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August 15, 2016 / oneworld82

Dining out in London, featuring Michelin-starred Launceston Place and Benares

London is one of the culinary capitals of the World. Not because British food is any remarkable, but because there’s a wealth of chefs cooking everything from Indian to Modern European cuisine; given the affluence of the city it’s no surprise that there is a big demand for high-end restaurants.

While I have been multiple times to London, I have never really had much time to enjoy the city; I had a few dinners here and there, but nothing Michelin-starred, mostly because it’s hard to find coworkers interested in trying new restaurants. While this will soon change next month when my wife will accompany me to London (we already have a reservation at Tamarind in Mayfair), for now I will report on a couple of places I tried multiple times in the past year and that I really like.

The first is a pub in Mayfair – The Windmill – which makes the most amazing pies. As in meat pies. It’s a very popular place for happy hour – people hang out in the street in front of the pub with beers – but I have not had a problem during my two visits in finding a dining table downstairs (for the upstairs attractive dining room it’s a different story – I believe that it’s better to call in advance).

Service is fine but nothing spectacular – but you do not come here for the service, you come here for the beer and the pies. The first time I visited I had the steak and kidney pie – which apparently won various accolades – while my wife had the chorizo and chicken one. What’s great of these pies is the flaky, soft pastry, together with the dense, saucy interior. I had my pie with mushy peas – a definite winner.

The second time I visited I had one of their pies of the day – with venison. Again, it was extraordinarily good – very flavorful. They have a good selection of local beers on tap, which makes it for a fun evening out. The ambiance is lively if a bit loud, so don’t necessarily come here for a romantic date.

The other place I want to mention is The Victoria in Paddington (not a very popular area for good restaurants, so this find is all the more extraordinary). This is another typical British pub, in a quite neighborhood about ten minutes’ walk from the train station. The ground floor has a big bar, but not many seating, while upstairs there is a nice, traditional dining room and a secluded library room with live fire.

The library

The library

The first time I came here was with my wife, and the second time with coworkers. I remember having scotch eggs – excellent – and gnocchi, while on my second visit I had some excellent bangers and mash. Overall, both the food and the ambiance are winners, and I would not hesitate to go back if in Paddington.

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Bangers and mash

Bangers and mash

I tried other restaurants – mostly during work dinners – in Covent Garden, Windsor… and I went out in Richmond, a posh area by the Thames in West London. Like I said earlier, nothing fancy or refined, and nothing worth writing home about. But on the pipeline I have The Tamarind – an Indian-fusion restaurant in Mayfair, and the Social Eating House – both one Michelin star recipients. And finally, I got the chance to do it, with two dinners in consecutive days, one in South Kensington at Launceston Place, and one in Mayfair at Tamarind.

Launceston Place

There are many Michelin-starred restaurants in London, the majority of which are one star. So it might be difficult to decide which one to try without any guidance. In this case, I wanted something close to South Kensington (where I was staying with wife and baby) and that would provide something “British” – not French or Italian – to our palates. Launceston Place was then the perfect choice.

The chef patron of the restaurant is Raphael Francois, who recently joined the restaurant from Le Cirque in New York. As he’s worked in a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, we knew we would be in good hands.

The restaurant is tucked away in a nice building in a residential area of South Kensington. The small entrance is very inviting, and it gives into a small waiting area with nice armchairs. We were promptly checked in, and the waiter – a superbly pleasant Frenchman from Calais – showed us to our table; as we were with our daughter, he gave us a corner table, away from the main room and most of guests – a very much appreciated gesture so that Olivia could play and so that we wouldn’t need to worry about her being noisy/crying (she’s a baby, after all!).

Minutes after seating down the sommelier came by asking whether we’d like an aperitif. Yes, please. He suggested some champagne from the house Paul Dethune, a boutique producer where Launceston Place constantly helps itself. The bubbly was brought back and served at the table (as it should). It was a good wine, refreshing and flavorful – not a Krug, of course, but still good. It was pricey though – 15 pounds for a glass seems a little excessive even for a Michelin-starred place. Together with it a little teaser was brought – fish mousse on rice cracker topped by natto – delicious.

About 20 minutes into our champagne we ordered dinner from the market menu – a three course meal at 55 pounds per person. The menu is varied and interesting, offering both sea and land options.

Market-online-menu

After we selected, I ordered a glass of Chenin for myself – my wife is not too keen on drinking yet.

Bread from a basket was brought after our orders were taken – it was very good, French country bread (wheat and white). That was followed by an amouse bouche, the as always had the duty of stimulating our palate – which it did, although not in a particularly good way (yet again, amouse bouches rarely do).

 

As starters, Thuy went for the scallops with pea mojito and I went for the hen’s egg. In my opinion, at a highly rated restaurant presentation and execution are key to a successful meal, and Launceston Place did not disappoint here.

First, our plates were brought with some key ingredients; then, the pea mojito was poured over the scallops, while the poached egg was broken in front of me to make sure it was cooked to perfection, and then poured on top of the other ingredients (note that the waiter had two eggs, in case one weren’t cooked to the point).

Scallop and pea mojito

Scallop and pea mojito

Both dishes were very good – the scallops were raw and fresh, while my dish had a certain “forest-y” complexity to it that I really enjoyed.

Hen's egg

Hen’s egg

After clearing the table, we were getting excited for our main courses, and those did not disappoint either. Thuy opted for the venison – which was medium rare, flavorful but not too gamey and served with a perfectly-battered onion ring topped by more venison. A notable dish.

