I’ve been a chef for about 18 years. The road to chefdom can be hard, yes, but extremely rewarding and the opportunity to travel and experience new places, people and different cuisines are all part of the course. I have been lucky enough to have worked in some of the finest establishments in Ireland, Australia and of course where this little piece is set, foggy old London town.
For most chefs the path often involves travelling to a distant land either to work or learn. I had been to the UK to work before, work experience during university brought me to Heston Blumenthal’s “The Fat Duck”; this was an unpaid “stage” for what seemed like the best summer of my life. However, working in Bray-on-Thames and living in Maidenhead was not the “glamorous” London I had envisioned.
Fast forward 5 years and the itch as they say was not scratched. I was happily working as a sous chef in Dublin, when I decided to pack it in and give London a roll of the dice. I was again very lucky to snap up a job working in the 2 Michelin starred “The Square” in posh Mayfair. This time round I got the full experience. The hours were questionable to put it mildly but living and working in that city for a number of years gave me some of the most incredible experiences.
London is truly the city that never sleeps. The number of restaurants, bars, cocktail bars, clubs, nightclubs, morning clubs, supper clubs, food markets, beer markets, wine shops, cheese shops and everything else in between is honestly mind blowing. London is not really England, I mean it is obviously, but the melding of ethnic groups is stunning. I lived in Hackney and the mixture of a huge Vietnamese, Russian and Turkish community was mesmerising, to say I ate well is a bit of an understatement.
Every borough in London seems to have a restaurant that does its “own thing” when it comes to food. Obviously eye watering rents in the city have made people really think outside the box of what a space can be. I’ll be honest, I really think London is a better eating city than most in the world. What I mean is that the lower end all the way up to the very high end 3 Michelin stars offer some of the most delicious, perfectly executed food I have ever eaten, in my humble opinion.
OK you get it, I like eating in London! Once again this is not the definitive guide to eating and drinking in London. This is a bunch of experiences I have had and believe me they are fantastic but to be honest, London is an ever changing landscape, bar and restaurant wise. Every single day there is something new opening or unfortunately closing, only the fittest survive in this city and here are some of the fittest in London.
Let’s get down to food
Chris Leach is the chef behind this now legendary East London establishment. Nose to tail eating is nothing revolutionary, Fergus Henderson got a lot of credit for bringing sexy back in the 90’s at St John in Farringdon, however eating organs and feet is part of our heritage. I do love crubeens and ox tongue to this day because of my grandfather Michael.
I digress, what Manteca does better than most is that it has created something unique. Think house-made perfect salamis and other cured meats, incredible hand rolled and filled pastas that would make you weep with joy. The counter at the open kitchen is the place to be. It’s busy, buzzy and East London cool. The wine list is packed with little gems at great prices. Standouts for me are the “tonnarelli, brown crab cacio e pepe”, “fazzoletti”, duck ragu, duck fat pangrattato and the pig trotter bolognese with puffed pig skin. Every single thing I had on my last visit was incredible… if you’re nice they might even give you the off menu stuffed pig’s nose (be warned!! Not for the faint of heart) and if you can actually snag a table in this place you’re in for a real treat.
The Ledbury is my favourite restaurant in the world. Sorry everyone else. Brett Graham is a fellow Alumnus of The Square restaurant, however he was definitely top of the class, actually he had his own class which is clearly evident in the success he painstakingly created at The Ledbury. After a brief Covid hiatus and a closure, this Notting Hill favourite seems to be back and firing on all cylinders.
I have eaten at this restaurant more times than any other restaurant in the UK and though some of the dishes have remained for years, they only seem to get better, case in point “Hen of the Woods Potato, Yeast and Rosemary”. Every guest smells this dish before they eat it. The “hen of the wood’ mushroom is marinated in parmesan water for a number of days and the end result once roasted is umami to 11.
I have eaten in numerous 3 Michelin stars around the world and the fact that The Ledbury remains a 2 Michelin star is very confusing, in my own opinion.
