Words by Sean Sheehan
A sign of better times is popping up, like mushrooms after a night’s rainfall, of new restaurants in London. Few cities can compete with the sheer variety and quality of available food styles, and when it comes to atmosphere, there is no common factor. Though the tendency to have pulsing music playing too loudly in the background is a regrettable tendency in places that are otherwise impeccably inviting. Interior design is often a serious business in the London food scene and, again, the diner is spoilt for choice.
Here are five of the finest new restaurants in London to consider for your next meal.
Between Grosvenor Square and Selfridges, on Duke Street, Apricity has opened on the ground floor of what were exclusive red-brick residences when they were built in the 1880s. The restaurant’s philosophy has responded to the building’s heritage and this explains why, after stepping into Apricity, you may think the decorators have yet to complete their work.
Horizontal lines of filler on the bare walls trace old dado rails and the outline of an arch points to what was once access into a neighbouring room. This is not shabby but sustainability chic: the chairs you sit on are made from recycled Coca Cola plastic bottles; the sound dampeners on the ceiling from mushrooms; the staff’s shirts from hemp.
All this is part of the holistic approach of chef owner Chantelle Nicholson to a zero-waste restaurant and – its core expression – a menu dedicated to seasonality and the enjoyment of intelligently crafted dishes. You’ll find yourself wanting to talk about the aesthetic appeal of what arrives on the table, the ingredients therein and their sway over your taste buds.
The large cup-shaped leaves of red butterhead lettuce, dosed with miso aioli and mixed with crispy kale, burst with flavour in the mouth, just one of the starters on a menu equally friendly to carnivores, vegetarians and vegans; and the wines are interesting enough to warrant drinking by the glass rather than confinement to a bottle of a single kind. Tasting menus and a chef’s table downstairs are two compelling reasons for returning to Apricity more than once.
In the same neighbourhood, just off Regent Street’s noble curvature, Mano Mayfair embodies a more glamorous ethos with its décor and style of food. Outside, on pedestrianised Heddon St, there are tables; inside, intimate lighting and warm colours create the tone of a sophisticated nightclub, but one serving an enticing fusion of Brazilian and Japanese cuisine.
Chunky cassava chips with a wasabi-accented dip are perfect if you arrive ravenous, and all the dishes are best shared to fully relish a range that takes in heart of palm ceviche as well as Black Angus ribs. As the evening progresses, tables fill up, drinks flow and the music gets louder. Mano Mayfair is a fun place – check out the spirited cocktails and the playful washrooms – somewhere to go where nobody knows your name; city life can be momentarily forgotten as something more exotic makes a gentle assault on your senses.
Parrillan Borough Yards
Borough Market is choc-a-bloc with informal eateries but for a proper sit-down restaurant the just opened Parrillan Borough Yards is the place to go. There is a terraced area outside, with attractive olive trees in giant pots on one side, and it is tempting to lounge here for pre-dinner drinks while considering the menu.
Cocktails do not have a strong presence but a variety of Spanish wines amply compensate as well as complement a menu of sharing goodies, fish dishes like monkfish (blessed with agua de Lourdes) as well as veal and cull yaw chops. The main dining space is indoors but, if you choose stay on the terrace, Iberian pork can be cooked hands-on with a tabletop grill (a parrilla), a style of eating made famous at the sister restaurant Parrillan Coal Drop Yards at Kings Cross.
The delightfully named Holy Carrot in Knightsbridge is far from being the only vegan restaurant in London but since opening it has catapulted into being one of the very best. A good friend of mine is convinced vegan food tastes like cardboard but if he was kidnapped and forced to dine at Holy Carrot he would also have to eat his words.
The interior (see main image) is as tasty as the food: a darkly-lit bar, where tarot cards present not your future, but possible cocktails, feels covert compared to the bright, high-ceilinged dining room where all is grace and light. The menu needs time to consider but gourmands should take a shortcut and kick off by sharing the ‘seafood platter’: a set of half a dozen faux-Japanese starters with clever touches like tiny bits of watermelon masquerading as raw tuna. It’s a triumph of form and content.
A ‘Caesar salad’ is on the menu but on a busy Friday night the kitchen ran short of lettuce – like a burger joint running out of buns? – only for the problem to be solved by improvising with spinach and water cress. Main courses look gorgeous on their plates and one of them, ‘sticky and sweet orange cauliflower’, is a prize winner for its combination of warm tastes and a spicy dimension emerging with the help of a sprinkling of nigella seeds. Desserts are reassuringly familiar – apple pie, chocolate gateaux, lemon tart – and compete with smoothies for your mouth’s attention.
None of London’s new restaurants have a home as architecturally commanding as The Aubrey. The stately edifice that is now the Mandarin Oriental, with The Aubrey filling its lower ground level, was built as an apartment block – including 138 bachelor flats – and a gentlemen’s club in the 1880s. Patriarchy, if not decadence, lurks in its history and although this has been banished in its contemporary incarnation as a super-stylish hotel, a male ambience is still evoked by the restaurant’s bar, the low-ceilinged spaces and tank green wood panelling.
The setting seems unexpected for a self-styled izakaya until you settle comfortably into one of the three dining areas and any worries melt away as the flawless service kicks in, and items of the exquisitely prepared food starts to arrive. Some of the signature cocktails are a tad outré but a glass of sparkling sake cannot fail to delight.
The menu is clever enough to allow for tasty repasts of oysters, nigiri and sashimi with salads and tempura or more substantial robata and rice. Everything looks as gorgeous on the plate as it is to eat and my only quibble is the absence (barring a sorbet) of any dairy-free desserts. For the quality and presentation of the dishes, The Aubrey, mercifully free of Japanese kitsch and pulsating music, is a superior dining experience and a welcome addition to London’s culinary landscape.
Sean Sheehan is a travel and food writer and he also writes for L’Oeil De La Photographie.