June 08 2010
In 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry VIII annexed what is now Regent’s Park and made it his private hunting field; that you might still, in 2010, track down red deer in his Royal Park would no doubt have pleased him. Granted, it is for four days only, and it is not so much Bambi as barbie, since it is a chunk of venison roasted in a tandoor by Cinnamon Club executive chef Vivek Singh, carefully marinated and sauced with pickling spices. It is a small part of a toothsome whole: the annual Taste of London festival.
There are 40 restaurants in this gastronomic theme park: halfway houses for hundreds of chefs, paroled for a few days in early summer. They emerge, prison-pallid and blinking, on the Thursday morning. Freed from the subterranean hellholes in which they normally toil, they cavort in the daylight, and their new-found exuberance seems to find its way into the food. The immediacy of service – kitchen to plate in seconds – avoids the pitfall of over-primping, and the good-natured air of mutual indulgence seems to promote the creation of some truly excellent dishes.
As a Taste of London veteran, let me mark your card. Most importantly, arrive early – whether for lunch or dinner – and you will avoid the crowds. I recommend starting at Fino’s stand, where you will find something savoury and Spanish, perfect – as the name suggests – with a glass of dry sherry (a bottle of which is never far from one or other of the Hart brothers, Fino’s owners). Experienced grazers should take in a few oysters from Bentley’s; intermediate grazers should move on to Pascal Aussignac at Club Gascon for a little foie gras (roasted, this year, with glazed apricot and almond); beginners should go straight to the Hereford snails in white bean velouté at Le Gavroche.
You might finish with the rabbit Siciliana at L’Anima, or the aforementioned deer (for a few bucks: at £12 or 24 “crowns”, the show’s currency, it’s one of the most expensive dishes), or – a rare chance to taste this delicacy, at the very rare price of £4 – wagyu sushi from the excellent Japanese restaurant Dinings. For the sweet of tooth, puddings abound: try The Modern Pantry’s sesame paste pannacotta with saffron-poached rhubarb and pistachio praline.
Despite the well-dressed appearance, Taste of London focuses on food, not service or décor. As well as restaurant stands, there are cooking demos, champagne masterclasses and dozens of stalls selling cookbooks, speciality beers, kitchen gadgets – more or less anything, in fact, that a bon viveur might esteem. It’s the easiest, most enjoyable way to appreciate how varied and exciting London’s dining scene has become. And nowadays visitors can graze contentedly without a Tudor tyrant giving chase.