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Sophisticated International cuisine spices up London diners' palettes

| Sunday, May 6, 2007

Did Julius Caesar introduce Italian cuisine when he invaded Brittania in 55 BC• It's an unlikely speculation but not totally preposterous. Perhaps the locals welcomed him because they were fed up with overcooked and under-seasoned meals.

Centuries of dominance in world commerce shaped London into a cosmopolitan city. But until recently, the food scene remained notoriously a culinary wasteland. The exception was non-native cuisines -- especially French, Indian and Chinese. But these foods came from small ethnic eateries and served only as a footnote to tourism. Not so today: The British dining market hungers for global cuisine and world-class local fare. Offering a cornucopia of modern, sophisticated restaurants, London now attracts destination diners.

French connection and beyond

Fine dining in the British isles has long been France-inspired. Intrepid chef-owners, like the Roux brothers and Raymond Blanc, crossed the channel to set up shop, attracting young British chefs to their kitchens. Many other United Kingdom hopefuls apprenticed in France. Gordon Ramsay tackled both experiences, then set British dining on a fabulously upward spiral.

Adding more "edge," young chefs from Australia and New Zealand settled into their imperial mother country -- notably Peter Gordon at Providores, Brett Graham at The Ledbury, Shane Osborn at Pied-a-Terre and Nicholas Watt at Roka.

Most especially, a new generation of native chefs and owners explore the world, bringing home their experiences and influences. Obsessed with quality ingredients, they revel in the U.K.'s rich local pantry -- hence New Brit cuisine.

Seeing stars

New York magazine's restaurant critic, Adam Platt, recently ate his way through London, reporting profuse pork belly but also more Michelin stars in aggregate than in New York City. View this statistic as a sign of restaurant vitality rather than a quality comparison between the two cities.

Only three U.K. restaurants have three stars - -and they're spectacular must-visits: in London, the original Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea; in the nearby village of Bray, both the exquisite Modern French Waterside Inn, founded by Michel Roux and now guided by his son, Alain, and the sensational Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's mecca of molecular gastronomy.

With two stars, on the brink of three, Pied-a-Terre survived being burned to the ground to reopen at an even higher level. Brilliant chef Shane Osborn creates incredible dishes -- actually flavor collages -- using seasonal local ingredients and an innate sense of balance. Petrus, under chef Marcus Wareing, acquired its second star this year, and other starry nights beckon: Philip Howard's inimitable The Square; The Ledbury, with talented Brett Graham; La Gavroche, widely considered London's best French restaurant; and The Capital, in Knightsbridge.

Happily, Claude and Clare Bosi will soon move their wonderful two-star Hibiscus from Ludlow to London.

The price of spice

In London's residential neighborhoods, you can still find value-priced Chinese and Indian fare -- those hole-in-the-wall haunts offering economical, stomach-satisfying meals. But the trend of ethnic restaurants, especially Asian, is distinctly up-market -- elegant, often contemporary, interiors; sophisticated menus; and locations in the city's toniest neighborhoods such as Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Kensington. A few have Michelin star ratings, a rarity for Asian cuisine.

Craving Indian• Long established favorites like Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy still draw crowds. But newer places, with names literally from Amaya to Zaika -- with Benares, Deya and Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in between -- attract stylish clientele.

The city's crazed right now for Japanese cuisine. Three Nobus lead the pack -- though the one in Canary Wharf is mirror-christened Ubon. Roka and Zuma, sister restaurants, generate buzz with smart decor, huge open kitchens and gorgeous dishes such as chile-pasted, giant, wild Madagascar prawn.

Recently, Thai cuisine entered the market. Australian David Thompson transplanted Nahm, his popular Sydney establishment, to Belgravia, earning a Michelin star. The Blue Elephant remains a favorite. Benja promises "a new kind of Thai cuisine" and delivers considerable glamour, both in decor and on the plate.

London Chinese fare can be elegant and costly. Hong Kong restaurant tycoon David Tang recently leased space in the Dorchester Hotel for China Tang, a magnificent room, serving A-List celebrity diners, genuine Cantonese cooking and flawless service. Hakkasan, haute and luxe, commands $120 per person for full dinners. Its Soho sister establishment, Yauatcha, serves $12 pots of tea with the city's best dim sum.

European outposts

For Italian, try Zafferano, Locanda Locatelli, the newer Assaggi, and long-time darling The River Cafe -- all one-starred.

Spanish tapas bars are sprouting up. Brothers Sam and Eddie Hart, British but born and raised in Spain, operate Fino. They also recently crafted a hit in Barrafina, a 23-seat counter space offering Iberian little bites and a limited wine list. Brazilians, especially Mocoto in Knightsbridge, spread a sexy vibe.

