Tom Parker Bowles has no need for sun or sand – his top London restaurants will take you on a Mediterranean journey without boarding a plane. Here he takes us from Italy to Isreal, via Egypt
Mediterranean food. Two words warmed by the sun, tickled by a gentle breeze and redolent of azure skies, cobalt seas and cliché. It’s home to a magnificent melange of cultures and cuisines, shaped by great and mighty Empires long since passed- Byzantine, Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Moor. Yet when we think of this great inland sea, our mind wanders towards languid holidays in France and Spain, Greece, Italy and Turkey. We tend to forget those countries hugging its southern shores, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, and Lebanon, Israel and Syria to the east. Beirut and Tel Aviv are every bit as Mediterranean as Marseilles and Barcelona.
The French Mediterranean cuisine might seem markedly different from the food of, say, Istanbul. Different history and geography for a start. But as Elizabeth David writes in Mediterranean Food: ‘The ever recurring elements in the food throughout these countries are the oil, the saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in the kitchens; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, melons, figs and limes.’ Techniques might vary, and invaders too. But it’s this brilliant produce – plus all that fish – that defines the region.
Now the great Ms David may not, as many argue, have taught the British to cook. What she did offer, though, was splendidly elegant prose and immense culinary knowledge, conjuring up a delectable snapshot of honeyed lands of plenty. The book gives a tantalising glimpse into the food of a region that, back in 1950, seemed as exotic as Nubian dancing girls. The country was on its knees, financially crippled by the war and still suffering from the strictures of rationing. What David brought alive were not just the recipes, but the flavours, scents and colours of the place. And for that, we’ll be eternally grateful.
So to London – where do I start? With Francesco Mazzei’s superlative L’Anima, deep in the city, as gutsy and thrilling a taste of Southern Italy as you’ll find anywhere. Or Sorrento-style pizza from Brixton’s (and Chiswick’s) Franco Manca. Great Roman dishes (and great dishes from other regions) at Bocca di Lupo; ever-reliable brilliance from Locanda Locatelli, and excellent Italian tucker from Dalston newcomer, Rotorino, too.
Over to Spain (or the Mediterranean coast and Balearic islands, anyway), there’s the Salt Yard group, who seem to improve with every new place they open. Seeing the original, Salt Yard in Goodge Street, set the bar high, that’s some achievement. While Cambio de Tercio in South Kensington is a place where standards never drop.
Next on our ridiculously whistle-stop tour around the Med is the ever-reliable Momo in the West End. Libya and Algeria aren’t brilliantly represented in the capital, but I adore the Koshari, Egypt’s national dish, served up at Koshari Street in the West End. Lentils, rice, chickpeas and vermicelli, drenched in a wonderfully spicy tomato sauce.
When it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean, we’re rather better equipped. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s mini-chain Ottolenghi serve up vibrant, sun soaked salads, breads, biscuits and puddings. The Palomar in Soho is white hot, with a very modern take on Israeli food. And my favourite Turkish places are found in Green Lanes, N4. Gokyuzu and Diyarbakir are among the best, along with Mangal Ocakbasi in Dalston and Fez Mangal on Ladbroke Grove.
I love the huge Syrian place, Abu Zaad, on the Uxbridge Road, and the rather smaller Sufi, that cooks up some of the best Persian food in London. As to Lebanese, we all have our favourites. Late night schwarmas at Maroush 2 in Knightsbridge, and proper Lebanese feasts at Al Waha on Westbourne Grove. Plus there’s the whole of Edgware road, which, in summer – where the smell of grilling lamb mixes with the scent of a thousand hooka pipes – could be a foreign country. Wonderful. I have, of course, barely skimmed the surface. This is merely a Mediterranean soupcon, a bite of dark green olive. A ‘flavour,’ in the words of Ms David, ‘of those blessed lands of sun and sea and olive trees.’
1 Had a memorable and rather brilliant lunch at Toto’s in Walton Street, Chelsea. Wonderful vitello tonnato, perfect pastas and an immaculate risotto too. The great Silvano Giraldin, legend of Le Gavroche, is advising and he put together lunch for a bunch of chefs and food scribes. It stretched on late until the afternoon. I will be back.
2 Enjoyed a few glasses of Prosecco at the launch of Polpo Notting Hill. This area is a bit of a gastronomic wasteland (Assagi and a few others aside), so the denizens of W11 are greeting it with unabashed gusto. Quite right, too, as it promises to be every bit as fine as its Soho and Covent Garden siblings.
3 Tucked into proper Thai food. In Peckham Rye. For a West London boy like me, it was certainly worth the trip, as The Begging Bowl is as near to real Thai food as you’ll find in the UK. Chef proprietor Jane Alty trained under David Thompson, and it shows. Flavours are bold when they need to be, pungent and hot and sour too. None of the bland nonsense that usually sullies this great cuisine’s name. Very much worth a visit.