In the bad old days, the question of what regional cuisine Londoners favoured boiled down to: ‘What shall we eat tonight: Indian? Chinese? Italian?’ Now, we have an ever more diverse array of flavours to choose from.
This year, it’s a disputed territory that tops the trend list: Euskadi, or the Basque Country. With restaurants in San Sebastián and nearby – including Mugaritz, Asador Etxebarri, Azurmendi and Arzak – featuring prominently in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in recent years, this should come as no surprise. Basque food satisfies the continuing passion for small-plate sharing (with its version of tapas, pintxos) and the desire for state-of-the-art kitchen techniques applied to traditional dishes. Basque food has intense colour and flavour: sweet peppers and cherries, salty bacalao and roasted meats. The latest arrivals are Eneko at One Aldwych, with a menu designed by Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi, following in the footsteps of arguably the world’s greatest female chef, Elena Arzak, who, as the name implies, trained the chefs at Ametsa With Arzak Instruction, at The Halkin hotel in Belgravia. With a branch of the less high-end Sagardi chain (Basque, but from Barcelona) opening in Shoreditch, as well as established restaurants such as Donostia and Lurra in Marylebone, there is enough Basque food in London now to sustain a multi-venue txikiteo, or pintxos crawl.
Another nation well represented in the World’s Top 50 is Peru, and the London love of ceviche and other regional dishes doesn’t look like abating any time soon. Now, though, it’s a case of following regional cuisines: Casita Andina in Soho is Ceviche boss Martin Morales’s ode to the Andes, while Chicama, in Chelsea – from the people behind Pachamama in Marylebone – concentrates on Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese food.
There are also whole trends built around a single dish from distant parts. First, there was Korean kimchi; now, it’s Taiwanese gua bao – steamed clam-shaped buns that form a sandwich. While pork belly, peanuts, greens and herbs are the traditional filling, Bao in Soho and Fitzrovia, and Mr Bao in Peckham offer chicken, prawn, aubergine or mushroom versions.
More surprising, perhaps, is the growing popularity of food from the former Soviet Union. The grandiose Samarkand on Charlotte Street serves Uzbek food, which reflects the country’s geographical posi tion between the Middle East, Asia and Russia with dishes such as plov (rice, vegetables and lamb), samsa (lamb or sweetpotato filo parcels) and baklajan (aubergine caviar). But at Zima, in Soho, chef Alexei Zimin has introduced a real ‘who knew?’ concept – Russian street food (although, at a minimum of £30 for caviar, sour cream and potatoes, it must be a very well-heeled street). Other dishes are based around scallops, crab claws and venison. Zima is just one example of the blurred boundaries between street, or ‘dirty’, food – snacks, sometimes indulgent ones, to accompany an evening of drinking and socialising – and the more traditional sit-down focus of an evening. Areas like Kensington have places such as Dirty Bones (fried chicken, waffles, burgers etc) and Bone Daddies (ramen and other Japanese food), sharing clientele with the likes of Ours, the new restaurant by Michelinstarred chef Tom Sellers. Notting Hill sees new openings as diverse as The Chipping Forecast fish and chip shop and modern Mexican from Latin America’s Best 50 Restaurants chef Eduardo Garcia at Peyotito.
The other democratisation trend is that central London no longer hogs all the best food. The team behind Hawksmoor made Chiswick one of the first locations of its Foxlow brasseries. Two new Ivy Cafes (featuring Ivy Covent Garden favourites such as shepherd’s pie) are the latest name for St John’s Wood and Wimbledon, the latter of which also gets a Dip & Flip (Canadianstyle poutine and burgers, both served with gravy), the first of which opened in Clapham. South London has turned from culinary wasteland to gastro heartland. Dulwich has modern British at Franklins and The Palmerston, sushi and cocktails at Yama Momo and the crucible for talented young chefs that is Toasted, with a Meatliquor hipster-burgery to come to the area the founders are from.
Clapham, too, has a vibrant scene dominated by The Dairy, which is focused on the produce of quality British suppliers (particularly heritage vegetables and fermented, pickled and preserved ingredients), and sister restaurants The Manor and the new Counter Culture, which combine several trends with pintxos-style plates of dishes, including fermented heritage vegetables in an out-of-centre location.