This is not a cheap experience, however unlike Arzak in my San Sabastien edition, this place is worth every single cent or penny of your money. Slick interior and service I’m sure only King Charles receives. The ethos of this restaurant is very much produce and provenance driven, most of the game comes from an estate Brett manages himself. My advice: book it and thank me later.
I know what you’re going to say, “come on Eric! We don’t want to eat in some stuffy room that makes you wear a suit and whisper like you’re in church”. To that, all I can say is The Ritz is cooking some of the best food in London and dare I say the world. Guests are transported back to the early 1900’s, the age of the great Auguste Escoffier. Honestly, some of the dishes I have only ever read about or saw once or twice in college.
Sitting in that stunning room really makes you feel very special indeed. John Williams is the big boss but the Head chef is Spencer Metzger. Spencer shot to public notoriety after a near perfect “Great British Menu” appearance. Elegant and classical for sure but boy oh boy is it stunning food that matches that stunning room.
Several dishes are finished table side, for example, Canard a la Presse, Crepes Suzette and the most incredible chocolate souffle. Don’t take my word for it, well actually do. This is a once in a lifetime experience and if you do go, the set lunch won’t break the bank. If it does break the bank, drown your sorrows after at “Rivoli” bar for perfectly served cocktails. A true institution for a reason.
St John Bread and Wine on Commercial Street is not to be confused with its older brother I mentioned earlier in Farringdon. St John Bread and Wine is situated close to Liverpool Street train and tube station. Located in between two iconic pubs, “The Golden Heart” and “The Ten Bells” you are firmly in “Jack the Ripper” territory. Brick lane is only around the corner, so perfect for a bit of a mooch before dinner.
The food in this well established place is very much British. The famous bone marrow on toast with parsley salad is a must. Last time I was here I had a ‘Desperate Dan” style beef pie made with puff pastry that was insanely good. Don’t forget to order the Eccles cake with a big stinky hunk of stilton and a ruby port to finish. This is low key, high end simplicity, there are definitely no tweezers in this kitchen and thank god for that!
Tomos Parry has quietly carved out Brat’s reputation as one of the most acclaimed restaurants in London. This Basque inspired restaurant uses a single hearth in the middle of the kitchen to cook with. This seems to be all the rage, but at Brat they do it right. Whole slow roast turbots, from which the restaurant gets its name (Brat is old slang for a turbot), are cooked and basted in their own juices. The result is probably the best piece of turbot you will try in London, second only to the real version in Pais Basco in Spain. With a Michelin star for their efforts, Brat has a style more than a fixed menu. Some things remain but I have never eaten the same dish twice and with a very reasonable wine list and plenty of beers, this Shoreditch favourite is definitely one to try.
Tayyabs is my favourite East End curry house. Situated in Whitechapel, away from the usual Brick Lane establishments. Opened in 1972, this restaurant stands head and shoulders above them all. BYOB and free corkage so go for it. My advice is try the tandoori lamb chops, sheesh kebab and the keema naan. I usually go with 4 or 5 people to maximise the experience.
On to Drinks
Just like restaurants, London has more pubs and swanky cocktail bars than I could ever get through. I mean where would you start? Yes true, pubs close a lot earlier but the British pub runs a close second to the warmth and craic of an Irish pub. Chefs are no strangers to apres service extracurricular activities so here are a few places I loved for a great pint, super cocktail and a late night boogie!
The Golden Heart
110 Commercial St, London E1 6LZ, United Kingdom
This place doesn’t do websites, it doesn’t do food, you may be insulted by the landlady Sandra (who is actually Irish) but what you are guaranteed is super craic, perfect pints and in the summer, one of the best spots for day drinking and people watching. Did I mention Sandra is a bit cranky? The last time I was there with my wife Ciara, Sandra asked her to play the piano and then told her she was “sh*t…Ciara is still traumatised to this day. All in great British humour, this place is a firm favourite with anyone I recommend it to. FYI chances of you bumping into a celebrity at the Golden Heart is pretty high. Have fun and don’t piss off Sandra.
