(Reuters.com) - London is home to one of the most diverse and exciting restaurant scenes in the world. But sometimes, packed in among the masses of mediocre fare, exceptional dining experiences must be sought out rather than stumbled upon.
Here, four of London's most widely acclaimed chefs - Gary Lee of The Ivy, Rainer Becker of Zuma, Tong Chee Hwee of Michelin-starred Hakkasan and Dave McCarthy of Scott's - talk about what they believe goes into making a restaurant experience particularly memorable, how they pull it off at their own establishments, and what they look for when they hang up their aprons and head out to eat.
THE COMFORTS OF HOME
"In the end people come back for the food" concludes Rainer Becker, head chef at Zuma, as we discuss what lies at the heart of a memorable dining experiences. Everyone agrees that good service, ambiance and company are must-haves when it comes to enjoying a fabulous meal. But making diners "happy", which The Ivy's head chef Gary Lee says is his main aim, is ultimately all about delivering food that "satisfies the soul as well as the stomach."
This goal sounds both ambitious and enigmatic. To achieve it, Gary Lee draws his inspiration from childhood memories and comfort food; food that arouses happy associations makes for a very special kind of satisfaction. The smells rising from the kitchen at The Ivy, where I met Lee, confirm his theory. The aroma of simmering cauldrons of beef stock, and the buttery warmth of the pastry ovens are wafting into the chef's office, reminiscent of long Sunday lunches and traditionally slow-cooked British food. Lee says that though the dishes may be simple and familiar, cooking them to perfection or updating the dish in subtle ways is his secret to success.
When looking for something similar himself, Gary Lee named Wild Honey in Mayfair as a place to enjoy well prepared meats. The unfussy, wholesome menu and unpretentious atmosphere are what Lee enjoys best about this restaurant. Invigorated and animated as he talks about a meal he recently had there, Lee says the dishes are simple but the execution is "flawless" and the focus is squarely on enjoying the food.
Chef Tong Chee Hwee of Hakkasan draws his inspiration from his mother and grandmother's home cooking. He recalls the wooden stove used in the family home, their careful attention to farming home-grown ingredients. Indeed, insisting on high quality ingredients and honing an intuitive understanding for them is, for Chef Tong a hallmark of good cooking as he describes the long hours he spent peeling crab meat and garlic early in his career and how important handling the ingredients can be in learning about taste and texture before cooking even begins.
That's why Chef Tong loves to eat at Ba Shan in Soho. The Szechuan peppers are the first thing he mentions - they come straight from Szechuan, and have no bitter after-taste, which too many peppers have. He particularly recommends the "hot and spicy numbness" of the Mouth-Watering Chicken, which he says is traditionally prepared - not too heavy and very moreish - and that reminds him of the flavours and essences of food from China.
Rainer Becker of Zuma is similarly enthusiastic about the informal dining ambiance. That's one reason he says he enjoys British pub food so much - the atmosphere is casual and social, and many pubs also boast impressive menus. He recommends in particular the Harwood Arms, Fulham's light, lively Michelin-starred gastropub, and Aglio E Olio, another down-to-earth neighbourhood favourite. Located in West Brompton, Becker comes here to enjoy a low key evening thanks to the really delicious pasta and local ambiance.
But the food culture Becker discovered when he visited Japan for the first time remains a defining vision for him in his cooking today. The Izakaya style of eating in Japan is the inspiration behind Zuma, and the artisanal touch in Japanese food, the attention to detail and ceremonial flourish finds echoes in its menu, natural interiors and hand-thrown ceramics that are unique to each dish.
In the same vein Dave McCarthy of seafood-specialist Scott's tells me about the visual drama of seafood and how much delight his customers take in prising open shells and cracking claws, sometimes abandoning cutlery to use their hands while eating. Eating delicate food such as fish with bones or shellfish, which can be laborious and requires care, is something many of his customers see as a treat. At the same time, getting involved with your food adds an "extra sensory and social dimension" to the meal and brings people together by turning the food into a conversation piece or an ice-breaker over the table.
So it makes sense that both McCarthy and Becker name Heston Blumenthal's newly opened restaurant Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park as one of the most exciting meals they have recently enjoyed. Blumenthal, known for the elaborate theatricality of his menus, with whizzing, popping and melting ingredients, turns a meal into an exotic food odyssey with surprises in every course.
The novelty of the meal is a source of great excitement for both chefs and delivers bang for buck because the food itself is delicious and entertaining. Bon appétit!
Find the London restaurants named in the article:
Zuma, 5 Raphael Street (here)
The Ivy, 1-5 West Street (www.the-ivy.co.uk)
Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place (w3.hakkasan.com/hanway-place)
Wild Honey, 12 St George Street (www.wildhoneyrestaurant.co.uk)
Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street (0207 287 3266)
Harwood Arms, 27 Walham Grove (www.harwoodarms.com)
Aglio E Olio, 194 Fulham Road (0207 351 0070)
Scott's, 20 Mount Street (www.scotts-restaurant.com)
Dinner, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge (here)
(Editing by Peter Myers)