisitely roasted scallops, red mullet, and a lentil-and-herb salsa arrive in an excess of oil, and a too sharp vinaigrette mars the tomato-and-basil salad served as a finale with Explorateur cheese. Go with the familiar: grilled fish, poussin with corn fritter, sausages with mashed potatoes, roast beef, or the Ivy mixed grill (entrées at lunch and dinner from $10 for a hamburger to $27.75 for Dover sole -- about $100 or more for two, everything included; bargain $21 prix fixe lunch on Saturdays and Sundays).

            Savories like Scotch woodcock and Welsh rabbit are listed beside desserts: port-and-damson-plum trifle, sticky toffee pudding, even tirami su (is there nothing we can do to stem the ooze?). Cappuccino brûlée and honey-roasted figs with rum-raisin ice cream are just the ticket.

The Ivy, 1 West Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9NE

***

            Chef Marco Pierre White thrilled gourmands by snaring one Michelin star at Harveys in Wandsworth his first year. The Canteen, with its gentler pricing, is his partnership with actor Michael Caine in Chelsea Harbor -- a leisure-and-apartment complex where the penthouse supposedly sold for $21 million. When savvy gadabouts aren’t busy singing hymns to the house’s squid-ink risotto, they are embroidering White’s legend as a Don Juan: how he left his model wife of just fifteen weeks after falling for the Canteen’s head waitress, who’s expecting his baby in December.

            “There he is, the most famous chef in England,” cries Fiona, waving to a very tall hunk with shoulder-length curls walking the dock below our window. I wonder if he cares that our risotto’s a listless sog tonight. Still, most everything else from the kitchen (run by chefs Stephen Terry and Tim Hughes) impresses, serious food at what  London considers gentle prices: lunch and dinner entrées $13.50 to $18 (lobster $23.25), about $120 or more for two, all included.

A rich stew of macaroni and oysters in cream, exquisitely rare salmon in terrine on a gazpacho sauce, and saffroned fish soup precede halibut on artichoke with a sublime twirl of buttery noodles, grilled tuna with a raw tomato sauce and pommes boulangère, and rabbit ribboned in bacon with tiny spring peas. There’s first-rate lemon tart and lush tarte Tatin for two, but too much sugar in the rhubarb crumble. And many servers seem anxious and unsure, as if they have been thrown on the floor without a clue. Almost makes me long for Manhattan’s cocky actors who can’t help butting into your conversation but fake the waiting game so well.

The Canteen, Unit 4G, Chelsea Harbor, London SW10 OXD

***

            Lunch and dinner feed the mind, so the good traveler wants to experiment. But breakfast feeds the soul. That’s why Japanese in New York want pickled fish and green tea. That’s why we must entrust our Sunday-morning hunger to Christopher’s, “The American Grill,” an after-theater haunt for the Covent Garden crowd. Blue-blooded Christopher Gilmour fell in love with New World fodder while working as a commodities broker in Chicago, and pulled together the backing for this outpost of giant lobsters, Palm-size sirloins, and clam chowder in a neo-Renaissance pile that once housed a casino.

            We climb the steep curve of stone steps to a rousing operatic aria. It’s like ascending to Heaven. But beyond the garnet velvet curtain in a dramatic, sparely furnished chamber, all is quiet -- indeed, nearly deserted. Then, as we devour too much of Christopher’s wonderful dried-tomato bread and still any twinges of homesickness with guacamole, very good chili, and lots of chips, the late-brunch crowd arrives. Judging by the Caesar salad, salmon hash with poached eggs and hollandaise, and first-rate fires, I’d bet it’s worth returning for dinner. Friends tell me they love spicy crab cakes with red-pepper mayo, tobacco-fried onions, and pig’s foot stuffed with sweetbreads and served with mashed potatoes. (Lunch entrées $15 to $22.50; brunch options $6 to $15, or $30 prix fixe with a half-bottle of champagne; dinner entrées $10.50 to $28.50, prix fixe $25.50 to $28.50.)

