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Mike Wolfberg's Guide to London, England Restaurants

These reviews are based on eating out in London in May and June of 1998, when we were there for nearly three weeks. As usual, we depended mostly on The Zagat Survey for that city, and we also consulted a similar, less reliable source (in my opinion), Harden's. Harden's has the advantage of having more listings and better indexes, but I think Zagat's ratings provide me the appropriate level of knowledge to better judge where to eat.

Al Hamra
31-33 Shepherd Mkt. (tube: Green Park) London, W1 0171-493-1954
W-8, F-20, D-13, S-15
  London seems to have several Lebanese restaurants, and this is one of the top 5 Middle Eastern restaurants, according to Zagat. It includes an equal number of indoor and outdoor tables in a somewhat cramped setting, which could be a problem if there is a nearby smoker and this bothers you. The food is quite good - Zagat rating is reliable. Just a few doors away is a somewhat better place, Al Sultan, which was less crowded, and not deservedly. We first tried Al Hamra and then found that Al Sultan was indeed better all around, except there is no outdoor dining.

As is typical of Lebanese cuisine, you can focus on starters, perhaps never even getting to an entree. We enjoyed the moutabel (we know it as baba ghannooj), labneh (strained yogurt), several more starters, and an entree of kibbeh sayniyeh (layers, like meatloaf). We later learned, at Al Sultan, kibbeh shami (a.k.a. kibbeh maklieh) can be better when done right. We ordered quite a lot of food and a medium-priced wine, and the bill came to about $130 plus tip - higher than the experience deserved.
Al Omaraa
27 Queensway (tube: Bayswater and Queensway) London, W2 0171-221-8045
  Before we discovered Al Sultan, we went looking for this place, since I had been to a place of the same name on this street about 15 years ago and thought it had the best baba ghannooj I had ever had. Unfortunately, the old place is gone, but this place of the same name has no other connection with the old place.

The Lebanese meal we had here was acceptable, and had we not gone on to the better Al Sultan we would have been more impressed with this place. I wanted to include this review because the street this restaurant is on has a diverse collection resturants representing many different ethnic foods. It also has a diverse collection of peoples from around the world. If you want to sample some interesting food in a casual setting, visit the few blocks of Queensway, starting from Bayswater Road.
Al Sultan
51-52 Hertford St. (tube: Green Park) London, W1 0171-408-1155
W-10, F-22, D-16, S-19
  London seems to have several Lebanese restaurants, and Al Sultan is one has the highest food rating according to Zagat. It has indoor dining only, and just down the street is the more popular Al Hamra, with half of its dining outdoors. The Zagat ratings reflect the differences between these places quite well. It appeared that a reservation might be helpful at peak hours, but we had a reasonable table on two occasions without a reservation. But we did arrive late, probably after 9 p.m.

Please notice I have given this my highest rating of a Wolfberg 10, since the food was exceptionally good.

