Unusual Restaurants London - London's More Unusual Dining Venues (2006)
This is an archived article from 2006.
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What is it with the summer and eating out? When the sun is shining, any and every place with even the most cursory outside seating, be it on pavement, traffic island or cliff-top precipice, will be packed from 6 o'clock onwards, and you have to sweat it out in the almost certainly non-air-conditioned, gloomy interior. But hey, it's autumn and we can retreat indoors and grab back some elbow room. We've listed a selection of places so cool, so weird, so out there, that the inside is now back in.
So it's cold, it's raining (again), and all you feel like doing is curling up in front of a roaring fire with some yummy food. But you have central heating (so not the same). Luckily, there's always Firevault , where there are more roaring fires than you can shake a poker at. It's a fireplace showroom with handy restaurant attached -- although we are curious as to the numbers of people who, having dined, walk out with a fireplace under their arm -- serving a standard, but well-executed menu. Seared beef and rocket salad; wild mushroom pappardelle with truffle oil; lamb shanks with ratatouille and polenta chips all feature. The surprise is the wine list, which verges on the eclectic - it's grouped by grape, so you have to have a little bit of knowledge, but a well-chosen mix of Old and New World at some nice prices. It's a set price menu - £22.95/£27.95 for 2 or 3 courses respectively, which isn't bad for Oxford Street. If you don't fancy a full on meal, but you still want to dry off, there is a cocktail bar with a bar menu featuring antipasti and sushi options for a quick bite.
On the other hand, you may be relishing the chilly nip outside, and long for those days when you can layer up, sling on a hat and scarf and take brisk walks through the park. Well, get out your thermals, because Absolut Icebar and accompanying restaurant Below Zero are right up your street. The bar is London's first permanent icebar, constructed entirely from imported Swedish ice, newly reconstructed every 6 months, and with an internal temperature of around about -5°C. Cold enough for you? There are maximum time slots of 40 minutes, and you will need the thermal cape provided at the entrance. After you've frozen your noddle off at the bar, make your way to the next door restaurant and lounge to discover the use of your hands again. The food is classed as Modern European, but with a range of dishes served on ice (but of course), tasting plates to share, an à la carte menu featuring steamed mussels with chorizo, or baby wild mushrooms in filo pastry with honeyed onions; a seafood grill and great platters of cured meats and smoked fish, continuing the Scandinavian theme. The prices can reach infamous Scandinavian heights too, with starters beginning at the £7 mark, so don't get too carried away with the vodka.
Silk, part of the Courthouse Hotel, is actually the former magistrate's No. 1 court, where luminaries like Napoleon and Oscar Wilde were hurled up before the judge. It still retains all the features, such as the judge's bench, the deck and witness stand and even the jury benches, so effectively you do feel as if you are dining in a courtroom, complete with severe English oak panelling and a vaulted glass ceiling. There's a nice double entendre with the menu, which concentrates on the Silk Route, taking in elements of Italy, the Middle East and Asia. Think duo of scallops, one seared, one sashimi style; or lamb shank tandoori. The bar is equally original -- having converted the three Ladies' cells into private booths --though not one for the claustrophobic amongst us. The cooking is generally judged to be excellent, and the wine list is satisfyingly extensive.
Alternatively, you may be of a more nautical frame of mind, in which case, we have a couple of suggestions. The Lobster Pot in Kennington is the most oddly situated (Kennington - why?), yet quirkily charming places to eat seafood in the whole of London. Chef-proprietor Hervé Regent, cheerily gallic in his striped shirt, has created a cool two-storey restaurant, accurately replicating the insides of a lurching galleon. Eat downstairs for the full effect, including sloping floors (do not, on any account, overdo the Muscadet, although one could argue, would you notice if you did?), and little portholes through which, disarmingly, fish swim by. The stunning fish and shellfish are all purchased fresh each day, and so the menu depends on what Hervé could bring home. The wine is mostly French but stick with the aforementioned Muscadet for the best match. Prices depend on what fish was caught, so they are market-driven.
