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London kitchens now celebrate foreign affairs

Email|Print| Text size + By Jean Tang
Globe Correspondent / March 20, 2005

LONDON -- Fine dining in London is no longer an oxymoron. With an estimated quarter million immigrants planting roots in London every year, ethnic dining has not only become mainstream, it has gone upscale. High-concept chicken biryani, haute falafel, nouveau dim sum -- all exist and are even becoming staples in the city's fast-evolving restaurant scene.

Thanks to this happy circumstance, I'm enjoying lunch at Amaya, the latest addition to the highly successful Masala World group, which has opened several Indian restaurants for the yuppie set. Located in the upscale Belgravia neighborhood, the space, which opened last fall, integrates towering sandstone panels with vivid washes of color, creating a look that, at first glance, has more in common with India's ashrams than its bustling street life. Then the open kitchen, set beautifully against giant jars of infused oils, comes to life, and it becomes clear that this restaurant is vibrant, luscious, and stimulating.

Cooks wear black Nehru jackets, and Amaya is all about the grill, or rather, three types of grills, which the menu splits into categories. The first, tandoori ovens with dimpled metal exteriors, look as if they belong in a museum. The other two are the tawa, a thick round griddle, and the sigri, powered by charcoal. Tasting menus are available, but it seems like too much food. Our waiter suggests we begin with a few small, grilled plates, and finish with a curry or biryani, a rice dish compiled in layers, like lasagna.

The food is gorgeous and gently theatrical. Familiar dishes are presented in creative ways, or mixed with unexpected elements. Baby drumsticks arrived cinnamon-sweet, the bones frenched to take the form of stubby lollipop sticks. Baby peppers were set on a plate, perfectly formed and filled with a mild, sweetly comforting goat's cheese. Even the lettuce parcels, brimming with ground chicken, coconut, and Thai chile jam, were lopsided and abstract, like a lively mural on the far wall.

Chicken tikka, a national obsession in the United Kingdom, had been marinated in fresh paprika. It wasn't super spicy, but had I needed to douse a fire, I would have had a choice of emergency measures, including creamy raita in a bowl with sweet pomegranate, the lineup of fresh chutney on the table, and the bread basket.

Jackie, my travel companion, was an Indian food novice. But she had grown up in Miami, so our next destination, a Cuban-inspired restaurant, was hers to authenticate. Floridita, which also opened in the fall, is Sir Terence Conran's paean to Havana's historical El Floridita. Floridita's neon-lighted cocktail bar is a larger replica of the one where Ernest Hemingway had his corner stool and the bartender Constante perfected the daiquiri. The adjoining restaurant doubles as music lounge and nightclub: Diners are serenaded, and occasionally moved to dance, by a live band of Cuban imports. Late on weekend nights, the lights are lowered and DJs take over.

Floridita is a happy place, and the waitstaff shows it. Photographs adorn the otherwise spare walls with partying in Havana. My cocktail (for one has to start with cocktails here) was an exotic vodka slushy with overtones of fig and vanilla. Nick Strangeway, London's best-known mixologist, inspired the cocktails here.

Cuban food, said Jackie, tends to be starchy and fatty and rather one-note, with predictable variations on plantains and pork. Chef Andrew Rose's concept, and it would be a mistake to interpret it any other way, is to work Spanish and Latin American elements into what is essentially modern English cuisine. Jackie's main course, for example, was Angus rib-eye steak, rubbed with black pepper and char-grilled with saffron. Mine was pork pot roast, heaped with tender pork cheeks and morcilla (pig's blood sausage). Both were great. Neither was Cuban.

The appetizers shone, particularly the cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers. The buttery-rich jamon pata negra (cured ham of black-footed pig), unobtainable in the States, is worth ordering, as are the crispy salt cod and potato croquettes, like highly refined fish sticks. Cuban lobsters are presented three ways: poached, char-grilled, and dotted with herbs, and as an altogether irresistible thermidor. I liked the black beans and rice, again Anglicized with basmati rice and big, salty pieces of bacon, but our other side dish, the tostones, or fried plantains, were inexplicably bland and dry. Ask for ketchup and the kitchen may whip up a homemade tomato relish, sweet with honey, Vidalia onions, and gherkins.

Next came the single sore spot in our weeklong feast. The Hakka are a displaced minority in China known for simple, rustic food. Ironic, then, that the three-year-old Hakkasan, which tacks on the Japanese form of address, would make such an elaborate statement. The restaurant, which widens into sheer splendor at the bottom of a grand staircase, is gorgeous and the menu promising. The restaurant has a Michelin star. I wanted to love it.

It wasn't that the food was bad. In fact, Hakkasan's cocktails, which number in the dozens, bordered on brilliant. A lip-smacking watermelon mojita came with a peppercorn rim, and the signature drink, a blend of passionfruit, coconut cream, lychee, and vodka, was smooth and worthy. But Hakkasan's service bordered on hostile. Chalk it up to the tyranny of trendiness, for owner Alan Yau, founder of the highly popular Wagamama noodle franchise, the new dim sum palace Yauatcha, and other similar spots, cannot seem to go wrong elsewhere.