As is typical of Lebanese cuisine, you can focus on starters, perhaps never even getting to an entree. We enjoyed the wonderful moutabel (we know it as baba ghannooj), labneh (strained yogurt), wonderful makanek (Lebanese salad), kibbeh maklieh (perfect on our first visit and good on our second), felafel (well above-average), and hummus. On our first visit, we had a wait a very long time for the hot starters, but they were worth waiting for, especially the kibbeh. On our second visit we stayed with starters, but on our first visit, we ordered two entrees: lahem meshwi (lamb kabobs ordered rare and arrived medium well, after a long wait, and thus disappointing); and the grilled chicken with a garlic/lemon sauce was excellent, even without the sauce. On our first visit, with 1 1/2 bottles of medium-priced wine, the bill came to about $135 plus tip, the same as at Al Hamra, but with more wine, better food, better service, and slightly better decor. This seemed pricy by American standards, but at least we enjoyed the meal a lot. On the second visit, sticking with starters, having one bottle of the same wine, the bill was $100 plus tip.
Chez Liline
101 Stroud Green Rd. (tube: Finsbury Park) London, N4 0171-263-6550
F-20, D-11, S-18
  Zagat's made this sound worth trying, so we ventured here around 5 p.m. only to find it wasn't going to open for dinner until 6:30, and we had play tickets that night, so we had to return to London's West End and miss the opportunity of eating here. It is described as an "exotic Mauritian fish restaurant". Mauritius is an island to the East of Madagascar. The neighborhood of the restaurant seemed to have many African shops. This includes exotic grocery stores which are fun to explore in daylight. Although the walk from the tube stop to the restaurant was probably safe, we felt just a little uncomfortable in that the buildings were a bit run down. We felt better about returning from the neighborhood before dark. If you go there, please let me know how it turns out.
Coffee Gallery
23 Museum St. (tube: Russell Square or Tottenham Court) London, WC1
  This is a morning and afternoon small establishment with about 7 tables, where we found good pastries, exceptional light lunches, and exceptional coffee, especially the caffe latte, according to Wendy. It is one block from the British Museum. It is closed on Sundays and holidays. The chef/owner is Italian and makes great salads, pasta dishes, quiches, frittatas, etc. They start to run out of the day's dishes in the early afternoon. They do not accept credit cards.
El Gaucho
Chelsea Farmers Market, 125 Sydney St. (tube: South Kensington) London, SW3 0171-376-8514
W-7, F-20, D-14, S-18
  Zagat's made this sound worth trying, even though we were warned they don't take reservations or credit cards, they serve no alcohol (but you can bring your own), and they have no rest rooms. Well, we got there early enough in the evening, perhaps around 6:30, and we only had to wait about 15-20 minutes for a table. The place is mostly outdoors and fortunately the weather was perfect for such a meal. There is a wine shop next door which does take credit cards, and their prices were not particularly high. There are indeed public rest rooms nearby, although they are as bad as what you expect to find in most gas stations. The reason to come here is to get Argentinian beef, and that was interesting to do once. I can imagine coming here if I were on a several-month stay in England and wanted a good steak. This is probably the best steak I have had in Britain in my various visits, but it still not up to the quality of a steak I usually have in the best American steak houses or at home. I recall enjoying some of the Argentinian appetizers, but exactly what they were is forgotten.
Fryer's Delight
19 Theobald's Rd. St. (tube: Chancery Lane or Holborn) London, WC1 0171-405-4114
  This is a low-cost, high-quality fish 'n chips place run by an Italian family. It is aout 5 blocks East of the British Museum. It is frequented by cab drivers, which is a good sign. We were placed in a booth along with a retired Londoner who told us about the restaurant and several London attractions. The quality of the food was quite good, but I was disappointed the only tarter sauce was in a small fast-food package. It was nice to find a place to get a meal for around $15 for the two of us. The fellow we met recommended the plaice as the best kind of fish to order, and Wendy enjoyed it immensely.
Fung Shing
15 Lisle St. (tube: Leicester Square) London, WC2 0171-437-1539
W-5, F-20, D-13, S-15
  We were in a hurry, with tickets for a nearby play in less than 2 hours, so we walked around Chinatown looking for something which appeared to be good. We walked by restaurant after restaurant, checking ratings in Zagats, and that's how we came upon this place. We had soups and a main course and perhaps some drinks or wine and the bill came to $110. This was definitely not worth it, especially for Cantonese food in Chinatown, at least compared with the similar setting in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, etc. The meal was acceptable - neither particularly good or bad, so I cannot recommend this place. However, I have to admit the menu did have some interesting items on it - foods we are not used to seeing on menus, but I cannot recall an example, except perhaps pigeon. You might want to stop by for a drink at their small bar to review their interesting menu.
The Ivy
1-5 West Street (tube: Leicester Square) London, WC2 0171-836-4751
W-8, F-23, D-22, S-22
  I was first here in 1969 and then again in 1984; on those two previous visits, this was a more gracious restaurant, with very attentive service, and excellent food to match. Since then, this restaurant has undergone some changes for the worse. It is not as elegant, but it has somewhat high prices for what it provides. The food rating of 23 is a tad high, in my opinion. I am not ready to return soon. Wendy was disappointed, too.

