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London Restaurants
by Fred Ferretti

In London the talk these days is of food and gastronomic moment, of restaurants opened, and closed, of chefs honored, and obscured, all as befits a city that is as enticing as any when it comes to eating out.

A month ago Michelin spoke and Gordon Ramsay received his third star, a culinary ranking held by no other London chef or restaurant at the moment, an honor Ramsay actively, to some avidly pursued. No matter. On a recent visit wherein I sampled many of the best, most of the brightest, the former footballer's restaurant out in southwest London — the space once tenanted by Pierre Koffmann's La Tanté Claire — is exquisite.

Ramsay has as sure and confident hand as any as well as an uncanny ability to blend ingredients, garnishes, sauces, juices into coherent wholes. To wit: A salad of an entire sweetbread, cooked just through, its surface caramelized, accompanied by perfectly seared scallops and grilled asparagus tips, the dish bound together by a sweet and sour vinaigrette; or braised pork belly, that cut of fatty meat so adored by Asian chefs, cooked so its fat has melted away, surrounded by sauteed langoustines touched with their coral. And so on. As Michelin says, worth any detour, and the fact that Ramsay has brought with him his director Jean-Claude Breton from the old days at Aubergine adds urbane warmth and care to his restaurant.

Pierre Koffmann, who moved La Tanté Claire to the Savoy Group's Berkeley Hotel, to a softer, pale green room, kept his second Michelin star, to the despair of fans, such as me, who believe Koffmann is constantly brilliant and deserves the highest star. One is greeted in his restaurant by a large wicker bread trolley from which to pick any of more than a dozen. Have his version of a loaf of fougasse filled with pureed olives before your bowl of fresh snail stew, with carrots, salsify, potatoes and shards of squid. Koffmann is your man for perfectly roasted duck, for a proper classic potato galette, for foods paired jubilantly with garlic.

Other star turns in London this season are danced by Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, each of whom astonished the London eating world by returning to Michelin their three-star ratings, White for his Oak Room in the Meridien Hotel, Ladenis for Chéz Nico in the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. White rarely, if ever, cooks these days — more's the pity for he is a superb, and I so told him at one of his newest places, Drones — preferring to preside over an expanding empire of restaurants that as of this writing stands at fifteen.

White's chef at the Oak Room, Robert Reid, received his own Michelin star last month, which must mean that the restaurant is the only one extant with four stars (since Michelin informed White that it does not accept voluntary returns of stars it has bestowed). Drones, with a menu quite that of White's other one-star restaurant, Mirabelle, is very good indeed, its food executed in Marco Pierre White style, straightforward, classic, honest and ultimately exceptional. An arrangement of six Colchester oysters, set into salted aspic was perfect, as was a dish of breaded and fried pig's trotters and black pudding perfectly balanced with a sauce gribiche, a vinaigrette dotted with bits of boiled egg yolks. White at his best, even when he is not at the stove.

Nico Ladenis's newest entry — his Chéz Nicos and Simply Nicos dot the landscape — is Incognico, an unusual day to night restaurant on the edge of the theater district that, though recent to the London scene has the varnished-wall, old mirror, Deco-lamp, cigarette-smoke, bentwood-chair interior of an old brasserie. Run by Landenis's daughter, Natasha, it is bourgeoisie in every way from its welcoming pot of tapenade and its good breads, to a thick, puréed bean soup laced with white truffle oil, to a perfectly crisped confit of duck leg set upon a bed of lentils. Comfort.

Comfort indeed is what one experiences in what may be my favorite restaurant of this visit, Club Gascon, an outpost of true Gascony food, on the brim of the Smithfield meat market. It is a restaurant whose chef, Pascal Aussignac, is dedicated, happily it seems, to preparing foie gras is all of its guises, a man not afraid of fat, wonderful aromatic goose fat — in which his frites are fried — and who believes the black truffle should be dispensed liberally to a waiting world. He grills fresh foie gras with grapes, or smokes it in a terrine. Roasted frogs legs sit in a cup that once was a marrow bone and are eaten, dipped into a sauce mixed with puréed potatoes that sit in a companion bone. So lovely. Enough? Try the cassoulet Toulousain, thick with sausages and duck.

When in London one is obliged, of course, to eat traditionally, a duty I take seriously. So, if it is not to be avocado and fresh crab at Wilton's, it should be a perfect Dover sole at the Dorchester's Grill Room or Chef Henry Brosi's imaginative take on a classic brandade de morue, wherein his puréed salt cod and potatoes become the foundation for fine seared scallops from England's south coast and grilled prawns from Dublin way. Have as well, you must, breakfast at the Dorchester. The English scramble eggs better than anybody and the Dorchester scrambles them to creamy perfection better than anybody in England.

As in other cities, hotels in London are, more and more, establishing and upgrading restaurants of quality, imagination, fashion and, to be sure, good cooking. I suggest The Capital Restaurant in the hotel of the same name, just in back of Harrod's where a new chef, Eric Chavot, has just earned his kitchen a second Michelin star. Its once overstuffed dining room has become all beige and spare with large mirrors on which wood shelves are mounted, on which wood bowls, goblets and cups are displayed, as if in air. Absolutely marvelous were tiny ravioli stuffed with mushrooms served in a thick ragout of sautˇed mushrooms; and an utterly sensuous dish of layers — a bed of lentils and bacon, a pastry cup filled with shreds of confit of duck, then a layer of sliced duck breast, topped by a goodly slice of foie gras, all touched with a frail vinaigrette. Marvelous.

Lovely as well is the Mandarin Hyde Park's Foliage, designed by Adam Tihany as a bold, squared two-level room with large windows out onto Hyde Park. A setting to show off such dishes by Chef David Nicholls as a salad of crushed cauliflower and roasted scallops all of it sauced with a reduction of a mix based upon that fine port-like Banyuls wine of Mediterranean France; or a frothy broth of puréed artichokes with pearl barley for texture and a bit of truffle oil for elegance. Fine cooking, tuned to the seasons.

Not to forget Quadrato in the Four Seasons Hotel at Canary Wharf, where Chef Marco Bax has brought with him the food of Milan, last tasted at the Four Seasons in that city of La Scala. Bax, who is a native of Bergamo, cooks with an elegant hand such dishes as scallops of veal with small fried artichokes and an almost ethereal gâteau of fresh fennel. He wraps Dover sole and swordfish lightly in lemongrass, cooks them to a perfect firmness and serves them with tiny jacketed potatoes. Fine cooking. And he will tell you why Ligurian olive oil is best for starters and Sardinian oil for main dishes, except for meats which must be cooked with olive oil from Tuscany.

Finally, before I depart from London's tables, considerably thicker at the waist, I must say a few words about several perennial favorites of mine, not tasted this time but remembered fondly. Do not fail to eat at The Square where Chef Philip Howard will show you how and why his cooking rates two stars from Michelin, if only for his shallot soup served with a slice of ballotine of duck. Richard Corrigan at Lindsay House, his restaurant set into a Soho brownstone, and whose food now graces the menu of British Airways, plates up-to-the-minute British cooking such as potted pork with cabbage, chilies and pumpkin. And Gary Rhoses, he of the spiked hair cooking bright, direct food at City Rhoses. Try the tart of caramelized shallots and mushrooms, enhanced with a red wine butter. Then come home.

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