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The London Scene

After hearing endless hype about London, one exasperated insider separates the truly spectacular from the overrated

London is a top contender for the title of Millennium City. After a $1.2 billion investment, who could deny it a fresh round of attention? New on the scene are Vinopolis (a sort of Disneyland for wine lovers), a giant dome and an observation wheel, the world's biggest Shakespeare exhibit, and the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, reached via a special bridge over the Thames. The Heathrow Express now gets you to the airport in 15 minutes flat. But London's restaurants and pubs, all 11,500 of them, continue to generate the loudest buzz. Everyone knows this gastronomically moribund city has become the food capital of Europe, but how did the dust settle after the five-year restaurant explosion? Londoners themselves are the harshest critics. Where do they go? What should you avoid? Can you have a great time in London 2000, or is it the city that ate itself?

millennium mania
England has been obsessed with the M-word since 1994 (an unscientific estimate), plotting grandiose, sometimes harebrained, schemes that are now coming to fruition. What Londoners most want to know is whether the Icelandic saga of the Millennium Dome has a happy ending. The media's favorite bugbear for years--it looks like a child's rendition of a UFO--cost $1.2 billion, and the admission fee is $32. For that you get a cast of 160 performing the History of Humanity, encircled by exhibits about Mind, Faith, Body, Money, Work and other Important Themes. The dome, in far-off Greenwich (where the world's time is measured), can be reached by ferry, bus or the new Jubilee Line Underground extension. The less-controversial British Airways' London Eye, the planet's highest observation wheel, soars 443 feet above the Thames. It blocks the view of Big Ben from your Marriott bedroom, but, hey, it'll be gone in five years. In May, the Tate Gallery of Modern Art will open in the revamped Bankside Power Station. Most who have had an advance peek at the museum, designed by the Swiss modernist architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, have raved. Curiously, so have visitors to the moonstruck idea that is Vinopolis, a wine theme park. Wine dummies will love the Vespas and virtual vineyards, but real oenophiles should stick to authentic châteaus.

great classic restaurants
When the Jeremy King-Chris Corbin duo sold The Ivy and Le Caprice, regulars (that is, everyone who eats out) fretted. They needn't have. The grand restaurateurs kept control, and those two places are anything but snobby, with wide-ranging, something-for-everyone comfort menus, kind service and terrific table-hopping buzz. The River Café similarly needs no introduction, since Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray's ingredient-obsessed rustic Italian was the schoolroom that virtually taught London what a restaurant could do. It still rocks. Fergus Henderson doesn't get as much attention for his in-your-face, offal-centric British food, but he, too, is influential; his place, St. John, a white echoey refectory, pleases all but delicate palates. You can keep Sir Terence Conran's aircraft hangars, though one of his dozen is a standout: the two-year-old Orrery, where Chris Galvin cooks refined classical French (supreme of duck, endive Tatin). It's tucked into a former stable, and it's the opposite of Mezzo and Quaglino's, all understatement and elegance. Don't forget Alastair Little. Along with Rogers and Gray, he was the key personage in the reeducation of the London palate, creating unfussy Italian-based menus at his eponymous Soho restaurant twice a day and, before that, developing the always-trendy, always-jammed (but now culinarily unimpressive) ur-wine bar 192 in Notting Hill. Alastair Little, the restaurant, looks a bit minimalist-Eighties, but Little, the chef, has still got all the right moves. Last, and least glamorous, all Londoners grab the ultimate sandwiches, cakes, salads and other takeout from the ubiquitous brushed-steel storefronts of Pret à Manger without a thought as to how lucky they are. This is fast food at its most aristocratic, a classic London success story.