Silk scrolls hang imperiously from the ceiling, grounded with carved Chinese screens pleasingly spaced. Embroidered dragons adorn leather-backed banquettes. The restaurant pulsed with house music rather than light, and I strained to read my menu: small eats, or dim sum, followed by fish, seafood, poultry, meat, tofu, and vegetables.

Despite empty tables on a Monday, however, and the fact that we were hours away from closing time, our table of four was given just two hours to eat. The door staff, which had sent half our party to the bar and the other half to the table, fumbled away precious time; our chatty group, reuniting after months, ate up more. When pressed, we ordered hastily: a dim sum platter that came with ordinary pieces of shumai and dumplings; more dumplings, these Shanghai-style; wild mushroom lettuce wraps; the mabo tofu.

The Shanghai dumplings, stuffed with a vegetarian mixture of Chinese chives and mushrooms, were good; ditto the lettuce wraps. Mabo tofu is supposed to be a searing union of tofu and ground meat. Hakkasan's was coarse and somewhat tasteless, coated with chopped peanuts and wrongly flavored by the only thing I do not eat and had requested the kitchen leave out: cilantro. It was left untouched, and none of our squadron of waiters (for Hakkasan is typically Chinese in that you are assigned no single waiter) cared to ask. We were still hungry but were informed by the manager that we had exceeded our time limit and had to retire to the bar. A glance around the room confirmed that the previously empty tables were still empty. We declined the bar offer and left, looking for a good pub to fill our empty stomachs.

All of this eating was taking a toll on our waistlines and our wallets, so Jackie and I gave the latter a night off, and hit , the newer venture of Chef Theodore Kyriakou. The restaurant is a former Victorian mission house attached to The Real Greek, Kyriakou's popular temple of regional Greek cuisine and one of the first businesses to open in the edgy-turned-arty Hoxton neighborhood.

The restaurant is decidedly simple; candle chandeliers, stained glass windows, and a ceiling dome of glass and iron lend quirky historic touches. You're given a choice of cocktails. Be careful here. Ouzo is licorice-tasting Greek liquor, strong and strange in a Collins, even sweetened with cherry puree.

If I had any lingering cravings for bread, the grilled flatbread fixed it. It arrived too hot to touch, and tasted saltily of the Mediterranean. Pork souvlaki was undersalted but delicate; pastourma, an air-dried beef cured with cumin and other spices, was sharp and memorable. The best dish was the gigandes giahni, a mix of slow-braised giant beans tinged with fennel and orange zest. I also enjoyed the light, fresh squid in parsley batter, and the Armenian-style spicy sausage.

We polished off the week at Noura Belgravia, the upscale branch of the Lebanese brasserie from Paris. Noura is probably different from all the other restaurants in that it was created by the Lebanese for the Lebanese; the Belgravia branch houses glass-walled minimalism and not a trace of kitsch. The notion that a pricey Lebanese restaurant can maintain four thriving branches in London seems astounding -- until one realizes that the Lebanese living here number in the hundreds of thousands.

Lebanese cuisine has much in common with Turkish and Greek, and Noura's menu is dominated by lamb and parsley, garlic, lemon juice, and nuts. This was some of the most beautiful falafel I have ever seen, described as bean croquettes, landscaped with sesame seeds and crispy ridges, spherical and compelling.

Mezzes, or small plates, are the way to go. Skip the pickles. Every table gets a plate of olives and another of fresh, raw vegetables; you're meant to hack open a bell pepper and nibble as one would bread.

I find tabbouleh (the acidic marriage of parsley, bulgur wheat, tomatoes, onions, and lemon juice) a hard dish to love, but I fell for its feather-light freshness here. Out came moist warak enab (grape leaves stuffed with rice) and also fatayer (spinach baked with pine nuts in a star of pastry dough). Then came two of the many menu items called kebbeh: The first was a wheel of lamb tartare, the second a delicious lamb dumpling about the size of a fat sausage, sealed in a wrapper of cracked bulgur wheat. There was hummus and roasted eggplant baba ganoush, called moutabbal here, with more lemon notes than garlic. Both are designed for dipping with the pillowy pita. The hands-down winner of the table, however, was muhammara, a mound of pureed nuts such as pistachios and cashews, mixed with tomatoes, peppers, and a tinge of spicy oil.

The biggest surprise? Lebanese wine. We asked our waiter to choose one, and got a 1996 Chateau Musar red, an explosion of fruit similar to Australian shiraz, for $76. It almost made up for a dry heap of chicken shwarma. Wistfully, I took my last bite of the moist, housemade baklava.

Rather than ethnic, I'd say my weeklong feast was futuristic. There were still restaurants I didn't get to try, palaces serving Thai royal cuisine, progressive Japanese, interpreted Italian, and Irish. As a result, I left London in the best possible way: plotting my return.

Jean Tang is a freelance writer in New York.

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