My top two London restaurants

The Ledbury and Chilli Cool. Couldn’t be more different. I often have a little mental wrestle with myself about which style of food is ultimately more satisfying; is it the exacting refinement of fine dining or is it the generosity and un-fussed comfort of home-style? I find it seriously hard to answer that question.

The Ledbury is Brett Graham’s elegant double-starred restaurant in Notting Hill; Chilli Cool is a cheap, slightly scruffy and oil-slicked (literally, all over the floor – be careful on the stairs) Sichuan joint in King’s Cross. The sleek theatre of the higher-end restaurant is addictive, but there’s something about the less formal meal that feels so nourishing. It zooms in on your comfort zone and harpoons it, right at the heart.

My recent birthday lunch at The Ledbury was exquisite – squid in ravioli sounded weird but was just the right kind of bouncy, like an understated Thai-fish-cake-bouncy. Teeny ribbons of wild garlic peeped through skin thin pasta; crisp baby radishes bobbed in sweet squid consommé. It looked like a plate made for a princess. Duck was just the softest meat I’ve ever eaten, garnished with glassy slices of sweet and sour grape. A honey and gingerbread souffle was, well…just look at it. The most perfect tower of eggy fluff I ever ate; whipped through with nuggets of gingerbread, the honey waiting golden and sticky down below. Thyme ice cream steadily pervaded, perhaps a little too much. This was all the set lunch by the way (£27.50, 3 courses), although you still feel as special as if you’d ordered the tasting menu.

While The Ledbury coddles and cossets your belly to capacity, Chilli Cool hits it running. Crispy fried chilli pig’s intestines anyone? Tubular chunks of pork bomb, plain and simple. The best pieces crunch then yield to a gelatinous chewy interior. Contrast is everything in Sichuan cuisine. A typical table bears the weight of hot and cold dishes. Shredded raw potato is lustrous and slippery; dry fried beans, blistered and hot; chunks of grouper and tofu swim in the oil of a fiery hotpot while cold slivers of pork belly suck up a mashed garlic sauce which will stain absolutely anything indelibly. Fiery and numbing dishes buddy up with cooling cuke salad and wobbly fungus dappled with sesame oil. They do things with aubergines that make me want to shed a little tear of joy. Oh, and I’ve never spent more than £20 in there, including beers.

There’s no hint of pretension or ego, the food has serious complexity and above all it’s a blast. This is what my top two have in common.

Consider The Ledbury’s celeriac baked in ash – ceremoniously cut open at table before plating; an exciting little show. Bacon and onion mini brioche rolls are to die for and have that sugar and swine combination that makes me giggle with delight; think Bompas and Parr’s bacon doughnuts, or candied bacon ice cream. Their strawberry and hibiscus Bellini and doughnut at last year’s Taste of London was the dish that hooked me in; we giggled and chattered over it like a pair of excited monkeys.

So many places disappoint with the mundane. Food may be perfectly cooked and yet duller than the thud of the neighbouring fat cat’s wallet hitting the table. And don’t get me started on atmosphere; I don’t care how life-changing the food is supposed to be, if the place is stuffy, I won’t be visiting. I need it to make me smile. The best restaurants are playful but not gimmicky; confident and slightly cheeky. In the end I suppose I’ve managed to answer my question: it’s not really a case of preferring either style, but one of accessibility and heart and most of all, fun.

Chilli Cool
15 Leigh street
WC1H 9EW
0207 383 3135
www.chillicool.com

Chilli Cool on Urbanspoon

The Ledbury
127 Ledbury Road
0207 792 9191
www.theledbury.com

The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

Category: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , 15 comments »

15 Responses to “My top two London restaurants”

  1. Tweets that mention My top two London restaurants — Food Stories -- Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by FoodStories and Chris, Tim Douglas. Tim Douglas said: RT @FoodStories My top two London restaurants http://bit.ly/bIesnR << Great work Helen [...]