neighborhood finds
As the people who caused the restaurant boom start to age, they want quieter lives. Ergo, the rise of the neighborhood restaurant. Some have been around for a while. Barnes, a leafy borough of huge houses, supports two great places: Riva, with food from Lombardy and the Veneto, and Sonny's, a modern British restaurant with up-to-the-minute dishes like roasted sea bass in orange-cardamom sauce. Formerly cutting-edge Notting Hill is increasingly pricey (that movie didn't help), but its restaurants aren't. Assaggi is an Italian restaurant serving dishes like chanterelle, pancetta and red onion salad, and The Cow is a homey restaurant-pub owned by Tom Conran (son of Sir Terence). Both places are exalted examples of the gastro-pub phenomenon that started at The Eagle in Farringdon (still good 10 years after its opening). In Queen's Park, a high-style, light-filled restaurant called The Park is drawing half of London with its fantastic food, especially its pea and mozzarella risotto and roasted chicken with Parmesan mashed potatoes, girolles and truffle oil. Its new specialty food market is about the best in the city. Camden Town has Cypriot restaurants (Lemonia in the tony neighboring Regent's Park area is a cut above), and Islington has its trio of modern British favorites: Lola's, Euphorium and Granita. And out in Finsbury Park, there is a happening little Moroccan place, Yamina's, where dishes like tagines and meze draw a crowd.

star chef spots
Now that every London chef is a media star, silly behavior abounds. Marco Pierre White annoyed his former business partner, Damien Hirst, by painting his own versions of Hirst's celebrated canvases after they split up. White continues to buy restaurants anyway; if the rumors are true, his latest will be The Belvedere. Gordon Ramsay--the irascible Scot of the Gordon Ramsay restaurant--was caught in a documentary treating his staff so cruelly that viewers practically issued a fatwa. His classical French menus still win raves, but modest Marcus Wareing sends out equally fabulous plates at Ramsay's less-hyped Petrus. Of all the haute cuisine practitioners, the wonderful Herbert Berger of One Lombard Street remains one of the hardest to pry from the range. Richard Corrigan of Lindsay House is my other favorite unselfpromoting chef. England is nuts about Jamie Oliver of TV's Naked Chef, though he has no restaurant of his own. What this says about the state of the culinary arts in London is anyone's guess.

world cuisine
Tandoori is to London what pizza is to New York. There's nothing wrong with the local Indian restaurants, but three nouveau Indian places are wowing the city: Zaika (Vineet Bhatia may be London's first famous Indian chef), Rasa Samudra (it's the third outpost of a Karalan family dynasty) and Tamarind (its glass-walled kitchen produces spiced chicken livers and black dal). Thai food is still ubiquitous, but Vietnamese fusions are newer. Bam-bou is society restaurateur Mogens Tholstrup's latest, a Franco-Vietnamese colonial runway of a place. Polish food is not known for its chic, except at Wódka, which elevates bigos, pierogi and the entire canon. Its sister, Baltic, is opening soon. The North London Greek restaurant is both cliché and misnomer (most are Cypriot), hence The Real Greek. This brilliant place in supertrendy Hoxton serves regional dishes like pot-roast rabbit with artichokes and dill. Moro, in equally happening Exmouth Market, is perfect. Husband and wife chef-owners Sam Clark and Sam Clark (believe it or not, Sam's maiden name is Clarke) take the cuisine of Spain back to its Moorish roots for the ultimate ethnic historical dining. Such deceptively simple dishes as turlu turlu, a vegetarian version of a Turkish stew, are sublime.

hotel restaurants
Some of the hotel dowagers are young again, especially The Berkeley, which seduced Pierre Koffmann into bringing his restaurant, La Tante Claire, to the property. (The Berkeley already housed Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Vong outpost.) The Dorchester is still one of the world's great hotels, upstart rivals notwithstanding, and The Oriental is its jewel; chef Kenneth Poon prepares the best Peking duck in London. Nobu Matsuhisa is sometimes in residence at Nobu in the Metropolitan, which made a splash when it opened in 1997 and is holding its own against the competition. The Metropolitan's sophisticated older sibling, The Halkin, has a stunning restaurant named for its Italian chef, Stephano Cavallini. Worth the descent beneath One Aldwych is Mark Gregory's cooking at Axis. Gregory does a creative rethinking of traditional Brit country-house food: "jugged" wine-marinated hare with creamed celery root and potato is a star dish.