The Lightship (pictured above), on the other hand, is firmly above sea level, but no less shipshape. Built in 1877, it is the oldest surviving lightship in the world and in its chequered history was once captured by the Germans. Now lovingly refurbished, it is docked by Tower Bridge and offering an original take on the usual dining out experience. You can eat on the top deck, or take a seat in the modernist-influenced restaurant inside. The eclectic menu leans Scandinavia-wards in its cool, refreshing play on combinations, such as clear gazpacho with langoustine and apple granita; or Herdwick mutton loin with an olive crust; or even salt and pepper quail - and the prices are reasonable-ish: £28/£34 for two or three courses. There is an oyster menu for those in a true mariner mood and don't fancy the whole three course she-bang.
Ok, so there's one place left in London which takes originality to new heights; whose very purpose in life is to push boundaries, confuse and delight people; and then, just when you're thinking you've got it sussed, change it all again just for the heck of it. We're talking the granddaddy of them all - Sketch. It's worth devoting a bit of time to this place, as there are a myriad of restaurants within restaurants, all doing different things at different times, and who knows what's in there? To sum up quickly, it's all contained, like the mother of all Russian dolls, in an 18th-century townhouse in central London, and run by Mourad Mazouz in consultation with Pierre Gagnaire. Let's begin with the Parlour. This was refurbished quite soon after first opening, so now it's a slightly dark, deeply eccentric, um, parlour - all bronzed walls and animal heads, made out of Perspex, and plush, individually upholstered furniture. It is open from breakfast to afternoon tea, and in the evenings becomes a private bar. The food is a modern take on the classics, so you might have coconut and tomato marmalade with your eggs and bacon. Afternoon tea is a smashing selection of glorious cakes and pastries, fabulously decadent, and rivalling anything from the grand old-school hotels. The Gallery is a huge space, so full of things to distract your attention that it might be worth going on your own. Think brilliant white walls with constantly changing video animations projected onto them; incredibly funky stylish furniture to hold onto while your head swivels; and a dinner menu to then rivet your attention firmly on your plate. Open only in the evenings, this buzzy, modern, vibrant place is full of the new bright young things, so book early. The French-oriented food is extravagant, as you would expect, with prices to match, but it's worth it. Options worth splashing out on include lamb with beetroot cake, prunes and hazelnuts; or gnocchi with scents of Costa Rica and dried ceps.
Glade is a glimpse of the pastoral in central London, a respite from the giddy whirl, if you will. Kind of woodland-inspired with a great tree-shaped chandelier and grass carpets, it's a daytime-only venue. The menu isn't any more traditional than the surroundings: divided into ingredient sections like eggs, meat, fish, cheese, etc, and the poetic sounding portions are more along the lines of a grazing menu, so you can opt for (and pay for) as much as you want, without feeling restricted by normal menu constraints. 'Hommage à M. L'Ambassadeur, 33 Faubourg St Honoré' - basmati rice pilaff with green peas, salmon, fried duck egg, salmon roe, hazelnut, grape, and sansho pepper is a case in point.
And then there's the Lecture Room and Library. Well, what to say? The effect, both decoratively and gastronomically, quite takes your breath away; gourmet does not even begin to cover it. This is where you come for your evening meal, which is far too prosaic for anything like the delights that appear. Starters actually come in groups of 4, so quartets of riffs on langoustines, for example, or the season, or even completely random assorted ingredients: Foie Gras, Veal, Irish Mussels includes custard of foie gras and red port; Roasted and preserved veal in lavender butter; "Marinière" of pickled Irish mussels; and courgette soup, ricotta mousse and caramelised nuts. The mains are no less complex and stunning, and with dessert, there is no choice, you just get all seven (yes seven!). It's not even worth pretending that this kind of meal is within the budget of any of us on a regular basis - it just isn't, but if you've won the lottery, or got an incredibly rich uncle (preferably in oil), then go, spend with our good wishes.
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