It is quite convenient to some of the theaters, especially where The Mousetrap plays. It seemed like a place to "be seen", if you're into that sort of thing.

The crab bisque was good, but then it did cost about $10 for a medium-sized bowl. The small Caesar salad, at nearly the same price was OK, but sub-par. The rack of lamb was not as good as the best lamb I am used to in the U.S. The a la carte veggies were good, but too pricy: buttered spinach, fried courgettes, and bubble and squeak (a crispy dumpling with potatoes and other veggies - an Ivy specialty).
Malabar Junction
107 Great Russell St. (tube: Tottenham Court Road) London, WC1 0171-580-5230
W-8, F-21, D-19, S-16
  This is a South Indian restaurant specializing in food from the Kerala area of India. All in all, this was quite a good food experience and a poor service experience the two times we went there - it was terribly slow, even though you could observe wait staff talking with each other near the bar. We would have been more impressed overall had we not later discovered the far better Rasa W1. Rasa W1 is vegetarian, and I cannot recall if this place is also. We enjoyed a Cashew Nut Pakoda which Rasa also has on its menu, but we never got to try it at Rasa. The Rava Dosa was very good here, but better at Rasa. It is hard to justify coming to this place when Rasa is so much better, but I suppose Rasa may be booked, and then this would still be a good place for food if you never got to experience Rasa. Interestingly, they have the Brazilian drink Caipirinha on the menu; this is made with cachaca, a Brazilian liquor made from sugar cane and reminiscent of tequila; this is worth ordering. Also, their Bloody Mary is very good. I enjoyed the name of the downstairs lounge - Mala Bar.
Patisserie Valerie
8 Russell St. (tube: Covent Garden) London, N4 0171-240-0064
W-6, F-20, D-16, S-15
  We came here for a brunch and found it acceptable but not special. It was quite pleasant to sit outside, but it has only 2-3 such tables. There are a few of this chain around London. It was recommended as a good pastry place, but Zagat's indicates the original one (elsewhere) is best.
Rasa W1 [A long review follows]
6 Dering St. (tube: Oxford Circus) London 0171-629-1346
W-10, F-24, D-18, S-21
  This "must try", wonderful restaurant was the best food experience of our three weeks in London. As such, we decided to have 3 dinners there, and this proved to be a good number. We had read about the highest Zagat-rated Rasa and were disappointed to find out it was difficult to get in there, plus it was in an inconvenient location. We learned Rasa W1, its sister restaurant, had just opened in central London, so we made a reservation one day in advance. The Zagat rating is for the original place, and the new place is likely to have even higher numbers, at least for food and decor.

This place specializes in cooking from the region of India called Kerala, which is on the Southwest coast of India. The menu devotes a page to describing the region and some of its history. One especially interesting fact is that the region has over 250 types of bananas! Kerala is a highly cultured and cultural area, boasting perhaps the highest concentration of poets. It has India's lowest birth rate.

Daz, the owner of the restaurant greeted us and devoted much attention to us on each of our three visits. It was not clear whether he devotes such time to each of his tables, but we didn't feel we were singled out. On our third and final visit, we toured the small kitchen and briefly met the able large staff (perhaps a dozen?). Daz is a chef and is in control of the menu and the recipes. He is writing a cookbook and may have a TV show or series. He hopes to open a branch in New York City. He proudly told us Rasa and he have been written up in the New York Times. When you visit the restaurant, please tell Daz Wendy and Mike from the Boston area sent you.