trend spotting
sidewalk tables: Permissive zoning makes alfresco dining something to look forward to in the spring. tough reservations: The military planning required to dine at the hot spots has annoyed so many people that reservationists are now trying really hard to be nice. However, three weeks notice is still necessary. driving test: The London taxi driver is a magnificent creature--opinionated, discursive and primed with The Knowledge (an exhaustive street exam). But locating one at night ranges from challenging to impossible. drinking problems: The liquor laws make it difficult to order alcohol after 11 P.M. unless you're eating at a restaurant or belong to a private club (this has spawned a new trend, membership bars at restaurants). gene panic: "We never use genetically modified products" is a footnote on every menu. raw deal: Sushi is the new fish-and-chips, but avoid Yo! Sushi or Moshi Moshi Sushi or anything that sounds like a hip-hop lyric. coffee break: Seattle has invaded.

overrated restaurants
For sheer hubris, Sir Terence Conran's empire of 12 restaurants--among them Bluebird and Le Pont de la Tour--can't be beat. The formula: vast spaces, Parisian-style raw bars, pan-European cooking. The problem: menus look great (Bluebird's is almost mathematical: wood-roasted rabbit + mushrooms, thyme), but the production-line cooking lacks soul. Bad-boy chef Marco Pierre White is doing fine as a restaurateur (Mirabelle is his hottest spot), although he has lost his footing at The Oak Room. His Titanic is packed with teenagers, and the food is not the point. While Avenue and its young sister, Circus, are hopping, too many owners spoil the broth--and these are run by a consortium of 70. Forget Pharmacy, Damien Hirst's bar-restaurant with fanciful drugstore decor. If only the lazy canteen food were made with medical precision, and the bar is over. You'll be amazed by the view of St. Paul's from Harvey Nichols's Oxo Tower. Shame the food ruins it. Dishes sound divine (panfried pork with fennel risotto and Calvados jus), but they're too often oily and messy.

best new restaurants
Club Gascon, with young Pascal Aussignac at the stove, is London's favorite part of France. Nothing fancy here, just foie gras-centric cuisine bourgeoise to order in multiple small plates. Almost two years ago, New Zealander Peter Gordon moved The Sugar Club to Soho, where his intelligent, fun fusion style--spicy kangaroo salad with coriander, mint, peanuts and lime-chile dressing, halibut baked in coconut milk with bok choy and cilantro--continues to evolve and delight. Last month Oliver Peyton, who opened the late-night bar Atlantic, launched the long-awaited Isola with chef Bruno Loubet, the genius behind Bistrot Bruno and L'Odeon. Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the best restaurateurs in the city, make everyone happy at J. Sheekey, a formerly over-the-hill Covent Garden seafood place. Simplicity is the keynote of its mostly-fish menu, with such dishes as fried cod with mint-spiked pea puree. Straightforward cuisine like this is much in demand.

the hotel boom
Hotels in London have never been better. Thousands of beautiful new rooms are giving healthy competition to the classics, which are responding with vigor--and refurbishments. When Gordon Campbell Gray's One Aldwych opened in 1998, it created the gold standard. This one-of-a-kind hotel is as good as it gets, from the Bach playing underwater in the pool to the hopping lobby bar. American hotelier Ian Schrager has exported his Philippe Starck shtick to St. Martins Lane, to be followed this month by The Sanderson, and the haute mini-chain Firmdale has outdone even its beloved Covent Garden (the London address for half of Hollywood) with The Charlotte Street Hotel. Also this month, the Four Seasons doubles its London presence with a huge new property, Docklands, in Canary Wharf. (To be first in line at the Millennium Dome, stay here.) Sir Terence Conran inaugurates his latest career, hotelier, with the very grand Great Eastern. Meanwhile, myhotel is hoping its concept of feng shui oasis will fly; several more properties are planned. And, finally, the owners of Hazlitt's and Gore have opened the cutest hotel in town, The Rookery, filled with claw-footed baths, antiquarian books and ecclesiastical antiques.

Published December 1999
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