  2. Chris

    I don’t want to be one of those people that just slavishly comments on every new post just as a matter of course, but you are definitely on a roll recently and I can’t help it. This is a fantastic little writeup. And I agree 100% – both restaurants, in their completely different ways, are totally amazing. There’s room for all sorts, and anyone who says there isn’t is either a) a communist killjoy or b) an elitist snob (delete as appropriate).

    P.S. I was THAT close to popping half a baked celeriac into my mouth at the cutting stage, before realising just in time they were only showing it to us before plating. That could have been embarrassing.

  3. msmarmitelover

    Oh gotta try the ledbury having seen your wonderful photographs, yes, your photographs have sold me the menu!
    Is there nothing for me to eat at chilli cool?
    x

  4. Helen

    Chris – I learnt from your experience not to grab that celeriac. You almost did it so I didn’t have to.

    msmarmitelover – There are some things…the fungus and there’s the hotpot – grouper and tofu. The cucumber and aubergine dishes (obviously the ones without minced pork) and the fish dishes. I definitely wouldn’t avoid.

  5. The Grubworm

    That’s an interesting compare and contrast you did there. It brings to the fore the things that you really love about food and, more specifically, eating out. I totally agree about the need for fun and a lack of stuffiness.

    And, it must be said, Chilli Cool is a real gustatory experience. It (almost literally) blew me away when I last ate there. Fantastic.

  6. ginandcrumpets

    That is the girliest plate of ravioli I have ever seen. The Ledbury sure does do pretty food. I’m completely with you on Chilli Cool, especially the dry fried green beans. I’d happily order a plate of those and a beer and consider myself content.

    I’ve been musing on which restaurant I’ll go to for my first meal back in London. I’ve run through all the options again and again and I’ve decided it’s Silk Road. I really miss Silk Road. Fine dining can be had anywhere in the world so you don’t get to miss it, but neighbourhood canteens are a special case, especially the ones selling big plate chicken.

  7. An American in London

    I haven’t been to the Ledbury in months, but your photo of the souffle, alone, has me reaching for the phone to make a rezzie. What a perfect way to celebrate a birthday.

    Re: Chilli Cool – I should give it another try, as I seem to be in the minority that found it good but not great. For starters, nothing I ate there seemed spicy, so clearly I missed a trick. : ) Anyway, I’ll let you know if things are better next time.

    happy belated!

  8. Katie

    What a great read this week’s installment is Helen! Your enthusiastic and evocative writing is a real pleasure to have a gander through. Do you use a posh camera to take your pics? – they’re coming out a treat.

    The Ledbury’s food looks stunning – really immaculate. Definitely a good tip for a special treat. Chilli Cool sounds fab too- good to have some suggestions up your sleeve when friends cone from out of town.

    Hope your back is feeling better – sounds horrible.

  9. miss south

    You’ve convinced me…I’ve booked a table for Chilli Cool for Thursday night. I’m excited already!

  10. Petra Barran

    Ledbury: gotta go, gotta go! All looks gorgeous.

  11. Lizzie

    Excellent post, Gravy. They are also up there in my top two. Your photos from the Ledbury are stunning.

  12. Helen

    Katie – Thanks. I don’t use a posh camera, no. I use a Fuji Finepix when I’m at home and a canon powershot when I’m own (more discreet).

  13. shayma

    Helen you write so utterly beautifully- “coddles and cossets” the belly. I would love to try both places- and how I would love to try the grouper and tofu with chili. x shayma

  14. Suzan

    Hi Katie, I do love the Ledbury but what I really LOVE is the Harwood Arms. Its a joint effort between Brett (from the Ledbury) and Stephen Williams. Wonderful news for Stephen is he won a Michelin star this year, bad news for us because it is now impossible to get a table!
    This chilli place sounds interesting…

  15. Hannah

    Beautiful writing, stunning photos, this has made my tummy rumble. Like culture, dining for me is best, when you mix up a bit of high and low-end. Can’t wait to be Ledbury and Chilli Cool-bound. Hannah x


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