Exploring London’s International Food Scene
London, in my mind, is the center of the world. People from all corners of the planet come to the United Kingdom capital, and all these different cultures have left their mark on the city. This is very apparent in the food scene of the large city; one can find any cuisine they desire, sometimes in unexpected places—such as the first floor of a hotel. What follows is an introduction to just some of the many international cuisine experiences one can have in the city, including where to stay to enjoy it all.
With so much to see and taste all over London, it is good to stay in a central location near a tube stop. The Corus Hyde Park affords visitors an excellent location right across from Kensington Garden’s Italian Fountains and Lancaster Gate station as well as a short walk to Paddington station. This hotel is an excellent place to base your international explorations across the British capital not only because of the location but also because of the hotel’s international scope as well. A Malaysian company owns the property, and they showcase the flavors of their home in their front of house eating establishment, Olio’s Bar & Brasserie. Though the kitchen offers European staples, I highly recommend tasting from the Malaysian menu. I personally had never sampled Malaysian cuisine before, so I took the opportunity to try something new.
The menu, which features curries, satay, and stir-fried noodles, was spicy, a little sweet, and on the whole a little similar to Thai and Indian, with some distinct differences. I started my meal with coconut chicken satay and fish cakes, both immensely satisfying and full of flavor. The curries were a bit runnier than the Thai variety but equally complex in flavor with multiple layers of rich spices. The lamb curry was rich and dark while the chicken was a little bit of a lighter choice; both were perfect when poured over the bright yellow rice served alongside the dishes. The shrimp stir-fry rice noodles dish was brown in color and had a lovely acidic, sweet and savory combination.
All of this was served with thin bread similar to naan or roti in Indian cuisine, but it was round and brushed with buttery oil, perfect for soaking up the delicious curries. Our host was lovely as well, introducing us to the style of cooking, of which my guest and I had no real prior knowledge. If you can, get the seat in the bay window, since its location right across from Hyde Park affords a dream London experience. A lush green sight, mixed with the black cabs and double decker red buses rushing down the street, creates a real sense of place visually, while the food whisks you away to the small Asian country thousands of miles away.
The hotel itself is in a state of transition, making it an exciting place to stay. Currently in a renovation, the exterior of the Georgian mansion has recently been completed and several rooms have been refurbished with cleaner lines and Laura Ashley wallpaper. The most exciting aspect of the hotel, though, has to be the upcoming new rooms. These spaces will be completely contemporary, making better use of the space available in the property. The management is taking into consideration the guest experience to present a more well thought out one. The current rooms are fine and will definitely do the job while visitors are traipsing around London, especially at the price and central location. But I really found my experience at the hotel inspiring—that management is trying to better itself as opposed to stagnating. For example, in each executive room there is a coffee maker and a complimentary minibar with fresh milk, water, and soda. The hotel is considering the needs of the contemporary traveler and taking this into account as they improve their facilities. The newly redesigned and revamped executive rooms available now are clean and modern. The hotel also offers executive family rooms with large beds and a pullout sofa for children. The hotel is truly a perfect base at reasonable rates in a location that offers all of London at your fingertips.
Continuing on our international tour, we headed nearby to Nipa Thai located inside another hotel, the Lancaster. The traditional Thai restaurant employs an all-female cooking staff, including head chef Sanguan Parr, which is indicative of Thailand on a whole. This restaurant is so authentically Northern Thai that it won the “Thai Select” accolade from the Thai government, and rightfully so. Served with our meal was perhaps the biggest surprise of the night: Thai wine from Monsoon Valley Winery. The restaurant offered two varietals: a medium-bodied, slightly sweet and fruity white Colombard and a smoky, smooth, and lighter-bodied Shiraz. Before entering the establishment I had no idea Thailand even produced wine, but after doing a little research I found out that wine in some form has been produced in the country since the 1970s. And these two offerings paired absolutely perfectly with the salty, spicy with a hint of sweetness dishes.
The food at Nipa Thai reminded me of home. If I closed my eyes or looked away from the spectacular view of Hyde Park I would think I was in a nice Thai restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. Everything about the food served to us this evening was perfect. The chicken green curry was complex and comforting, spicy but in a good way, with layer upon layer of flavor coming together on the palate. The lobster phad thai was a decadent twist on a street food classic, with rich, buttery chunks of lobster interwoven throughout the noodle dish. The specials rotate monthly, and I suggest trying at least one. Dining on the sea bass in a soy ginger-type sauce was everything one really wants in a light fish dish—well cooked and full of flavor without weighing down the fish itself.
