The 20 best dishes in London
After over 20 years in London I’m bidding it an emotional farewell, a final sayonara. I tried leaving once about a dozen years ago and quietly sloped back less than a year later with my dick between my legs, but it’s different this time, more real. Realer, if you like. I’ve got kids now. Anyway, I’m off, that’s the point – and I got to thinking about all of the great things I’ll miss, not least the numerous nice treats I’ve put in my mouth over the years (stop it), and if time were my friend (which it isn’t), and if we weren’t in some weird Covid twilight (which we are), and if a cruel economic whirlwind hadn’t swirled some of them out of town already (which it has), these would be the dishes I’d be having just one last time… for the road.
Roast Duck with Rice – Jen Café, China Town – I’ve had sweet buns with pork in them, chicken’s feet, a tonne of dumplings, but the toast of my trips to China Town is Jen Café where you’re ushered in and fed at blistering speeds by a crack team of old ladies who don’t carry any truck with time wasters. Duck, rice, some cabbage and soy, that’s it. Oh and also bones, but once you know that you won’t come a cropper.
Classic Chicken Burger – Other Side Fried Chicken, Brixton – for a time there I made it my singular goal in life to find the ultimate fried chicken sandwich, and not so long ago I found it. The benchmark was always the KFC mini-fillet burger (I know, but it’s true!!), if that could somehow be upgraded to a higher plane of existence – better meat, perhaps twice the size – we could all finally be certain of a higher power. This one gets it right on the nose and it’s not rocket science – chicken, mayo, lettuce, in an unpretentious bun, just all done really well. Praise be to Zeus.
Plain Cheese Slice – Paradise Slice, Brick Lane – the shop on Brick Lane is an unfortunate casualty of Covid-19, which is a dreadful kick in the balls because to my mind there was no better pizza in London. An NYC style slice (ie. massive and crispy), my standard order was one Plain Cheese, one Peperoni, then one more Plain Cheese for luck. Luck which, it seems, was not potent enough to keep the wolves away. A sad loss.
Jerk Chicken – Negril, Brixton – in areas of south and west London you’re spoiled for excellent jerk chicken spots, but this is the best I’ve had. Half a chook, rice and peas, coleslaw, extra gravy on the side, and a “festival” (a big donut-like dumpling). You won’t need to eat again for at least two years.
Bone Marrow Varuval – Hoppers, Soho – I haven’t visited any of London’s really high-end curry restaurants so can’t speak with complete bulletproof confidence, but they’d surely be hard pushed to do a better than this. Bone marrow is decadent and can often be too much to handle in any other setting, but not here, with just the right spice mix to cut through the richness. I’m going to say it guys – it’s the best curry I’ve ever had.
Shack Burger – Shake Shack, Cambridge Circus – really, if we were being 100 per cent honest with each other I’d take a big bag of McDonalds cheeseburgers over most things in life, but now that hamburgers have been elevated to a mid-level status that demands better ingredients and less weight on your conscience, this is the one. You suspect it’s the burger all the others want to be too. Like the sexy Beyonce of cheeseburgers.
Canard de Rouen a la Presse (pressed duck) – Otto’s, Clerkenwell – pound for pound this might be the best meal I’ve ever eaten, and it was on the house too (as part of a piece I was working on at the time). Three courses all from the same duck, which is gleefully introduced to you before any insertions or cooking. Then there’s the liver on toast, the breast accompanied by a sauce incorporating its blood and marrow, then confit leg to finish, all delivered with theatrical flourishes – cooking tableside, getting a volunteer to work “the press”. They take great pride too in explaining that both Chaplin and Monroe, on separate occasions, were fans of this meal. Well if it’s good enough for Ben and Jack…
Prawn Toast Revisited – Duck Duck Goose, Brixton – a small restaurant that didn’t burn for long but burned very brightly (for me anyway). Who doesn’t love a takeaway staple elevated to being as good as it can be? This is/was the perfect example of that. Huge chunks of fried bread stuffed with prawns in whatever form was required, plus organic (probably) sesame seeds and some trendy leaves to garnish. It’d be my desert island starter.
Salt Beef Sandwich– Tongue & Brisket, Leather Lane – I’m a sucker for a deli sandwich, and a few came close here. The tongue sandwich at Selfridges (seriously), the tongue sandwich my wife gives me (less seriously), the notorious salt beef bagels at Beigel Bake in Brick Lane (amazing value). The insanely expensive Reuben at Monty’s (almost value). But this is the one, with an added portion of chopped liver for 80p. I think they call it a schmear.
