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To eat is one of life’s simple and most enjoyable pleasures and pastimes. Our relationship with food is well documented and the role of the food critic has evolved exponentially since its emergence in the early 19th century. The New York Times published its first food criticism review on 1 January 1859, the headline ran: 'How We Dine'. It was hardly ingenious, but the culture of the food critic in newspapers was born.
The London restaurant scene has endured arduous setbacks and closures in 2020, so much so that it seems a little mean to criticise them now.
Fortunately, there is no need to be too heavy handed with the critical adjectives. The River Cafe, which as most everyone knows boasts a lovely outdoor eating space along the River Thames, never disappoints. The Spaghetti alle Vongole, which is hardly an original on the menu and has endured many different iterations, continues to be a staple favourite. The linguine is fresh and succulent, the olive oil maintains that balance of being both rich and light and is undoubtedly an export from the motherland (thank goodness, there’s nothing worse than badly procured olive oil). Chef has not been zealous in his or her inclusion of the pepperoncini, which is important (too often the subtetely of flavour is overpowered by the ‘piccante’ taste of the chili).
Vongole is a famously simple dish: clams, parsley, olive oil, garlic and chili. Perhaps such a simple offering can hardly justify its price (it is served, the menu notes, with Fracassi Favorita, which is a white wine from the Langhe Region in Piemont). But, the vongole is a classic example of the River Cafe’s enduring 30-year-old menu and is the reason why it remains firmly cemented in the culinary food scene. It does simple elevated Italian food like no other restaurant in London.
For a different array of flavour, try Dinings in SW3. Its pitch is that it’s a creative Japanese izakaya and sushi restaurant. Expect small and delicate plates of bite-sized morsels of very potent and tasty food. Executive Chef and Owner Masaki Sugisaki offers a seasonal menu which pertains to the traditional Japanese penchant for fresher-than-fresh sashimi served various ways (try the chef’s selection and be delighted by what Sugisaki serves, I was enamoured by his inclusion of freshly shaven black truffle with raw fish). Alternatively, the scallop is a must and naturally it couldn’t help but be ordered (I see a scallop and my tastebuds salivate). This version was served with Wasabi salsa and yuzu vinaigrette which balanced and worked suprisingly well.The grilled king crab with the ginger salsa was divine and we also enjoyed the special of the day, the sea bass which was dressed up with an assortment of spices. The Nasu-dengaku, which was a double-cooked aubergine, shiro and aka degaku miso was a standout on the menu.
It’s not a cheap meal for two, but it is undoubtedly worth it. Masaki ensures that each dish is presented in perfect harmony and balance of flavour and style. Believe me -- your tastebuds will thank you for the culinary offering.
Onto Aulis in the restaurant-heavy Soho for something a little more, well… traditionally British. Executive Chef Oli Marlow heads up the restaurant and is a vehement enthusiast for farm to fork. Aulis has a good atmosphere and great energy which is enforced by the fact that Chef prepares the dishes right in front of the guests. The menu changes regularly, but if the Beef Tartare happens to be on your menu that evening, order it. It will not disappoint. For the vegetarians, feast on the BBQ miso glazed maitake mushroom. Mushroom is such a versatile ingredient and not only does it boast enormous flavour for a vegetable, but is also highly versatile too. Expect it on most ‘farm to fork’ menus. The BBQ miso glaze is both tangy and sweet and works perfectly as a combination.
I asked Chef Oli Marlow what was his one ingredient he couldn’t live without. “100% chocolate” was his response. Aulis’ vanilla ice-cream cornet with salted chocolate as a desert is a must for anyone with a sweet tooth. Like so many restaurants and bars in Soho, Aulis’ charm relies heavily on its energy and atmosphere. It’s a spirited restaurant with a lot of grit and is located in the midst of like minded establishments. Chef told me his favourite moment inside of Aulis: “it will always be Saturday night clean down. Being in Soho we can blast the music out and crack the beers open. We feel good about what we do for our guests, so the spirit amongst the team is a happy one, at the end of our week.”
As the restaurants reopen and the hungry diners return to their tables, I think it would be beneficial for us all to raise a glass, or crack a beer open and toast the chefs, the restaurant staff, the food delivery trucks and everyone within the hospitality industry. They’ve had to be ingenious in the past year and a half, and it has paid off. In 2021, the London restaurant scene is tastier than ever.