Rasa W1 is all-vegetarian. There is another similar restaurant in London, Malabar Junction, where we ate twice, since it seemed so good until we discovered this place. Perhaps we just like Kerala food, but I really think both of these places are examples of good-food restaurants. Rasa W1 is a clear winner over Malabar Junction, but if Rasa and Rasa W1 were booked on a particular evening, I might consider going again to Malabar Junction.

As you begin to look at the large menu, the wait staff encourages you to order the assorted "pre-meal snacks" and assorted "pickles and chutneys"; both of these unusual delights cannot be missed. The snacks include achappam, pappadavadai, chinnappam, pappadoms, and chena upperi; each deserves a description, but this review is plenty long. The other assortment includes garlic pickle, lemon pickle, mixed pickle (with carrot, ginger, garlic, and chilies), coriander chutney, and one or two other daily specials. Both assortments were unusual, tasty, and worthy of reordering. An individual may not like each and every bread or pickle, but you'll likely find at least two which will delight you. The assorted pickles and chutneys varied a bit from visit to visit, as they were changing recipes and trying new things; perhaps this will settle down in the future, but it was exciting for us to be able to do so much sampling.

The menu has 10 starters, three soups (all three were excellent), 23 entrees, 6 side dishes, 5 breads, 7 rice dishes, and 11 desserts. They also offer a chef-chosen feast, which we tried the first time there. We preferred making our choices on the return trips. The feast included dishes they are proud of: beet cheera pachadi (from beet root and spinach), and mottakrose thoran (shredded cabbage, potatoes, onion, etc.). There is a reasonable wine list; we especially enjoyed an Alsatian Gewurtztraminer and a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Wendy enjoyed a Sunny Beaches Premium Indian Lager, brewed for Great Britain; it was delicate, smooth, light, yet full-flavored.

It's difficult to know what to recommend. We only scratched the surface there; essentially everything has been worth trying. The Koonu Samosa and Kathrikka (eggplant slices) were great starters. I thought each of soups was so good, I hope you can try all three, although the parippu is quite different from the other two. The rasam soup is the best I have ever had. The rava dosa is the best we've had among three or four times we've had this at other restaurants. This place spoils it for going elsewhere, unfortunately. One item which did not excite us was the bread uzhunappam; it sounded more interesting than it was to eat. The tamarind rice was more subtle in tamarind than I had wanted, but it was good nonetheless. Fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds are in most dishes. The simple dessert of some fresh fruit in a subtle sauce, pazham payasam, was a great dessert for me. We did not get to try many of the desserts. I could go on and on about this place, but I'll stop by saying we gladly spent about $140 with wine and $110 without wine on each or our visits including their service charge.
Red Fort
77 Dean St. (tube: Leicester Square or Tottenham Court) London, W1 0171-437-2525
W-5, F-20, D-15, S-17
  This place was not reliably rated by Zagat; where Zagat gave it a 20-15-17, I would give it a 17-18-12. I would not recommend this North Indian restaurant, although it met our needs that we had to find something quickly that was near to our theater. The food was edible but uninspiring. The highlight was the price, since it was about $65 including tip, low for what we found most London dinners to be. On the other hand, the only alcohol we ordered was one glass of low-priced wine. Before having this meal, I thought one could always get quite a good meal at almost any Indian establishment in England; this is not so. The restaurant had two or three tables occupied, three to five waiters around, and yet service was inattentive.
Ritz Hotel
150 Piccadilly (tube: Green Park) London, W1 0171-493-8181
W-8, F-22, S-27, D-23
  We chose this place to have an elegant, formal high tea. It was just as well we had not had any other food that day before arriving for our 2 p.m. reservation. Had we wanted a later arrival time, we would have had to book in advance, but for 2 p.m. arrivals, they take some same-day reservations plus they also seat others first-come. The setting for tea is in The Palm Court, an elegant room of the hotel where you can observe others, including those strolling through the hotel. In the large hallway was a grand piano being played by Ian, a very talented musician who used to play at London's Savoy Hotel. He was playing standards such as by Gershwins and Porter. We learned he had accompanied Frank Sinatra at the Savoy; not surprisingly, he was also playing some Sinatra tunes through our tea.