Everyone has their own favourite cocktail bar wherever they go. To be honest, I have about 10 in London and all suit a particular mood. If I want art decor elegance then there is the bar in Claridges or perhaps The Connaught Hotel (Connaught Bar). I could try Mr Foggs or head over to Dukes for the iconic gin martini with amalfi lemon (they are very dangerous, believe me).
However, my favourite has to be Satan’s Whiskers, conveniently situated down the road from where I used to live. This place is cool and unpretentious. OK, East London does have its fair share of beanie wearing, birkenstock sporting hipsters but the drinks in Satan’s Whiskers are served perfectly and always have something to tickle everyone’s fancy, including imaginative mocktails. Get the Central Line to Bethnal Green and give this gem a lash!
438 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AA, United Kingdom
Now this place is one for the night owls. Every Sunday night they host the coolest live jazz in town. New artists get the crowd finger clicking and grooving all night. With a pretty decent back beer garden and upstairs, I have definitely had far too many great nights in the place. The party stops around 3.30am, which is pretty rare in London unless you end up in a warehouse party in Brixton at 4am, but that is a different story for another day.
London is a giant of a city, I mean real gigantic. One end of the Central Line to the other could easily take a journey of over 1.5 hours some days. To try and write the ultimate guide is near impossible. My only advice to anyone planning a trip to London is you will never see it all. Pick a few places you really want to go to and then get lost. If you find yourself in a pub deep in the heart of Soho, a pint of bitter and a scotch egg is the way to go, “When in Rome”.
The Perfect Bangers and Mash Recipe
4 quality pork sausages
1 large white onion
2 red onions
1 brown onion
4 large bakers (rooster) potatoes
350g unsalted butter
300ml whole milk
1 tbsp hot english mustard
1 tbsp whole grain mustard
25ml red wine vinegar
250ml light red wine (beaujolais)
450ml light chicken stock
60ml worcestershire sauce
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Pinch of finely chopped chives
1. Firstly lay the potatoes on a flat oven tray which has been heavily covered in salt, this will draw out the moisture and ensure a perfect baked potato. Bake the potatoes for about 1 hour or until a knife can easily pierce through the skin.
2. Slice the onions and shallot about 10mm in thickness. Place these in a pan with about 25g of unsalted butter, season lightly with salt and black pepper. Caramelise the onions gently until a deep dark colour is achieved.
3. Deglaze the caramelised onions with the red wine vinegar, followed with the red wine. Reduce the wine to a syrup. Next add the chicken stock and cook for a further 10 minutes or until the stock has reduced to nearly nothing.
4. To finish the onion gravy, add both mustards and 25g of butter along with the Worcestershire sauce, this will give you a silky and shiny sauce. I like to add some picked thyme at the end also.
5. For the perfect mashed potato, the equipment I used is called a drum sieve and passing card (pastry card). These will give you a final product worthy of a Michelin star. I joke, you don’t have to go to the same extreme as I did but the difference is sensational. Once the potatoes are baked and soft, scoop out the warm flesh and crush until smooth. I had approximately 500g of cooked potato and to this I added 325g of unsalted butter and 300ml of milk that had
been brought up just before boiling. Whip these until silky smooth. Season with salt and white pepper.
6. Cook the sausages in a heavy pan with a little sunflower oil.
7. Serve the bangers with loads of mash and plenty of onion gravy, I like some chopped chives to finish.
“When in Rome” – London with Eric Matthews
For the last 6 years Eric Matthews was the head chef at Dublin’s famous Michelin starred Chapter One. Eric has over 18 years experience working in Michelin starred restaurants around the globe, having trained under some of the best chefs in Ireland and internationally, including Heston Blumenthal, Philip Howard and Guillame Brahimi. This year Eric was named in The Independent’s annual Top 50 People to Watch in 2022. Eric is also a food content creator and a regular at Taste of Dublin. More recently Eric was a judge on the RTE series ‘Battle of the Food Trucks’.
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