I Love Chocolate

by Stephanie Zonis


London Foodie's Guide

by Stephanie Zonis

The Grapes, London

Planning a trip to London in the near future? Having just returned from that city, I can tell you that, despite anything you've heard, it is quite possible to eat very well in London these days--just bring money! This is an expensive city, but many restaurants offer two- or three-course specials for lunch or dinner. Londoners tend to eat at somewhat later hours than many people in the U.S. If you don't like crowds, consider eating at the more famous or trendy places for lunch, when there may be fewer people. All the same, it is a very good idea (and often a necessity) to reserve ahead, especially during the tourist seasons. Important note: some establishments in the UK do not accept credit cards, and many will not take traveller's checks, even in pounds sterling, for amounts higher than your purchase (the banks won't give them change). The following is a highly subjective listing of some good places to eat or buy edibles:

The River Cafe (Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, phone: 0171 381 8824). A cheerful, efficient, and very busy young staff works as a team to provide polished but friendly service in a classy, low-key place. Diners have a view of some of the goings-on in the kitchen and a wood-burning oven. My entree of faraona in padella (pan-roasted guineafowl stuffed with prosciutto, sage, and lemon) was crisp-skinned, perfectly cooked, and superb; the braised cavolo nero that accompanied it was just as good. The chocolate nemesis I had for dessert was rich, creamy, very chocolate, and flawless. The self-effacing front-end manager, when complimented on the restaurant, replied merely that Rose (one of the owners) was in the kitchen, and that made his job easy, because it meant that the food would be wonderful. The menu here changes twice daily. This restaurant can become noisy, but you'll be savoring your food too much to notice. Reserve early. Please do not miss the chance to eat here.

Alastair Little (49 Frith St., phone: 0171 734 5183). A very small, almost homelike place, this restaurant still manages to be upscale, though not in the least pretentious. I defy anybody, anywhere, to produce a better Italian field mushroom risotto, because I don't think it can be done. This dish was flavorful and of a wonderfully creamy consistency; the grains of rice remained distinct, yet were cooked through, and there were lots of mushroom pieces. My companion's blinis with smoked back salmon and sour cream were also excellent. The flavorful ballotine of foie gras was accompanied by a terrific onion marmalade (though the toast that came with this dish was slightly burnt). My companion's baked cod, shrimp, and saffron veloute with mash was memorable, with the fish nicely cooked and the flavors well-blended. For dessert, we shared a creme brulee good enough to make the angels envious and a chocolate marquis with ginger sauce. The marquis was light but chocolatey, and the ginger sauce (a silken custard with a mild ginger flavor) was an ideal accompaniment. The staff were polite and friendly and unobtrusive. I strongly recommend this place. Reserve early.

Hilaire (68 Old Brompton Rd., phone: 0171 584 8993). Another quietly classy, small restaurant. One thing I especially liked here was the gracious attitude toward those dining by themselves. Recommended dishes: chestnut, ham, and lentil soup; the crostini of mushrooms with pigeon, rocket, and truffle oil (absolutely glorious); light chocolate ice cream with chocolate flecks (part of the Trio of Chocolate, though the other two chocolate desserts weren't as good).

Cafes In London

Wiz (123A Clarendon Rd., phone 0171 229 1500). Funky but pleasant surroundings, with lots of cushions. This restaurant offers an unusual menu, which consists entirely of tapas from all over the globe. Regional specialties include those from the US, the UK, France, and Spain & Portugal. You can select from one region or several, or you can let the chef select for you. I love to eat this way, with lots of small dishes. Recommendations: baked Reblochon en croute with apple jelly; white bean & rosemary purée. Not all of the dishes work, but when they do they are very good. Above all else, this restaurant needs more visible signs, because at present it's too easy to mistake it for a closed building.

Brasserie St. Quentin (243 Brompton Rd., phone 0171 581 5131). A pleasant bistro atmosphere, service at a relaxed pace, and non-fussy French food characterize this small establishment, which seems popular with locals and tourists alike. Recommended dishes: salade St. Quentin; terrine de foie gras.

Clarke's (124 Kensington Church St., phone: 0171 221 9225). Set dinner menu (no choice), but a modest selection of dishes available at lunch. Recommended dish: Gascon style apple, pear, and prune tart with creme fraiche. The smoked salmon and leek risotto with dill and champagne is an inspired combination of flavors, but on the day I was there the dish was undercooked and the rice was slightly crunchy. Go next door to the great little gourmet shop of the same name. Get past the breads and cheeses if you can, and get some of the chocolate truffles. Only one kind is sold here (no flavor variations). But these truffles consist of a creamy, dense, dark chocolate filling surrounded by a dark chocolate coating and dusted with cocoa, and they are little short of perfection.