French options range from ultra high-style Sketch, co-owned by Parisian superstar chef Pierre Gagnaire, to Chez Bruce, Decanter's 2006 restaurant of the year.

Lovers of foie gras and similar luxuries treasure Club Gascon. Cellar Gascon, an adjacent wine bar, and Comptoir Gascon, a nearby grocery store, explore the wine and food offerings of chef-owner Pascal Aussignac's native region. His Le Cercle offers small plate selections, in a designer basement space, but beware: eager appetites quickly grow a fat tab. On arrival, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon promptly copped a star and generated long waits and high prices for small bites.

For a truly memorable French meal, venture to The Waterside Inn in Bray.

Finally, mod Brit cuisine

The Ledbury, Pied a Terre, Gordon Ramsay and The Fat Duck are all at the top of their game. At The Ledbury, order hay-smoked, milk-fed baby lamb and anything featuring fresh scallops. Pied a Terre's commitment to sustainability shows up in zander, a fresh water fish from northern European waters, roasted and paired with local razor clams. One Gordon Ramsey classic gilds venison with raspberry/bitter chocolate sauce. The Fat Duck presents such fascinating, alchemical dishes as "snail porridge" and nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream -- but beware: prices are stunning.

Newcomer Arbutus has won numerous awards, including, unintentionally, a Michelin star. Co-owners Will Smith and Chef Anthony Demetre spent a lot of time in New York while planning their venture, and they're aiming for the relaxed menu and ambiance of restaurants they loved, like Lupa and Babbo. The menu is seasonal and ingredient-driven. Also, using "off cuts" and offal keeps their prices accessible. Braised pig's head is a specialty, as is roast halibut, with braised beef short ribs and lentils

Irish-born celebrity chef Richard Corrigan is hugely successful. At his original Soho restaurant, Lindsay House, he serves sophisticated food described as "sumptuous and earthy" -- fried duck egg with black pudding, a potato cake and wild mushrooms; pig's trotters (feet) stuffed with morels and sweetbreads. His other restaurant, Bentley's, is a landmark "fish house," offering superb mollusks, fish and traditional favorites like smoked haddock, with bubble and squeak (fried cabbage) and an egg. Soon to come: Richard Corrigan on Park Lane, in The Grosvenor House.

Set your agenda for visiting Borough Market, in Southwark. This legendary food emporium opens to the public every Friday afternoon and all day Saturday. You can snack on market take-out, but a sit-down meal at Roast is special. Combining a magnificent interior with regional items -- including fish and chips wittily served in the pink pages of the Financial Times, chef Lawrence Keogh and founder Iqbal Wahhab have a real winner,

Brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin have worked together for most of their chef careers. Jeff holds the fort at Galvin's Bistro de Luxe, where the menu combines French Bistro fare and modern sensibility to seasonal ingredients. Chris is executive chef at Galvin at Windows, atop the London Hilton, with splendid food and a glorious view -- including, from certain tables, a peek into Buckingham Palace's gardens.

Chef Lawrence Glayzer and charming Maitre'd Angelo Maresca ensure a great dining experience at The Grill, in historical Brown's Hotel. New owner Rocco Forte just completed a huge renovation of this historic hotel. Here's where to enjoy quintessentially British afternoon tea.

If you go

Getting there: Most non-British airlines fly to Gatwick. USAirways connects via Philadelphia and Charlotte. Charlotte's airport works better, but the flight time to London is about 45 minutes longer. If connecting through Philadelphia, you should allow at least a two-hour layover in either direction; cautious travelers allow three hours.

Continental code shares with Virgin Atlantic, which flies into Heathrow from Washington Dulles. American and British Airways connect through Chicago into Heathrow. Because Heathrow is a much larger and busier airport, flight delays are common, but it is closer to the city.

Getting around: An express train service runs from both airports: from Heathrow to Paddington, northwest of the heart of London; and from Gatwick to Victoria, near Westminster. Trains depart every 15 minutes. Tickets can be purchased on the train, and major credit cards are accepted. Both terminals are a short taxi ride to most major hotels.

While seeing the city, use the Underground subway system for distances too far to walk.

Taxis are very expensive and often make slow progress because to traffic congestion. Bus routes are complicated, and again slowed by traffic. Walking works, but take an umbrella because weather changes fast from sunshine to showers.

Accommodations: All the major U.S. hotel chains have several properties to choose from. There's also a new boom in high-style boutique hotels. Grand British hotels run expensive to very expensive. If you find what seems like a deal, be suspicious of the quality and location.

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