What were you doing when Michael Jackson stopped getting any more chances, warbled his final earth song and did not have to take any more decisions on whether he was black or white? These are all songs of his, and I guess if you need to pretend to protest at my lack of sensitivity at the death of a man who had a tortured life, you should have recognised them already.
I will answer my own question because everybody knows that when writers kick off with one, or five, they always have the response there ready. It is writing cliché at its best.
I was lying on my hotel room bed – hotel is business-boring so I will not regale you with false tales of its beauty or recommend it. BBC 1 was flickering in the darkness. I was also playing around with Twitter on my iPhone when the updates started pouring in.
Therefore, very weirdly, for the first time ever, I knew celebrity news before anybody else had got to them by virtue of being alone, awake and restless on a foreign hotel bed. It confirmed what I have always known: that people who are obsessed with this stuff have no life and no decent sleep patterns.
London does this to me. Strangely, that one hour time difference combined with recycled air and a view of the motorway throws my circadian rhythm out of synch (although I found that a few hours later, I could dance to Billie Jean with no problems).
London makes me infinitely jealous by virtue of having so many wonderful and exceptionally good restaurants. Their style is very different from ours: most are actually designed by a designer rather than the owner’s wife. The chairs are different in each whereas ours fall into one of three categories: hotel back-breaking, old Maltese or padded modern. The choice is staggering. If I were a food critic in London I would eat out daily. I would eat out until it made me sick in the stomach and in the head. Not that that hasn’t happened here already.
And so, after months of badgering by the huge exodus of Maltese going to the English capital – to buy cars, to buy clothes, to buy everything the weak sterling allowed – here are my favourites. I pray to god and Michael J in star heaven that I will not be having one of my quiet nights out with a book and find any of you there not stopping ‘til you get enough.
The term is redefined in the capital, but let’s just say that by using it I mean: the food will be slightly experimental, very clean in taste and flavour, and in most cases locally sourced. The ambience will most probably be very understated. You are looking at £75 per person, no holds barred. Turning up in your Primark plastic shoes may not be such a fabulous idea although £1,000 Balmain ripped jeans are fine. Such is the paradox of fine dining in London.
Hibiscus By the capital’s standards, Hibiscus is small and its two Michelin stars help pack it every night. Their supper menu, where you get to choose three items from starter, main and dessert, costs €65. The trick, if you’d like to sample the wares of Lyon-born Claude Bosi but not pay so much, is to go to lunch, which very generously includes three courses, a glass of wine, coffee and petit fours: perfect for business at a perfect 35 quid.
The Hereford snail and Alsace bacon ravioli, ras el hanout and potato veloute with a pickled mango puree is sublime: heavy from the pastry but light as air with everything else. The veloute is mixed with coconut milk into a silken sheen, and the spice mix renders depth rather than punch. The roast topside of Herefordshire beef with Irish moss jus, smoked eel and baby gem lettuce is a wonderful surprise of how grass-fed cows produce perfect bits of everything no matter how ‘cheap’ the cut. Here they serve the part normally best used in stew due to its strength of texture in two small, thick, easy to chew slices.
The cherry clafoutis is warm, choc-a-block with stone cherries (with which you get a warning, just in case you break your teeth on the stones and attempt to sue), juxtaposing perfectly with the thick creaminess of the ice-cream.
Hibiscus is just the ticket for business power-lunching and the groups of working women I noted take the boring men-in-suits edge off. It is also bang between Savile Row and Regent Street, which is miles better than Oxford Street for quality shopping.
J. Sheekey’s This is another of Caprice Holding’s jewels in their never-ending crown. From the owners of The Ivy and The Wolseley (check out next week’s review) comes this wonderful series of large and small rooms bang in the middle of Soho. For this reason, J. Sheekey’s does pre- and post-theatre sittings. If you want a table, and you want it now, go when everybody else is watching The Lion King.
