The original Great Fire of 1666 was ignited by a spark from a wood oven on Pudding Lane. Nothing much has changed. After years of running forward, chefs are now taking a giant step back, swapping their gas ranges for a wood-fired oven or hearth and igniting fires instead of pilot lights.
Fire is now a central theme to many restaurants around London, making cooking more intimate, and dining more exciting than ever. Every dining experience that is shaped by fire is very different, forging a fundamental connection between the chef and the ingredient.
I am always interested to see what other people are doing with fire in other parts of the world because cooking with fire is about ingredients, instinct and personal experience.
Most recently I was invited to cook at Meatopia, an incredible summer festival celebrating meat, fire, and music. It was a great excuse (not that you would need one) to see what else is setting the London dining scene alight.
My first stop in London was Kiln, a northern Thai-inspired open barbecue kitchen with a focus on sourcing the best British ingredients from local farmers and day boats. This small space packs in a lot of drama, with a full-length counter running alongside the pyrotechnic display of the kitchen, featuring fish and meat grilled over coals, and claypot noodles.
With its strong Basque accent and wood-fired oven and grills, I felt quite at home at Brat, particularly as one of its specialties is an unadulterated whole turbot (from where the restaurant derives its name). While the natural rich flavour of this grilled king of fish will always be my choice for my last meal on earth, there are several other stars from the kitchen. Flatbread arrives blistered and glistening with anchovies and olive oil, smoked cod roe on grilled soldiers command your attention, and the wood-fired basque cheesecake provides the ideal sweet finish.
St Leonard's, from chefs Jackson Boxer and Andrew Clarke, is an altogether different proposition, encompassing both a hearth and a raw bar. While you can feast on the best grilled meat and raw fish, more interesting is the attention given to vegetables. Here they are given star treatment on the grill in dishes such as blistered frigatelli peppers, blackened onions with a peppered tuna caramel, and charred hispi cabbage brushed with pork fat.
Of course, I don't dine only at fire-powered establishments; primarily choosing restaurants that celebrate the ingredient.
Lyle's chef and co-owner James Lowe is one of the young chefs shaping the London dining scene. I had the pleasure of getting to know James when we cooked together in Copenhagen.
We share a similar approach to food that is produce-led and driven by common sense. Like me, James draws inspiration from farmers and fishermen he has been working with over many years. A simple corn dish is given a star turn grilled with honey and thyme; mackerel is salted and grilled before being brushed by sweet datterini tomatoes; while a rib of aged grass-fed dexter beef is simply left to speak for itself. The natural pared-back feel of the restaurant provides a focus for the fantastic food and service.
Another delight was Luca, where Isaac McHale celebrates the best of British ingredients with an Italian accent. Beautiful design touches run throughout from the bar to the dining room which, awash with marble and brass, transport you back to 1950s Italy. There is even a pasta room and an exquisite courtyard, where you can sample the delights of a tortellini of Scottish langoustines and pappardelle with a grouse ragu.
There are also a number of low-intervention wine bars with excellent daily menus popping up, including newly opened Bright in Hackney.
Brought to you by the team behind P. Franco & Noble Fine Liquor, this warm and welcoming wine bar is run by co-owner, and Aussie, Phil Bracey and is the current home to William Gleave, who was the head chef at Garagistes in Hobart. One of the highlights of the trip was a beautifully simple bowl of butter beans cooked in a pecorino broth with fresh sorrel, confirming a quiet confidence in the cooking and the ingredients.
Another favourite was 40 Maltby Street. Situated within the railway arches, this wine-centric favourite features a seasonal blackboard of share dishes that celebrate the best British produce of the day from a kitchen no bigger than a postage stamp.
St Leonards, stleonards.london
40 Maltby Street, 40maltbystreet.com