Occasionally, in the restaurant cosmos, the planets align and a clutch of new openings suddenly makes one district of London the place to be. In recent years, this phenomenon has hit Shoreditch, Fitzrovia, Soho, Hackney and Clapham, to name a few, prompting the city’s trendiest diners to tap postcodes frantically into their iPhones.
It is a long time, however, since Covent Garden’s restaurants were all the rage. I dimly remember hanging around Joe Allen in the early 1990s, where luvvies air-kissed other luvvies, we all pretended to be New Yorkers, and the food was something of a sideshow. The renaissance began with Hawksmoor and a brace of Barrafinas – and now Covent Garden can boast several fine places to eat.
Foremost among them is Frenchie, a croissant’s toss from the piazza, where chef Gregory Marchand’s inventive, grown-up cooking provokes an appreciative buzz. My first visit to this handsome, two-floored restaurant was brightened by silky, lactic burrata with aged balsamic vinegar, blushingly ripe white peaches and fragrant basil leaves; then pappardelle dressed with slow-cooked beef ragù, sharpened with Espelette pepper, Kalamata olives and preserved lemon.
A second visit featured potato-stuffed squid-ink tortellini in an intense, saffron-spiked bisque, and a gloriously meaty tranche of stone bass partnered with peas, coco beans, and carrot in various guises.
Then there is Duende, chef Victor Garvey’s small, perfectly formed modern tapas bar on Maiden Lane. Galician Seaweed Salad is not a dish that exactly leaps from the menu, but it is a fine thing: a long cylinder of overlapping sliced avocado, stuffed with some perky marine greens and colourfully doused with a piquillo pepper sauce. Deep-fried oysters were gutsily matched with amontillado sherry, toasted almonds and spinach; velveted hake featured a sauce made with cava and anchovies.
The newest kid on the Covent Garden block is The Barbary, the second London joint from the restaurateurs behind The Palomar in Soho. In the heart of Neal’s Yard, its open kitchen knocks out some superb little dishes to diners seated cheek-by-jowl at the counter.
The Barbary’s interpretation of Maghrebi cuisine includes puffy, fluffy naan bread straight from the tandoor; msabacha, a kind of deconstructed hummus; arayes, a spicy, beef‑and-lamb version of a sausage roll; neck of pata negra, served pink with a sweet date sauce; and smoky baba ganoush with a blizzard of chopped herbs. Further proof that – for the moment at least – everything in the Garden is rosy.