There is the bar, which has its own particular menu, and at which you sit and eat. I find that the ‘eating at the bar’ situation is perfect when you are travelling on your own. There is always some form of interaction if you feel like it (with the waiter, with your neighbours – mine was a rampant Lord) and none if you don’t. There is the normal dining area with tables and chairs and the Oyster Bar, the coolest hangout where you can show off your Miu Miu’s, eat next to nothing and drink champagne for a lot of money. Or £15 if you go for the Roederer glass and a half dozen of West Mersea pearl oysters.
Sheekey’s is fish central: anything from cold, pressed crab and potted shrimps to smoked fish or a whole Dover sole drenched in butter will make it to their menu, and they do it mostly very well. They also have lovely and very homely desserts such as Eton Mess. I adore their Scandinavian Iced Berries, also available at The Ivy. You must have this and then repeat it at home: the berries are frozen individually, served on a plate, and hot white chocolate sauce is poured over them, changing the temperature of both fruit and sauce. They are hedonism in practice. “What a waste of berries!” said the Lord. I loved them even more.
Sheekey’s is the kind of place which is always bursting at the seams with celebrities and extremely rich Middle-Easterns. Please don’t gush if someone straight out of the cover of Grazia happens to be sitting next to you.
Hakkasan Hakkasan is not a ‘Chinese’, or a restaurant: it is Alan Yau’s masterpiece, a terrifyingly huge space in black and red lacquer which I last calculated seats at least 300 people, rendered intimate by amazing design and judicious (lack of) light. At 11.30pm, the lights are turned down even further and the music up: crazy by normal restaurant standards but somehow just fabulous here. The experience does not take anything away from the dining one, but adds to it.
Have the dim sum: they’re the closest I have ever tasted to the brilliant stuff in Singapore and Hong Kong: light in texture, packed with fresh ingredients, and actually tiny as they should be. Have the lotus root, stir-fried with asparagus and lily root in black pepper. The morning glory stir-fry in chilli, preserved bean curd and ginger sauce took me back to Shanghai where the vegetable is an everyday staple, rather than reason to say ‘Ooh I like the way you wake up!’
The crispy fresh-water prawn comes with egg yolk, dried shrimp and curry leaf and the only thing that stopped me from attacking the grilled Wagyu beef with enoki mushroom and soya was the tear-inducing price tag: £58 per portion. Almost everything else costs ‘normal’ prices, which by posh London standards means almost £10 for starters and anywhere close to £20 for mains.
Although the desserts at Hakkasan are lovely and the choice is as far from tinned lychees as you’ll ever get, the biggest piece of candy is meant for the eye: the staff, male and female, seem to be plucked straight out of Britain’s Colonisation of Hong Kong’s Next Top Model: thank god I was sitting low. Like that I did not have to stand up and compare my height to theirs.
Incidentally, before you kick off, check out the bar which has such an extensive and innovative cocktail list that we continued drinking them all through dinner. And keep in mind that because the place is always packed with celebs, you cannot take any pictures. Shame, but the food more than makes up for it.
[Cheap as Chips (but so much nicer)] The gossip that London is very expensive when it comes to food is just that – gossip. These days you do not need to look very hard to find a casual eatery that produces good, organic and free-range food which actually tastes superb. Try these two: I did, and I love them.
Comptoir Libanais The GBF sent me to this one because he had spent so much money in the shops, professing that ‘the sales’ had driven him crazy, that finding somewhere which would not embarrass his credit card had become a necessity.
I went to the one at Westfield whereas he had been to the one in Wigmore Street. Both were great. At Westfield, the setting is extremely casual and all members of staff are wonderful, especially by British mall standards, which usually leave much to be desired.
The food is fresh and mostly organic. They have an extensive selection of Lebanese breads including a very light one with built-in olives, made with olive oil. The chunks of cucumber in Greek yoghurt were great and so are the many skewers of different meats. The fresh pomegranate and lime juice was fragrant and genuine.
