London's International Smorgasbord

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While you could spend a lifetime happily exploring Asian cuisine in London, don't forget the city's haul of regional European restaurants. A few blocks from Hakkasan in Fitzrovia, in a whitewashed basement always buzzing with the hum of international accents, Fino serves emphatically authentic Spanish tapas. The chorizo and tomato salad is a clean toss of smoky, quietly spicy chorizo coins and sweet tomatoes. The ham croquetas are two big golden balls filled with diced ham and bathed in béchamel sauce, and the arroz negro, served in a little copper pot, features al dente rice cooked in a deep-black squid ink, studded with chunks of squid that pick up a licorice-like flavor from the ebony ink.


All those small plates, though, will look puny next to the heaped dishes served up at the recently opened Mari Vanna, where London's newest wave of Russian immigrants have the money to honor the mother country in big culinary ways. Sitting in posh Knightsbridge, where the émigrés cluster, the newest Mari Vanna (its sisters are in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and New York) is a simulation of a babushka's wooden cottage; it comes very consciously cluttered, presumably by a stylist, with Russian nesting dolls and crocheted doilies, but the food is no stylized pretender. Torpedoes of cabbage are stuffed with pork, veal, and rice and manage to balance richness and delicacy. So does the stroganoff, thick with tender beef, which single-handedly salvages a cartoon-Russian dish.


Finish your global free-for-all at the Wolseley, where you can get a taste of the whole continental larder, from crème brûlée to Sachertorte, Wiener Schnitzel to coq au vin, soufflé Suisse to Matjes herring. Although owners Chris Corbin and Jeremy King have recently opened sister kitchens (the Delaunay in Covent Garden and the Brasserie Zédel in Soho), their original is still the comfort food mothership (and celebrity haunt) for a variety of good reasons, starting with the Wolseley dining room itself, all Downton Abbey grandeur with its dressy vaulted ceiling, marble pillars, curving banquettes, and plunging gothic chandeliers. But what really keeps the crowds coming are the impeccable service and a kitchen that knows how to source and accurately reproduce all of its regional dishes, whether it's a chunky Eastern European chopped liver or a French duck à l'orange that achieves a fruity flavor without overpowering sweetness.

But perhaps best of all are the Wolseley's British regional dishes, such as a perfect round of super-fresh chilled Cornish crab laid over chopped avocado; oak-smoked salmon from the smokery Severn & Wye, paired with buttered soda bread; deep-fried whitebait that has a ladylike crunch of batter; and seven-hour lamb lifted by rosemary. Even better: Here come all the English puddings, proudly standing up for themselves, from a treacle tart to a fresh cherry and apple crumble. The result helps take back all those stale jokes about British food. The local cuisine, it turns out, was always better than we thought, and the very definition of supernal contemporary cooking, when it's done right.

Raphael Kadushin writes for a range of food and travel outlets, including Condé Nast Traveler, Epicurious, Out, and National Geographic Traveler. His last piece for Gourmet Live was on Aix-en-Provence and environs.

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