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I decided instead to try the pork chop with pork belly. The chop was brought on a different plate and then sliced on a cutter; the Spanish pork was cooked medium rare, it was tender and incredibly flavorful – not bland as many times pork can be. It was an absolute winner.

Pork chop

Pork chop

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So far dinner was going well, except for a grouchy man having dinner by himself who kept complaining about the food and the service (which was excellent). Go figure…

At this point, a pre-dessert mango-Malibu sorbet with biscuits was brought in, and dessert ensued.

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I had the dark chocolate nemesis, while Thuy had the crema catalane. Both were great, and we appreciated that the portions were not too big. A couple of decent (but not great) espressos concluded our exquisite meal.

Crema Catalana

Crema Catalana

Chocolate nemesis

Chocolate nemesis

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Espresso and petit four

Espresso and petit four

We really enjoyed Launceston Place. The service was very attentive, and the staff really tried their best to accommodate us and our daughter. The food presentation was excellent, and we really enjoyed how they touched up our dishes in front of us. Also, on our way out the hostess at the entrance asked us how everything was – a nice touch.

The food was excellent, modern British if you like, and the wine list extensive, although the good wines tended to be pricey. The fact that their sommelier is sort of a celebrity in his native Poland (three years in a row best Polish sommelier) certainly adds to the quality of the drinks.

Overall, we really enjoyed this restaurant (including its South Kensington location), and we both can wholeheartedly recommend it to whomever is looking for either a romantic date or a dinner out with friends or family, as Launceston Place is a modern place that’s stylish yet unpretentious.

Benares

Our second Michelin star dinner in London, we decided it had to be Indian. Our original reservation was at Tamarind, as we wanted to try some authentic yet fancy Indian food. Believe it or not, although we made the reservation on opentable about three weeks in advance and specified we had a baby, no one informed us that at this property children are welcome only before 7pm. So we showed up at 9.30pm, and we were refused entrance. It was particularly unbelievable, as the reason they gave us (the manger himself did) was that children tend to cry, ruining the dining experience for other adults. For God’s sake, when we arrived there the place sounded more like a nightclub than a restaurant, as it was very (and I mean VERY) loud – and in all honesty, no one would have even noticed a baby (or one hundred) crying – let alone the fact that our Olivia is the best-behaved baby out there.

I was infuriated, but we decided to leave and to eff them off to find something else for the night. After all, we wanted another special night out, and we were in Mayfair, where good restaurants abounds.

The other restaurant for the night I was considering was Benares which, contrarily to Tamarind, proposes Indian-fusion cuisine – something you do not find every day. We check availability, made a reservation, and in 15 minutes we were there… were we were told that, again, children were not necessarily welcome after 7pm. At that point I almost became rude, because  I find these things totally unacceptable. I see many “adults” misbehave at restaurants all the time, yet they are never denied entrance. Yet, the manager at Benares was more conciliatory, and found us a table in a quiet corner of the restaurant, so that we could enjoy a good meal. To be clear, nowhere is mentioned that babies/children are not welcome after a certain hour.

Benares has a neat, modern lounge vibe – the bar is attractive with round tables and the main dining area is open. We were accommodated in a more secluded area, a sort of open private room, next to a loud party of 5-6 men. Seriously, they were SO annoyingly loud… and they give us a hard time for bringing a baby along… unbelievable.

Anyways, our server came by with the menus; she was an Indian young woman, who was a bit formal at first but that subsequently warmed up, especially when we asked her for suggestions on the various food on offer.

To drink, we had a glass of Kabinett Riesling, something light and fresh from Germany, and that was served with some pappadam with homemade chutneys – the tomato one was particularly good.

As appetizers we decided to share the quinoa salad – seemed light and refreshing enough – together with some palek paneer. The quinoa was absolutely fabulous – the flavor was very articulate – and it went perfectly (by chance, admittedly) with the palek paneer, which was shockingly good (the paneer had perfect consistency and the spinach was creamy to the right point).

Chutneys

Chutneys

Quinoa salad

Quinoa salad

Palek paneer

Palek paneer

The main course ensued, and here let me say we were both blown away by the quality of the food. I had the venison biryani (Hiran Ke Pasande) served with chocolate curry, while Thuy had the lamb served with curry, to which we added garlic naan. Let me tell you: both dishes were otherworldly – a symphony that mixed Indian with Western flavors to create something really unique that we never had before.

Venison

Venison

Chocalte curry and naan

Chocalte curry and naan

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Lamb

Lamb

The service throughout was good, they checked on us regularly to make sure everything was fine, and it was never overbearing – I must say that Launceston Place had the upper hand on this matter though, as we found the service there to be really great.

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While we were stuffed after our mains, we decided – somehow – so share dessert as well – a fine tartlet with kalamansi compote that was certainly very good, but not as memorable as the rest of dinner.

When we left it was almost midnight, and a few tables were still busy, but it was time for us to go back home for some deserved rest after what was an unforgettable experience at a great restaurant. While the night did not start well at Tamarind, it certainly ended up as hoped at Benares – and we couldn’t have been happier.

2 Comments

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  1. Veronica Chan / Sep 1 2016 6:46 pm

    Thanks so much for approving access to reading your blog! I was having a helluva time seeing all the wonderful pictures on FT.

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