This experience was worth doing once just to see it and be part of it, although it was a pricy "meal". A formal tea is more than just the beverage. Along with your choice from about half a dozen teas comes a three-tiered arrangement of sandwiches and pastries. Clotted cream (like a thick whipped cream) and jams are also included. The food offering was unlimited - it was easy to get extras. The only downside was the $80 bill for the two of us, service included. Also, a tie and jacket were required for gentlemen. Without comparing this event to others in the same style, it is difficult to recommend this over others, but it did satisfy our interest in participating in this ritual. Wendy loved the elegant surroundings and the pampering staff.

We had a much less formal version of a high tea at The Crooked House Tea Room in Windsor, and the similarities and differences were as we expected. If you just want to see what a high tea is, the Windsor place can provide a much less expensive way to partake. I especially enjoyed the smoked salmon sandwiches at the Ritz; the Crooked House high tea did not include these.
Seafresh Fish
80-81 Wilton Rd. (tube: Victoria) London, SW1 0171-828-0747
W-7, F-21, D-13, S-17
  We chose to eat at this place, since it was one of the highest-rated inexpensive fish and chips restaurants in Zagat's. It is a long walk from Victoria Station and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Wendy thought the Zagat decor rating was high - she called it "so-so, scruffy". We began with a fish chowder which was highly recommended by the restaurant, but nothing all that special, compared to what we are used to from the Boston area, especially from Legal Seafoods. They offer at least six kinds of fish - we ordered cod and a variety platter; these were good choices, except I did not care for the bony skate wing on the platter. The trifle and orange sorbet were both very good desserts.
99-101 Regent St. (tube: Piccadilly Circus) London, W1 0171-734-1401
W-7, F-19, D-18, S-18
  This place was the first Indian restaurant in London (est. 1927), but it has gone through several incarnations over the years. I was there in 1969 for a magnificent meal in a posh setting, with lots of hanging fabrics. In contrast, today's decor is quite modern. Although I was not so expert in Indian cuisine at that time, I still think the meal I had there was the best "traditional" Indian food I have ever had, nearly equalled by the short-lived Pondicherry in Boston in the 1970's or 1980's. By "traditional", I am excluding the unusual Southern Indian (usually vegetarian) restaurants with Udupi or Kerala cuisines. This was nevertheless a perfectly reasonable Indian dinner which we had pre-theater with no reservation and with little time before our show. I would go back under similar circumstances. We ordered two pre-theater dinners and supplemented them with two orders of rice and a side order of a spinach (saag?) dish. With three glasses of wine, the bill came to $77 including tip.
15 Lowndes St. (tube: Knightsbridge) London, SW1 0171-235-5800
W-0, F-25, D-19, S-20
  This place was described so well in Zagat's that we made reservations here weeks in advance. When we did so, we were told we would have a very nice table. We arrived at the restaurant about 30 minutes early, expecting to have a drink while waiting for our table. When we arrived we were told there was only one table available to us, and it was clear to us it would have been a most unpleasant place to sit - it was out in the midst of where diners and wait staff would be walking - definitely not a "very nice table". Zagat described this as an informal place and we were dressed sufficiently well for that. But when we got there and saw the diners, it did not seem merely informal, and it is in a posh neighborhood. Perhaps they found fault in our garb, but then the table they were going to give us was out in the midst of everything and we would be visible to everyone coming and going, so it is difficult to understand just what their problem was. After about 5 or more minutes of discussing how we really did not want that table and their reluctance to try to accommodate us, we decided to leave and give up. Wendy interpreted the hostess as being defensive and rude. Perhaps we missed out on some good food, but I would hope that you do not give this place your business.

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