When planning a trip to London, my wife and I need to balance two keen interests: theater and dining. Since both take place in the evening (we're not lunch-eaters), dilemmas arise. But nowadays there are many options for after-theater meals, and we keep a list of restaurants that will welcome (or at least feed) us at 10:30 or 11 o'clock. These restaurants (see below for a small selection) feature good, sometimes inventive cooking, not complex high gastronomy -- which in any event we're not seeking so close to bedtime.
Yet once in a while a new "gastronomic" restaurant sounds promising, and we forgo the theater and dine at a more normal hour -- and at a more leisurely pace. This can be a real treat, as it was at Alyn Williams at The Westbury Hotel, which opened at the end of November 2011.
Mr. Williams worked for years in the Gordon Ramsay ambit, latterly as head chef of Pétrus and, when links with Mr. Ramsay were severed, of its successor, Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley. That background engenders rigor and precision; imagination and style do not come automatically. Happily, Mr. Williams possesses these qualities, and the food at our January dinner was for the most part clear-tasting, creative without exaggeration and, as expected, carefully cooked.
The menu arrangements are marked by flexibility: diners may select dishes from the prix-fixe, tasting and vegetarian lists to build their three-course meals (priced at an introductory £45, about $68). The décor has elements of glitter (literally, in the case of the sparkly carpet) and of wood-paneled solidity; there's plenty of room between tables, and it is a comfortable place to eat. Service is highly professional yet amiable, just as it should be.
After excellent snacks including ethereal gougères and tiny bits of tempura-fried salmon belly, we began with a gorgeous preliminary dish from the tasting menu: a layered "sundae" using the flavors of French onion soup, with crystalline gelled beef-onion consommé and two elegant preparations of crab meat (yes, harmonious in this dish), topped with one bite of tender beef cheek; crisp potato-onion-cheese squares were served alongside. Exciting and perfect.
A couple of other first courses had a flaw: one ingredient too many. Little goat's milk gnocchi added nothing to an otherwise concordant grouse dish, though in themselves they had charm. A composition of lightly smoky soft-cooked egg, apple, truffled toast fingers and two celeriac treatments (one raw, one glazed) was lent brightness enough by the apple: the rémoulade-like celeriac salad was superfluous.
Our main courses suffered from no such redundancies. I particularly liked the Herdwick lamb with fennel and bacon-cured breast of lamb. Cooking was faultless, and both the individual components and the ensemble were deeply savory. Some diners might have preferred more of an edge of acidity, but all that umami was just the ticket for a winter's dinner.
Desserts were terrific, especially Walnut Whip (named after a packaged confection); this triumph of modern technique included a softly frozen chocolate-covered walnut marshmallow parfait, walnut butter and walnut ice cream. It tasted unambiguously but not aggressively of walnuts, and it was among the best and most delicious fancy desserts I'd had in a long time.
If Mr. Williams continues as he has begun, and if his warm-weather dishes hit the target as accurately as his winter cooking, this could be a major addition to the London restaurant scene.
* * *
For our more typical London nights, one post-theater option is The Wolseley, a beautiful, grand restaurant. It now has a sibling, not far from Covent Garden: The Delaunay, also named after a defunct car. It too is open late -- from breakfast till midnight (brunch till 11 p.m. on Sundays) -- and, designed by David Collins Studio, it too is beautiful. It isn't a soaring multi-level space like The Wolseley, but it conveys substance, occasion and discreet nostalgic luxury.
The menu, like The Wolseley's, is Viennese inflected (strudels, schnitzels and sausages), with hints of a Jewish mother's repertoire (chicken soup with noodles; "salt" -- i.e. corned -- beef). But basically this is appealing Euro-British cooking, a little old-fashioned in places; I mean that as a compliment. The wine list is short but diverse, and all wines apart from the most costly are available by the glass and half-liter carafe as well as by the bottle.
That sounds great; it looks great; and I really wanted it to be great: someplace we'd look forward to after the National Theatre, a quick trot across Waterloo Bridge. But, after our fine first course of a wafer-thin, flavorful Alsatian-style tarte flambée (easily enough for two) and before our dessert of good apple-marzipan strudel (crisp even late at night), the kitchen did not deliver on the main courses. Jackie ordered grilled calf's liver and bacon, and ordered it cooked pink. While the buttery mashed potatoes and the sweetish sauce were unimpeachable, the liver was overcooked to that stage where it was no longer pleasant to chew, and it was carelessly prepared, every slice riddled with veins.
Likewise, the unevenly cut chunks of beef in my Stroganoff were cooked too long, and their toughness belied their billed origin as tenderloin. Again, the accompaniments were very good, with an excellent paprika-scented sauce and perfect basmati rice. A friend's wiener schnitzel tasted delicious -- admirably seasoned, tender, moist veal -- but its breading was flaccid and did not do that wiener schnitzel party trick of blistering away from the meat to form a hilly foodscape on the plate.
And yet the place is so nice to be in and the staff is so able and pleasant that I don't think we'll abandon The Delaunay. But perhaps we'll seek safer menu options, where haphazard to-order cooking might be less of an issue. Chicken-noodle soup, anyone?
Alyn Williams at The Westbury, Conduit Street at New Bond Street, London W1S 2YF, +44 (0) 20 7078 9579, email@example.com. Introductory prices: prix-fixe dinner £45 (about $68); tasting menu £55 ($82); our bottle of interesting South African viognier cost £53 ($80).
The Delaunay, 55 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BB, +44 (0) 20 7499 8558, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our dinner for two (with an ample shared appetizer, a shared dessert and a bottle of nice wine) cost just under £100 (about $155).
Other after-theater options, older or newer, include: J. Sheekey for fish; The Ivy (like Sheekey's, part of the Caprice Group) for just about anything you feel like eating; the dining room at the St. John Hotel off Leicester Square for the sort of food you expect from anything called "St. John": meat (although they do of course serve fish and vegetable dishes, even the odd salad); Canteen for perhaps the city's best Scotch eggs and much else.