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. I’ve got kids now. 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 pork buns, chicken’s feet, 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. Duck, rice, some cabbage and soy, that’s it.
Lamb Sweetbreads – St John, Clerkenwell – these aren’t for everyone, especially when you find out that the so lovingly coined “sweetbread’ is actually an animal’s throat. But done right, by the nose-to-tail Nazis at St John, there’s fewer better delicacies.
Plain Cheese Slice – Paradise Slice, Brick Lane – the shop on Brick Lane was an unfortunate casualty of Covid-19, which is dreadful happenstance because there was no better pizza in London. An NYC style slice, go one Plain Cheese, one Peperoni… then one more Plain Cheese.
Jerk Chicken – Negril, Brixton – in areas of south and west London you’re spoiled for excellent jerk spots, but this is the best one. Half a chook, rice and peas, coleslaw, extra gravy, and a “festival” (a big donut-like dumpling). You won’t need to eat again for a fortnight.
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. I’m going to say it guys – it’s the best curry in the world.
Shack Burger – Shake Shack, Cambridge Circus – 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.
Canard de Rouen a la Presse (pressed duck) – Otto’s, Clerkenwell – three courses all from the same duck, which is gleefully introduced to you before any insertions or cooking. There’s the liver on toast, the breast accompanied by a sauce incorporating its blood and marrow, then confit leg to finish. They take great pride too in explaining that both Chaplin and Monroe 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, and had the best Sesame Prawn Toast imaginable. Who doesn’t love a takeaway staple elevated to being as good as it can be?
Salt Beef Sandwich– Tongue & Brisket, Leather Lane – a few came close. 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. But this is the one, with an added portion of chopped liver for 80p.
Full English – Fantasia, Clapham – for six months in my 30s I was signing on while attempting to reinvigorate my career, which meant every fortnight I’d blow a whole fiver on a Full English from the caff opposite the job centre. One of the truly great meals of my life (scrambled, no mushrooms, extra black pud).
Chopped Steak, peppercorn sauce, fries – Brasserie Zédel, Picadilly – 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’s commonly and rightly suggested as the best value meal in London.
Doner and chips – Efes, West Norwood – 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, because life is too short to deny yourself this affordable orgy of texture and flavour.
Kidney Skewers – Silk Road, Camberwell – the notorious Chinese canteen in Camberwell where the welcome is on the spikier side. Thankfully, any lingering awkwardness dissipates the minute the kidney skewers arrive. Some say kidneys taste of wee, but is it more likely the other way around?
French Frites – United Chip, Clerkenwell – for so long the greatest chips I’d ever had were frites from random vans you’d get in weird picnic spots by French motorways. Quick punnet of those, piss in a hole, then back to the car. These were the closest I came to this side of the channel.
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.
Latke – Reubens, Baker Street – there used to be a place off Oxford Street that did great deli food, and every day I’d have chicken soup, chicken salad, and a smoked salmon bagel. But Reubens on Baker Street, just down the road, is easily as good, and does the best latke.
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. It was once called Kaff and it served Creole and Cajan dishes and Mexican dishes and Jamaican dishes, and the Blackened Shrimp Po Boy was one of the greatest sandwiches ever known.
Dime Bar Cheesecake – Brixton Village Grill, Brixton – 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.
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.