From Thai to Mexican and everything in between, Londoners have come to expect a varied cuisine when eating out, and the offering is only getting better. Chefs Clare Smyth, Nieves Barragán and Martha Ortiz are tapping into their heritage while challenging convention to keep London at the forefront of international dining.
Former chef patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, and the first British woman to hold three Michelin stars, Clare Smyth recently opened her first solo venture. Core (corebyclaresmyth.com), in Notting Hill, is a celebration of British cuisine featuring humble ingredients and nostalgic dishes with none of the stuffiness you might expect. ‘It’s really important for me to remove all the things people find intimidating about fine dining,’ says Smyth. ‘I don’t see why you can’t have super sharp food and a great atmosphere together. It’s how I like to eat, it’s how I like to go out, so it’s challenging convention. To make fine dining survive into the future, we’ve got to evolve it, like everything in life.’
Growing up on a farm has played a role in informing Smyth’s approach at Core. ‘I grew up eating hearty, home-cooked food,’ she says. ‘It helped me have a real understanding and respect for the meat industry. We are lucky in the UK with our farming standards, yet we are undermining our culture because we are buying from outside. That’s why I wanted to keep everything at Core predominantly British, we should support the people around us and maintain a sense of place and identity.’ Smyth is keen to regain ownership of British cuisine. ‘The French created haute cuisine and we can never get away from that, but we can start to take it back and do our own version of it.’
Smyth’s version jumps out at you from Core’s tasting menu. There is braised-lamb carrot, borne of Smyth’s love of stealing carrots from braising stew. “They’re the best bits,” she says. Another dish focuses on her love of potatoes. ‘Who’s to say a potato is less of an ingredient than asparagus?’ asks Smyth, who is keen to wipe away the conventional way people approach food. ‘I love taking humble ingredients and elevating them. People are nostalgic, they understand that sort of thing.’ Whether or not you grew up eating these ingredients, the fact that everything is British gives it a real home-grown characteristic.
While Smyth leads the way for British cuisine, former Fino and Barrafina head chef, Nieves Barragán, is opening her first restaurant, Sabor, next month. Over two floors, her vision
is to bring diners on a culinary journey through Spain. ‘The idea is, come to Sabor and taste the whole of Spain. A journey from Basque Country, Catalonia, Mallorca to Madrid,’ she says. There will be an Andalusian-style bar and the star of the show will be braised octopus made in traditional Galician copper pans. ‘I’m still working on the rest of the menu, but we’re going to have something different that’s not in London yet.’
Like Smyth, Barragán’s heritage has informed her passion for food and moving away from overly fancy menus is part of that. ‘It’s about finding the right ingredient in the right moment,’ she says. ‘To get perfection with just three ingredients is more difficult than putting 20 ingredients on a plate. For my family, it was very important to eat very well: pulses, stews, fish and vegetables.’ It’s this life-long passion for food that helped earn Barrafina a Michelin star in 2014. ‘I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming,’ she recalls. ‘It made me realise a Michelin star is not just about tablecloths, it’s good service and amazing food.’
Another chef familiar with Michelin stars is Martha Ortiz, whose restaurant Ella Canta (ellacanta.com) has just opened in Mayfair. ‘It means “She Sings” and is a symphony of colours depicted through food,’ says the Mexican chef. ‘We’ve taken care of every detail, the food, the atmosphere and the Latin warmth.’
The interiors, which Ortiz says are ‘a vision of the sophistication of Mexico’, have been carefully designed to her specification, with a mosaic floor and small Legorreta-inspired windows. The food is adventurous and authentic, with dishes such as vampire ceviche with mango and sangrita sorbet served alongside rare mezcals and tequilas. For Ortiz the standout dish is mole, a rich cacao-tinged sauce of 50 ingredients that dates to the 16th century, when every Mexican woman had a recipe. ‘When you try this beautiful sauce, you try the night, the passion and the flavour of the ashes, the burnt maize and the spices that dance in your mouth,’ she enthuses. ‘It is an homage to my country and all the anonymous heroines that have made Mexican gastronomy so magnanimous.’
As London’s culinary landscape evolves, so does the necessity to reclaim the familiar. While Ortiz and Barragán recognise London as a city that opens its arms to world cuisine, Smyth promotes the reclamation of Britain’s culinary identity; together they are making waves to perfectly satisfy the city’s varied appetite.
To read Brummell’s review of Core, click here