The Blog

The Long Slow Broil of London Cooking

Surprisingly perhaps, and long overdue, and long after it was predicted everywhere else, but London has started to see some genuine signs of becoming a gastronomic capital of note. And if that sounds if I am the last person on the planet then so be it because it was never previously - and I have followed these things for a while - more than a wish, a hope even. Most of it has been puffed up PR, free lunches, cheap TV, dodgy book deals etc. Things have been getting better.

As a critic one is always looking for the exceptions and in the past year there have been more and more. AA Gill in the Sunday Times actually liked Burger and Lobster the other week which is a sign that either he has given up the ghost or something is afoot. Fay Maschler, never a critic to jump off a fence, has been gushing about Delauney and Darrious. Others like Roganic, Ledbury, Pollen Street but without picking out individual places - which is the point - there seems to be a lot of venues that might merit a 15 or 16 on the Confidential scale, even perhaps a 17. It is the number of places that persuades me we are getting somewhere.

Some of this is in fact generational. Of the two most notable graduates of the River Café testify in very different ways. Jamie Oliver, for all his good works, has gone the corporate route of chains as if this were the American mid-west, which God bless them we hope it won't be. If we don't bother to review an Oliver restaurant here it is because there is no way it could score even 10 points on the scale, even if you give the décor 5.

On the other hand Sam Harris with family help has taken on two bits of down at heel London in Bermondsey and kept his focus on his passion for wine and Italian cooking and reached a level of gastronomic understanding that is not aping the Italian model but informing it and taking it on. And before you level a charge of elitism here let us be clear Jamie's Italian is probably more expensive than Harris's Zucca and certainly more so than Maltings café.

In a sense it mirrors the financial crisis and the debate on the bigger society. On the one hand you have restaurants set up by city bonuses and invested in by venture capitalists which are buying into London real estate. The people who work in these places can only ever be employees whose opinions count for nothing. It is a Macdonalds model as Leon has recognised in appointing a former Burger King chief executive as its new boss. I asked Mark Hix once why he left the Ivy especially so soon after re-launching Scott's and his answer was that the new owner Richard Carling did not know who he was. He has probably found out by now. Carling, we know though, does not create new dynamic food business, he just recreates old ones which in the case of London is not a clever move. 34 is just the Ivy for the Gavroche crowd. The point, and why Hix left, is that the people who understand food in this context are not actually in charge of it, which is why it always inevitably going to end up as so much fodder. The people who get promoted tend to be the better cleaners so there is no bother with the environmental health. (No I am not joking).

But on the other hand there has been enough of a culture established for a few bright, brave foodistas to scrabble together enough pennies - and make no mistake getting the equity together to fund a restaurant even these days is beyond most - to at least give themselves a living at what they do best. Or as AA Gill also said, the great British disfunction about food is being quietly connected up again... in certain places.

It is a political point, if you like to make it one, as to which model you prefer, prefer to spend your money in, in fact. On one hand you are giving it to estate agents and bankers, on the other it is almost invariably to a family.

If you read the excellent www.lefooding.com about Paris restaurants, you don't get the same sense that their new hyped places are really rooted in any kind of cuisine. They are as has been said before about the French being lazy about their own cuisine. Nor am I talking perhaps about the fad for tiny little tasting menus espoused in Copenhagen by Noma or latterly by Ferran Adria at Roses which do not inspire me much. They are just playing with food. Without having a totemic single 3 star Michelin of real stature like a Taillevant in Paris, nevertheless we have got something rather better which is a depth across the city in different cuisines too, and not just ethnic tourism. Cinnamon Club is to my mind far and away the best Indian restaurant in the world. Chinatown here is probably as good and reliable as any other Chinatown in the world. Suddenly we have got decent Vietnamese thanks to Cay Tre. Good news. What we are also getting - and more of which in coming weeks - is a sense of our own cuisine coming home.