Christopher’s 18 Wellington Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7DD

***

            If you judge a joint by how many paparazzi are parked across the street, San Lorenzo wins. There’s even one chap dressed in battle camouflage and combat boots, long lens unsheathed for action, who goes berserk when we snap his picture. Decked out like a conservatory, with tangles of vegetation in handsome Chinese urns and sliding roof shaded with bamboo by day, open to catch the air at night, San Lorenzo is a lush stage set for its Chelsea-chiclette fans, the debs and their courtiers, even the diatropic Princess Di. Mara Berni, an owner with husband Lorenzo, is the bruised royal’s confidante. Take it from Fiona (if she doesn’t know everybody, everybody knows her). San Lorenzo is her fave hangout, and even she can’t book a last-minute table on Saturday till 2:30.

            “It’s not at all a typical Saturday,” Fiona observes. Everyone is in Monaco for the Grand Prix.” That’s where Fiona would be is she didn’t have a terrible cold -- sheer luck for us; we get to wallow in her footnotes to a like in society’s trenches. At least that’s Marc Bohan and Lady Whatshername across the way, and a few exquisite darlings with perfect bodies are here, nibbling a leaf or two.

            I ask for ice water. “Flat or fizzy?” says the waiter. The eau de ville is perfectly drinkable, it’s just that “nobody we know” drinks it. Three requests, no water. The oversalted calamari is replaced by some that’s slightly less salty. “Doesn’t a sauce come with this?” asks Fiona. Hmmm. The waiter brings it. The portions are small (lunch and dinner entrées $9.75 to $24.75). That’s fine, since nothing is good, not the over-sauced greens nor the very ordinary octopus with peas. Perhaps the chef’s gone to the Grand Prix, too. “I don’t believe I’ve ever had a good meal here, “ Fiona admits as we struggle to get the check. Items are bunched together into the final mystery -- but if you went to the right school, you won’t be so tacky as to actually examine the bill. Just leave cash on the table. Plastic is so parvenu.

San Lorenzo, 22 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3

***

            Piccadilly is still quaking in the aftershocks of the $1-million May 17 opening of Planet Hollywood, with a floodlit zeppelin overhead and a horde of Hollywood Visigoths flown in by homeboy impresario Robert Earl. Even the prime minister got caught up in the hoopla, inviting the irrepressible burger king to a breakfast tête-à-tête.

            By the time we arrive, the hoi polloi have moved in, photographing one another mugging in front of the Terminator, racing around to check out Kim Basinger’s handcuffs from 9½ Weeks, the ax from the The Shining, Bond’s helicopter from Thunderball -- Tinseltown artifacts, smaller than life, making everyone look like Alan Ladd, observes New York’s own Rhoda Koenig. Our old pals at Haverson/Rockwell clearly had fun turning one room into a mock-up of a submarine, another into the barrel of James Bond’s Walther PPK handgun, and packing circular booths and tables for 400 into 25,000 square feet.

            The fans are gobbling up $10 burgers and baby-back ribs and fabulous Creole pizza even if it is burned (options $9.40 to $22.50). The Singing Nuns are singing on giant now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t video screens. All the menus except two have been stolen. Did the bartender forget to spike my Plant of the Apes Cocktail? I’m sober enough to see this is not the Schwarzenegger’s Mom’s apple strudel I loved in New York. But let’s give the kitchen a chance. Princess Di’s already been by with her princelings. Harry and Will had cheeseburgers. Mom ordered the Hollywood salad bowl (a Cobb with beets and canned olives, but pretty good). A week later, Charlton Heston stopped in to donate his Moses cloak, slipped it on, and walked through the place with both arms raised high. Omigosh, another muu-muu. Will it be box-office boffo as usual?

Planet Hollywood, 31 Coventry Street, Trocadero Center, Piccadilly, London W1V 7EF.

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene





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