But perhaps my favorite and most enlightening part of the meal was the simple dessert, the best iteration of sticky rice and mango I’ve ever had. Not only was the rice cut with a small sprinkle of sesame seed, giving a lovely nuttiness to the creamy sweet sticky rice, but also the mango was perfectly ripe. I had never had a mango at its perfect ripeness (it’s usually either one way or the other), and so this was life altering. The rice, too, was complex, not overly syrupy or covered in a glop of condensed milk, as I’ve sometimes found it to be in Los Angeles. The meal was a heightened version of what I’ve always had—and it was surprisingly located on the first floor of the Lancaster hotel above Lancaster Gate station.
Leaving Hyde Park behind, we headed to Covent Garden to try Flesh and Buns. Dining at this cool Japanese Izakaya pub-style restaurant is a little like what I imagine Anthony Bourdain’s dream establishment would be. There was meat, beer, sake, excellent sushi rolls, rock music bubbling in the background, and manga comics of naked women lining the bathroom walls. It’s macho and fun, and most importantly the food is absolutely delicious. It is really the ultimate after-work destination, but that doesn’t mean as a visitor to London you can’t enjoy it as well. Having been several times now and going again on this recent trip, the quality of the experience just continues to thrive. In fact, the establishment now does something really fascinating: s’mores with a fire pit brought directly to the table. Unexpected for a Japanese pub, but this place seems to put fun and experience above perhaps authenticity—and that’s not a bad thing.
Our next stop, Dishoom, a Bombay-style café that is an incredible combination of Indian and Persian flavors, has three locations throughout the city: Covent Garden, Shoreditch, and King’s Cross. I have to recommend the largest and newest location in King’s Cross as the proprietors have taken into consideration the needs of both their guests and their staff to create a seamless upgrade experience. This location is perfectly designed, taking into account how busy the place can get. But by keeping a line at the door it never feels overwhelming inside, creating a service that is as immaculate as the food. And the food is simply gorgeous. Anything ordered here is going to be incredible, but some highlights include the black daal simmered for 24 hours to create a complex creamy flavor, biryanis that are otherworldly, tikka masala that is more Persian than Indian but equally warm and spicy, and roomali roti—thin, glutinous bread perfect to scoop up the aforementioned delights.
The drinks at the establishment are wonderful as well, and in this location there is a large bar downstairs that makes for an excellent experience pre- or post-meal. The cocktails tend to be classics with Southeast Asian twists and the bar has recently begun experimenting with bottle and barrel-aged cocktails. Having tried their version of the negroni, I can attest to their increase in strength and yet the bitterness was not overwhelming—instead it was clean and balanced. The restaurant is also opening a fourth location in Carnaby Street, which is excellent news. Now if they could only come to California.
Heading to Shoreditch, we experienced the newest location of another London staple, Ottolenghi. The Middle Eastern and North African meets European concept restaurant recently opened a location around the corner from Spitalfields market. It is the largest establishment yet with a long bar, a communal table, and a bright white space, creating an almost pristinely clinical experience amidst the leftover grime of East London. However, its location on the border of a London full of bankers and businessmen make it the perfect spot perfect for a fashionable lunch. In fact, when I popped in for the midday meal, it was indeed nearly the entirety of the cliental. But the food is so consistently fabulous. I’ve never had a more perfectly cooked aubergine (eggplant) than when I’ve dined here. One meal here and you’ll understand why it is so popular with Londoners.
With multiple locations across the city, Gaucho affords diners a high class, old school steakhouse experience combined with the rich flavors of Argentina. A night here feels like being in a bygone era, with drinks before the meal and raw steak presented and explained before decisions are made in a low light, highly designed space. It is the best kind of steakhouse experience made even better with empanadas, chimichurri, and the largest wine list devoted exclusively to Argentinean varietals probably ever assembled. A meal here is a glamorous affair, focused on flavor and design and really highlighting the elegant tastes of Argentina as opposed to kitschy images of gauchos on the ranchos.
To end our tour around the world from the relative comfort of London, I want to highlight a local kind of place in South London. Located between Waterloo and Elephant & Castle, La Dolce Vita is not a place that would ever be on the stereotypical tourist path. Don’t let this foray into a less tourist-trodden path deter you. The food is really great in an old school Italian way. This was my little local Italian restaurant, even though I don’t live in London anymore. It is the opposite of all the trendy glamour most often associated with London. The establishment is authentic and the host was lovely—he even brought out a sampling of gelato he had made at the end of our meal, on the house. A true sense of comfort and hospitality was so appreciated. We ordered off the daily specials menu, which afforded an excellent chicken with smoked mozzarella and mushroom dish and a fresh and flavorful branzino dish as well. It is the sort of place where you can relax, have a nice conversation with the Italian owner, and not worry about the hustle and bustle of the city outside its doors.
Overall, London is an excellent food city with everyone making their mark on the cultural landscape. From the city, you can travel the world through cuisine, without having to hop on another plane.