Newspaper article International New York Times

London Dining before, or after, Curtain ; in West End Restaurants, Dining and Ambience Can Be a Show All Their Own

Newspaper article International New York Times

London Dining before, or after, Curtain ; in West End Restaurants, Dining and Ambience Can Be a Show All Their Own

Article excerpt

In a few West End restaurants, dining and ambience can be a show all their own.

It takes time to eat in a great restaurant, and time is precious pre- or post-theater. You're either eating early and in a hurry to make the curtain, or you're up late and half-ready for bed. In either case, a two-hour blowout is unlikely.

This could explain why traditionally the best restaurants are not usually clustered in theater districts, and why the restaurants you do find in those areas tend to prize efficiency over anything else. But in London, at least, that's no longer the case. In the past decade, a dozen really interesting restaurants have opened in the heart of -- or just a few blocks from -- the West End. Some have come and gone, and I've written about others (most notably Quo Vadis, which remains a standby). But there's now enough of a critical mass that the area deserves a survey of its offerings.

These are not establishments that live and die with the theater, like those you'd find in New York's Restaurant Row (on 46th Street), for example. They're simply good restaurants that have staked out turf near theaters, to which they sometimes make a gesture, like a pretheater menu. This makes them attractive for those unwilling to give up a night of good eating just because there's a show on the calendar.

Book ahead. Way ahead, if you can. Most of these are wildly popular, and pretheater is prime time. (Post-theater and lunch are easier.) In all of these, your chances of walking in, or of getting a same-day booking, are slim to none.

Social Eating House Jason Atherton's Social Eating House is the most ambitious of the bunch, which is not a surprise. Because until recently Mr. Atherton was among the most promising chefs whose food I've eaten in the past few years. A Gordon Ramsay alum (don't hold that against him -- plenty of good people from that school blossomed after "graduation"), he is also at the helm of Pollen Street Social, a Mayfair restaurant that combines elegance and real, spectacularly satisfying food in a way that few others do.

Social Eating House does not aspire to be a Pollen Street Social; the idea here is refined food in a funky atmosphere. But I don't think it reaches its own culinary goals either, quite possibly because the chef appears to have been working on five openings in less than two years. Still, it's interesting, unusual and fun, perhaps better for post- than pretheater because the food is so beguiling that it's hard to get out of here in less than a couple of hours. (Though it can be done, if you insist.)

And the food, not at all precious, is deep, dark, complex and full-flavored. If there are some silly things -- it's hard to imagine that food tastes better when it's served in jars rather than bowls or small pots -- these can be written off as an attempt to be distinctive. Which in itself is silly, because the cooking is distinctive enough. In those silly jars is good brandade du morue (salt cod mousse) with fresh chips (well, crisps, as they're called here) and bright parsley puree; fantastic tartare of mackerel (most Brits adore mackerel, herring and anchovies almost as much as most Americans seem to fear them); duck rillettes -- in other words, food you might eat with bread.

Main courses are solid with precise seasoning: there is skill at work here. Lamb neck -- a generally underused cut of meat -- is ultra-tender and flavorful, served with couscous and topped with a spicy Moroccan-style sauce. Cod with seaweed, mushrooms, baby gem lettuce, cockles and cream smacks brilliantly of the North Atlantic. (So does hake with lovage, butter, leeks, cauliflower and potato.)

Desserts, which I almost never order, sounded so weird -- or should I say "creative"? -- that we had to try a couple. How can you resist a mojito sundae of lime and creme fraiche ice cream, mint sorbet, lemon curd, lemon meringue, crystallized mint and rum-lime sauce? Irresistible, maybe, but entirely successful, no. …

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