London’s skyline is changing at high speed. Odd-shaped towers are flying up to join the likes of the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater and the Walkie-Talkie, which have already made their mark. It’s estimated more than 250 towers of upwards of 20 stories are currently being built or planned. Some may have silly nicknames and provoke cries of reckless planning and careless design, but these superstructures are also changing the city’s dining scene, bringing with them skyscraper eating and drinking that allows diners to look down onto the capital, piecing together its streets and buildings in three dimensions.
At more than 1,000ft tall, the sharp, crystalline blade that is the Renzo Piano-designed Shard is the biggest of them all. And up on the 33rd floor is Hutong, serving Northern Chinese cuisine in a room fitted with ‘moon gates’, black latticework and red lanterns. Taken to task by some restaurant critics for its prices, it now offers a great-value lunchtime dim sum set menu at £28 per person for five different plates of dumplings, pancakes and buns — including baked Wagyu beef puffs and lobster buns. This is by no means the best dim sum in London but they’re good and come with an astonishing vista — down below, barges stacked with shipping containers make their way up the murky Thames and you can watch RNLI Tower Lifeboat Station’s high-speed rescue vessels zipping down the river.
Across the river at the Heron Tower, I take a thrillingly-fast glass elevator up 40 floors to Duck & Waffle — named after the restaurant’s signature dish: confit duck leg, Belgian waffles and a fried duck egg, served with mustard maple syrup. There’s also coal-charred aubergine, steamed razor clams, and wild Cornish pollock meatballs. I leave with a brown paper bag filled with executive chef Dan Doherty’s addictive crispy pigs’ ears — closed with a red wax seal bearing a duck’s head.
On the same street (Bishopsgate) is Tower 42, London’s highest building until One Canada Square in Canary Wharf appeared in 1991. Here, chef Jason Atherton has just opened Michelin-starred City Social, art deco in style, with 360-degree city views, even from the loos. Here I try Wye Valley asparagus that’s as fresh as spring, laid beside a slow-cooked hen’s egg, followed by Romney Marsh lamb and a pot of braised-shoulder shepherd’s pie.
At the Royal Garden Hotel’s Min Jiang, the new high-rises are spread before me, with Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, the Albert Memorial, St Paul’s and the London Eye in the foreground. But I’ve come here not just for views but the Beijing duck, cooked in a wood-fired oven and carved at the table in a silent but theatrical ceremony. This gorgeous bird, prepared according to an ancient recipe, is served in three ways: crisply-shrunken slices of skin, to be dipped in sugar; fatty pieces of breast wrapped in translucent pancakes and stuffed with crunchy vegetables; and ground duck meat, served in lettuce wraps.
But it’s not just the city’s skyscrapers that should be on modern London’s mission map of luxury and a taste. Bacchanalian glory is to be found at The Clove Club, housed in the Victorian grandeur of Shoreditch Town Hall. A waft of home-cured charcuterie and salami greets me as I open the door and pass the walk-in cooling room. Inside is an open-plan kitchen that churns out some of the best of British cooking, using its finest produce. I greedily plump for the tasting menu — small plates of those aforementioned meats, along with chef Isaac McHale’s legendary buttermilk-fried chicken served on a bed of pine needles. It includes blood pudding with chicory and over-ripe pear, bone marrow tacos, and black-headed gull eggs served with buckwheat, celery and lovage.
I’m in umami-filled raptures at the utter delight that is foamy Jersey Royal potato soup topped with tiny broad beans and a soy-marinated sea urchin. A deconstructed Scottish raspberry cranachan with ice cream instead of cream is simply amazing.
And then I go below the London streets, to the kitchen of chocolatier Paul A Young. Chocolate glistens atop a marble counter as Paul’s hand deftly flicks a palette knife, chopping and folding melted Valrhona over a scraper. This ‘tempering’ process is apparently key to creating these almost ethereal confections. I can practically see my face in the sheen of Paul’s award-winning salted caramel chocolate as he urges me to taste them, then explains that his craft involves no machines, no preservatives and no artificial flavouring. “We don’t put anything in that isn’t needed; there’s nothing better than good ingredients,” he says. “Chocolates can get too fussy and we like them simple and fresh, that’s why they only last seven days. You need to eat them quickly.”
I leave Paul A Young Fine Chocolates with bags of custom-made truffles, scented with bergamot and coriander seeds, and walk up the stairs and out into the whirl of Soho — once sleazy and filled with tourist traps, now bursting with great little restaurants.
Be it up in the skies, on street level or underground, London food is changing the culinary map, for good, just as its skyscrapers are changing the physical landscape.
Five London food finds
2. Little Bird Gin: Small-batch London dry gin producer and purveyor of fine cocktails at Maltby Street Market on a Saturday. littlebirdgin.com
3. Broadway Market: This east London institution offers the same dizzying range of fare as Borough Market, only without the overwhelming queues and toe-crushing crowds. broadwaymarket.co.uk
4. A Gold: Purveyor of traditional British foods, from old-fashioned sweets to homemade Scotch eggs, in historic Spitalfields. agoldshop.com
5. Kerb Food: Street food collective that brings together an eclectic mix of traders and stalls at markets and events in rolling locations across the city. kerbfood.com
Four places for a taste of London
The best of British cooking, using impeccably sourced produce. Here they cure their own meats and serve the now famous buttermilk-fried chicken with pine salt served on a bed of pine needles. Two menus are offered, including a spectacular nine-course tasting menu, featuring an array of extra snacks and dishes, such as Musselburgh leek, Montgomery cheddar sauce and Périgord truffle; seabass collars; and Amalfi lemonade and black pepper.
How much: Dinner without wine, £55 per person; the full tasting menu, £85 per person. thecloveclub.com
Duck & Waffle
On the 40th floor of the Heron Tower in the City, this restaurant is open 24 hours a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Duck served on a waffle with a fried egg is the signature dish of a menu that changes with the seasons. There’s a seafood bar as well as small plates including ox cheek doughnuts, chewy sweet dates, Portuguese linguiça sausage wrapped in bacon, and crispy barbecue pigs’ ears. Larger dishes feature Angus ribeye steak and whole roasted Shropshire chicken.
How much: Three courses without wine, from £34 per person. duckandwaffle.com
Northern Chinese cuisine with a great-value dim sum lunch menu in the upper reaches of the Shard, Britain’s tallest building. Lattice work, ‘moon gates’ and red lanterns give a feeling of Shanghai high in the sky, but through the window London unfolds below. Take five plates of dim sum of your choice, including baked Wagyu beef puffs, ginger and spring onion lobster buns, crystal crab dumplings and the fabulous pork- and soup-stuffed xiao long bao.
How much: Five lunchtime dim sum plates, £28 per person. hutong.co.uk
St John Bread & Wine
Located in Spitalfields, this offshoot of British chef Fergus Henderson’s St John embraces the same nose-to-tail-eating ethos, which means every part of the animal is used in its cooking — including offal and even intestinal tracts. Dishes include roast bone marrow and parsley salad, ox heart, dandelion and pickled walnut, and a spectacular madeleine with homemade ice cream, served simply and without ceremony in a scrubbed-down, spartan room. At the rear of the premises is an open bakery and kitchen, while a wine shop offers bottles from the cellar for sale.
How much: Three courses without wine from £25 per person. stjohngroup.uk.com/spitalfields
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)