London is known to be a melting pot of diverse cuisines. How then do you choose where to dine? Restaurateur Samyukta Nair, who founded Jamavar London and Bombay Bustle, offers a crisp guide. By Samyukta Nair
I chose London as my second home at 16, when I left Mumbai to go to school in England. The culinary landscape, as I remember it during my years as a student, was not a patch on what it is today. In recent years, London has become a bastion of culinary innovation, and I am delighted to be able to witness this change and experience it not only as a patron but also as a part of it—by way of my two entrepreneurial ventures, Jamavar London and Bombay Bustle, nestled in the heart of Mayfair. The two restaurants embody my love for India and passion for its diverse cuisine alongside my family’s extensive knowledge of Indian hospitality. While my restaurants have created a distinctive niche and loyal patronage for themselves, they have also introduced me to London’s culinary melting pot. The city’s embracing of its diversity has led to springing up of new eateries that push a fresh type of food hybridism, alongside the traditional fare that I grew up on.
Close to Mayfair, Soho boasts some of the best eateries in West End. This brimming and vibrant neighbourhood is where Michelin-starred restaurants meet hidden gems worth exploring. Always crowded but worth the wait, Barrafina is a modern Spanish tapas bar in Soho that’s on the top of my list. Nibbling on their chorizo, croquetas, or gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), and sipping on some cava or sherry, while waiting for a seat at the bar, which overlooks their communal kitchen, only adds to the dining experience. Known for its fiery flavours, the Sichuan-focussed Barshu is further down the road and boasts of authentic fare where quality cooking and prices match. I would recommend basing your order around the tender boiled sea bass with sizzling chilli oil and aromatic spices.
Serving the food of modern-day Jerusalem and influenced by the cultures of Southern Spain, North Africa, and the Levant is The Palomar. It lives up to its promise of being fun with quality offerings. The bar is undoubtedly the best spot in the house to eat their kubaneh, shakshukit, and glazed octopus—alongside any of their yummy cocktails. Kiln, another pint-sized dining room, focusses on sharing plates that embody a stripped-back Thai BBQ, inspired by Yunnan, Burma, and Bangkok with the focus on UK-sourced ingredients. Amid a hit-list of grill dishes and clay pots, Kiln is a casual dining experience worth the queues.
For something closer to home, pop by Hoppers for hearty Sri Lankan fare—their bone marrow varuval and crab kari are must orders. Not far from Soho is Scully St James’s, where the first venture of chef-patron Ramael Scully—previously head chef of Ottolenghi’s Nopi—guarantees a transnational culinary feast inspired by his life experiences and influences, from his birth in Malaysia to a Chinese-Indian mother and Irish-Balinese father, and training in Sydney, as well as time spent in the Middle East, Russia, and Europe.
Go east and you’re in for a culinary adventure of a completely different kind. Smoking Goat, the sister restaurant of Kiln, is not for the spice-shy. Inspired by the late-night canteens of Bangkok, its bold and distinctive flavours come through when you order signature dishes like chilli fish sauce wings and lardo fried rice. Right above is Brat with its Basquestyle turbot; it champions excellent produce with a gentle style of fire cooking (and is entirely deserving of its Michelin star earned in its debut year). For serious meat lovers, Smokestak is a buzzing Bib Gourmand barbeque that is particularly famous for its brisket buns and a cocktail menu to match.
Visit Red Rooster for some New York-style enthusiasm where soulful Southern comfort food meets fun-loving energy with live music through the week. Oklava, with its Southern-Med-meets-Middle-Eastern flavours, is an ode to modern Turkish food in a stylish Shoreditch setting. Black Axe Mangal is loosely inspired by Turkish grill houses and boasts of open fire cooking, loud music, and unapologetic flavours with signature dishes being its flatbreads, tartare prawn toast, and blood cake fried rice.
Celebrating China’s culinary history is A. Wong, which covers regional styles from Chengdu to Shanghai with its innovative dim sums and exquisite Peking duck. A trip to London isn’t complete without a visit to Borough Market. Padella, a crowd favourite, serves up flawless home-made pasta; its classic pappardelle with eight-hour Dexter beef shin ragu is at the top of my list. There’s also El Pastor, a feel-good foodie-fiesta taqueria started by the Barrafina-founding Hart brothers. In the area and on my yet-to-visit list are Flor and Stoney Street by 26 Grains. I can’t wait to get back to give them a try.
However, amid all the new entries, there are still the classics such as Ruth Roger’s iconic Thames-side restaurant, River Café, 30 years old and still the perfect spot to spend a leisurely summer afternoon. I can’t mention my Sunday favourite, Scotts, arguably the finest seafood restaurant in London. Its desserts, too, are splendid—a family favourite being the Bakewell pudding and honeycomb ice cream. Another favourite is the two Michelin-starred Notting Hill fine-dine The Ledbury, which might remain closed indefinitely due to the pandemic.
As I pen my recommendations, I realise that this is the longest I’ve been away from my second home. As I count down to make my way back, with the lockdown gradually lifting and the government exploring distancing measures to be put in place for restaurants, I am excited to see what this different normal will feel like. While reopening presents an enormous challenge of its own, my only hope is to return to a London that is very much like the one I remember it to be: rooms brimming with noisy diners.
The Connaught Hotel is a luxury option in the chic Mayfair village (doubles from INR 62,315).
Rosewood London occupies a restored Edwardian mansion with a carriageway and a courtyard (doubles from INR 52,874).