At Comptoir you choose little bowls of different things and construct your own lunch or dinner. Their opening hours are such that you are not restricted to pre-set times. There is no booking so you just turn up. In the Wigmore Street restaurant you can buy lovely sweets and jams and bring them back to your Fag Hag back home. There are no jars at Westfield. Five little bowls plus juice came to the princely sum of £9.50. No wonder that Time Out calls it ‘the best dinner in London under £10’.
65, Wigmore Street, London WIU 1PZ
The Balcony, Westfield Shopping Centre, Sheperd’s Bush W12 7GE
26, London Street, Paddington, London W2 1HH
02 Centre, 255 Finchley Road, London NW3 6LU
Byron: Proper Hamburgers In a world where to most people ‘burger’ and ‘Micky d’ sit noisily, colourfully and shamefully in the same sentence, I guess a distinction has to be made between the real thing (this one) and the fake, sugar-drenched one we get children hooked on by the time they’re three.
The list of burgers is shorter than that at Gourmet Burger Kitchen (a much bigger, much inferior chain) but I found it more genuine, punchier, and with a much less dry execution. In fact, they are the closest I have ever come to the kind of big, fat patty we can all make at home. In comparison to GBK’s staggering choice from 23, they only make seven different kinds, but the ones they do make are exactly how a burger should be.
I had the ‘skinny’ which is basically the low-carb version, comes without a bun and with a salad on the side. That would have been more than enough to keep me chugging on for the best of three hours but obviously, I had to go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘I love chips’, specifically the hand-cut ones.
The best thing about Byron is that they do not try and reinvent the wheel: the burgers are made from Aberdeen Angus beef (yes, the same one imported by Zammeats), the potatoes are crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, the mayo is Hellman’s and the ketchup Heinz. The staff are fabulous and friendly: I dropped a knife and broke my glass of tap water, sending liquid and shards all over the room – they cleaned it up in five minutes and provided a brand new burger without a quibble, as if it was their fault. I loved it so much that I left them a huge tip. So huge, in fact, that it cost me as much as two burgers.
Part 2 next week: how to book the most difficult restaurants, the mid-range wonders and some fabulous cakes. Reader suggestions on London eating from www.planetmona.com
Not going to away? Buy your food in Malta and recreate a Siclian experience The heat is getting to us, although we cannot say we’re having a harsh summer. Although most of us are avoiding the shops and heading for the beach I suggest you find time to go to two particular outlets this summer.
One is Dical House on the way from Naxxar to Mosta, just past Scotts. Dical suffers from having a distinct lack of visibility. You have to drive slowly. Then on the inside, the light does not do the food justice. Yet the selection available is truly fabulous. Amongst other things, it stocks the excellent Bufalefi range of wines from Felice Modica in Sicily. His Insolia is unparalleled: a crisp, lemony white which sets fish off and which will make you drink with the second glass. Hunt high and low (or just ask) for their Dolce Nero, Sicily’s only sweet red dessert wine. It is like drinking liquid velvet. All their range is just fantastic chilled. Don’t believe anybody who says that red wine cannot take this: all of South Africa cannot be wrong.
Apart from these wines, Dical also stock the Sicilfrutti range of jams, pastes and preserves. So do Camilleri. The nougat is really something else: soft and heavy without going anywhere near ‘Ganni l-Ghawdxi hawn’ territory. Not only do you not have to hunt for the singular almond in the slab, but these are actually choc-a-block with them: fruits, pistacchi, almonds. I just leave one in the fridge and bite bits off as I go along. Normally nougat does not like this (the fridge, not the biting) but this one, being as it is full of quality ingredients, does not mind.
Camilleri Paris Mode are in Annunciation Square Sliema. They are more renowned for their range of fabrics but over the past months they have been experimenting with increasing their range of foods, spices and even wines. Both they and Dical are shining examples of how you can stay in Malta and still enjoy your foodie summer.