Full English – Fantasia, Clapham – post Credit Crunch around 2008, for six months in my early 30s I was signing on while I attempted to reinvigorate my stuttering writing career, which meant every fortnight I’d blow a whole fiver on a Full English from the caff opposite the job centre. It was a chilling economic downturn for all involved, yet I’d inadvertently discovered one of the truly great meals of my life (scrambled, no mushrooms, extra black pud, thanks). Every cloud.
Chopped Steak, peppercorn sauce, fries – Brasserie Zédel, Picadilly – if you’re a certain kind of middle-class ‘account manager’ fresh in the city, this is where you take your posh mum to convince her you’ve essentially moved to 1930s Paris. Waiters who take it all too seriously, someone whose sole purpose is to grate carrots, plus a set menu for just over a tenner that is commonly and rightly suggested as the best value meal in London.
Doner and chips – Efes, West Norwood – one of the few foods I crave on the regular, there was a time when I strictly limited myself to meat ‘n’ chips just once a year in a bid to stop being fat. These days though, I’m way more lenient (and lean), because life is much too short to deny yourself this affordable orgy of texture and flavour. Piles of doner meat on hot crispy chips with dollops on chilli sauce, bits of salad (very much optional). The greatest dish in the world, I can’t fault it.
Kidney Skewers – Silk Road, Camberwell – there are a handful of restaurants in London where the job of the staff appears to be to make you feel pathetic, a waste of their time, a waste of life. It would completely obliterate your self-esteem were you not so busy drooling over first their lamb skewers, then their kidney ones. Then having a bowl of noodles the size of fire hoses. Some say kidneys taste of wee, I say it’s more likely the other way around.
French Frites – United Chip, Clerkenwell – for so long the greatest chips I’d ever had were frites sold from those random vans you’d get in strange impromptu picnic spots beside French motorways. Some guy who looks like a serial killer creating crispy but not too crispy, fluffy but not too fluffy, golden but not too golden, cylinders (but not too cylindrical) of perfectly fried potatoes. Quick punnet of those, piss in a hole, then back to the car. The closest I came this side of the channel was at a posh chippy in Clerkenwell, now deceased.
Donuts – Carters Steam Fair, Peckham – in my house, for the last few years, we’ve celebrated the annual ‘fairground donut day’ which might be my favourite national holiday of the year. We’d pilgrimage to Peckham to invest a fiver in a bag of hot ring donuts, covered in sugar and crunchy on the outside while being all hot and doughy in the middle, with just the right ratio of salt and sugar. If I’m back on the desert island again, this is my dessert.
Latke – Reubens, Baker Street – there used to be a place off Oxford Street that did great deli food, and I hold it fully responsible for me piling on two stone in the first month or so of giving up smoking. Every day I’d have chicken soup, chicken salad, and a smoked salmon bagel. Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is Reubens on Baker Street, just down the road, easily as good, and it does the best latke I’ve had.
Cajun Blackened Shrimp Po Boy – Kaff, Brixton – there’s a spot in Brixton, as I’m sure there’s this spot everywhere, that’s retail poison, cursed somehow, a business Bermuda Triangle. A bricks and mortar shop that seemingly axe murders good ventures for no obvious reason. It was once called Kaff and it served curious Creole and Cajan dishes and Mexican dishes and Jamaican dishes, and the Blackened Shrimp Po Boy was one of the greatest sandwiches I’ve ever had. It didn’t last. And neither did Dip ‘n Flip, the burger joint, that came shortly afterwards.
Dime Bar Cheesecake – Brixton Village Grill, Brixton – I’m not a big pudding guy, for a long time I swore blind that nothing could better the tinned sponge you get in the newsagents (I still partially believe that) – but this comes very close. In fact cheesecake in any form comes close. Nice digestive biscuit base, plenty of cream cheese, then shards of Dime that could be used to shiv someone in jail. Utter perfection.
Chicken Jalfrezi – Rufies, Clapham North – let’s be clear, this isn’t the best curry in London, it might not even be the best curry within 50 yards of itself. But for a while when I first moved down, this would set you back barely a couple of quid – jalfrezi and rice – and then you could merrily continue your journey to whatever nirvana you were after that night. My sophisticated palate would probably baulk at it now.
Jacket Potato with Cheese and Chilli – Benjys, Oxford Circus – the advent of ‘street food’ stalls flogging decent lunches for £6-8 sounded the death knell for old stalwarts like Benjys, but perhaps the impending nuclear winter will find them rising like phoenixes from the ashes to reclaim their spot flogging corned beef baguettes, and this – the enormous jacket potato, with a tonne of chilli and cheese. My lunch of choice for five years straight.