Cafe Daquise (20 Thurloe St., phone: 0171 589 6117). Cafe Daquise specializes in Continental and Polish food. You can find lower-priced food here than you can in many other places--it's nothing fancy, but the food is often restorative and filling. Tired after a long day? Have a plate of buckwheat (Americans know it as "kasha") and a bowl of spinach. Very homelike, and appealing when one is far away from familiar surroundings.

Harrod's (87-135 Brompton Rd., phone: 0171 730 1234). OK, I'll admit it; the food halls really are as staggering as everyone claims. Display after display of almost anything you'd want to buy, and all of it looks great. Be aware, though, that this emporium is constantly extremely crowded. The best time to go is right when they open, which is usually 10 am, but even then the place is mobbed.

Harvey Nichols (109-125 Knightsbridge, phone: 0171 235 5000). A short walk from Harrod's, Harvey Nichols has a smaller food section (on the 5th floor), but the place is also much less crowded, something I really appreciated. Nice selections of packaged goods as well as cheeses, breads, meats, produce, pastries, chocolates, teas, etc. There is also a well-reputed restaurant, which I haven't tried.

Fortnum & Mason, Ltd. (181 Piccadilly, phone: 0171 734 8040). The floor devoted to foods is marvelous. Head for the cheese counter and buy some Picos de Europa, the best blue cheese I've ever tasted (it's from Spain). Now, head over to the chocolates. The fine Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini is represented here, as is the Italian chocolatier Slitti. Slitti makes coffee spoons entirely out of chocolate as well as very clever "rusty" chocolate "tools"--large chocolates in the shapes of wrenches, nuts and bolts, etc., dusted with cocoa (the "rust"). Although Slitti advertises their chocolate as bittersweet, I find it more of a semisweet--but it is still very good. If you're ever finished at the chocolate counter, there are packaged goods, pastries, and much more. You can also take afternoon tea here.

Neal's Yard Dairy (17 Short's Gardens, phone: 0171 379 7646). Wow! If you like cheese, you must go here. These are real cheeses, not the ersatz nonsense found in too many American homes and markets. Neal's Yard is a small shop crammed full of British Isles cheeses, other gourmet specialties, knowledgeable staff, and, often, customers. Ever hear of Teifi or Loch Arthur? How about Cashel Blue or Perroche? All are sold here. Citizens of the U.K. are justly proud of their excellent cheeses and butter. Many of the cheeses are produced by very small manufacturers, and the staff are passionate about what they do. Don't miss this little jewel of a place.

Books for Cooks (4 Blenheim Crescent, phone: 0171 221 1992). A mecca for cookbook lovers and collectors, this cheerful shop also features lunch, coffee, and cakes from their test kitchen, and cooking demonstrations. Take your time browsing their selection; no one will rush you. The nicest thing I saw while here was the senior staff member (possibly the owner) entering into a discussion with another staffer on what they were going to cook next, and from which book it would be. These people care about food, and that in itself is enough reason to go here.

Patisserie Valerie (several locations, including 215 Brompton Rd. (Knightsbridge) and 44 Old Compton St. (Soho)). Perhaps the most famous patisserie in London. Very European atmosphere. All of the pastry looks gorgeous, but the best item I tried was a large cream puff, filled with whipped cream, with a coffee glaze. I never saw a name attached to this pastry; I just pointed and they understood. Popular locally and just the place for a break when you've worn yourself out sightseeing.

Fileric (57 Old Brompton Rd., phone: 0171 584 2967). Fileric's business card describes them as "French caterers" and a "delicatessen." Personally, I went for the pastry. The best item I tried was called "L'Etoile", layers of chocolate sponge and a whipped ganache filling. Light yet rich and chocolatey, this was delicious. Other pastries I tried here weren't up to the same high standard. Fileric also sells chocolates, which are good.

Rococo Chocolates (321 Kings Rd., phone: 071 352 5857). There is a feeling of bygone times about this charming place, which sells truffles, chocolate bars, "pralines" (small chocolates), chocolate bark, pastilles, and much more. You, of course, need to try some of everything; the "bianco lampone," a white chocolate bark with dried raspberries, is only one example. What I liked best were the truffles and Rococo's 60% dark chocolate bar. Rococo also sells organic, artisan chocolate bars (with flavorings as diverse as wild mint leaves, pink peppercorns, or Earl Grey tea) and bars made by Valrhona. An important stop on any London chocolate pilgrimage.

The Chocolate Society (36 Elizabeth St., phone: 0171 259 9222). I have always regarded it as a good sign when you walk into a chocolate shop and are rendered speechless by the poetry of truffles piled high in large bowls. The Chocolate Society will sell you such poetry, along with small chocolates, ice cream in the warmer months, and, if I'm not mistaken, hot chocolate in winter. If you like Valrhona, note that the couverture used to make their small chocolates is from that company. However, they sometimes sell other chocolates as well; I picked up a box of a brand of Danish chocolates I've never heard of before. The young lady who helped me was friendly and knowledgeable, too. Definitely worth a visit.


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