Once the preserve of only the fanciest of fancy restaurants, the tasting menu has come into its own post-pandemic. Set menus make economic sense for cost-cutting restaurateurs and their harried staff, of course – but customers benefit too, with no nasty surprises or bust-ups when the bill arrives. And for those of us who suffer from perennial food envy, tasting menus remove the gut-wrenching anxiety of having to choose between the ‘succulent hand-glazed cod’ and the ‘succulently foraged kobe beef’ – both it is. But pairing multiple dishes with distinctive wines and then placing them in some kind of coherent order takes real skill – so who does it best?
For me, opting for a tasting menu is a bit like listening to an album in its entirety rather than skipping to the hits. You’ve got perhaps eight or nine offerings in front of you, and the running order is key. Where songs appear on an album is almost as important as the songs themselves, and it’s much the same when it comes to composing a menu; hit the diner with something bold, then surprise them with a few tasty left-fielders before ending on a bittersweet high.
If you’re into brevity, take note: tasting menus are a commitment, so you should leave around three hours for eight courses. Waiters like to take their time explaining the intricacies of each dish, too, so pay attention – and don’t be surprised if you miss the last bus home.
The dining room at Michelin-starred Benares on Berkeley Square may be windowless, but the eight-course tasting menu is surprisingly light for Indian cuisine. Executive chef Sameer Taneja spent much of lockdown honing his skills; the result is an idiosyncratic mix of traditional Indian street food and a modern take on classics, such as baby poussin masala paired with a 2016 Gevrey-Chambertin Pierre Bourée Fils Burgundy, and gamey tandoori muntjac with a fine San Marzano Collezione Cinquanta from Puglia. Michelin-worthy flourishes include Porlock Bay oysters emerging from a fog of dry ice and a potato fritter hiding behind a bonsai tree in a nod to Indian street food sellers. Spiciness is kept to a minimum while the imaginative wine pairings bring out the sweet and savoury elements of each dish. It all makes for a fascinating journey through India’s rich and varied cuisine. The dining room’s impressive wavy frieze represents the Ganges and makes an interesting change from windows.Eight courses – £123 (veggie option – £112) Six courses (lunch menu) – £68 (veggie option – £62)Paired wines – £55
Water House Project
For sociable types who enjoy table-sharing, the Water House Project in Bethnal Green is a great place to meet hip and happening east Londoners. For the less gregarious, there are individual tables from which to enjoy the culinary theatrics of head chef Gabriel Waterhouse and his team. Since Waterhouse and his wife opened their relaxed fine dining restaurant in autumn last year, the place has built an almost religious following. Guests wait outside until beckoned in, adding an air of expectation to the evening. With vast windows opening on to a post-industrial, semi-gentrified cityscape, you could almost be in Brooklyn or a 1980s dystopian film set. Dishes are displayed on large wooden tables where staff prink and preen diminutive but artistically formed courses including lobster with peach, tomato consommé and kaffir lime paired with a sharp Chenin blanc, and tender Hardwick lamb with aubergine and black garlic paired with a black-fruited 2020 Farneto Berzmein. At the end of what feels like a rather elegant immersive performance, the exhausted kitchen staff line up for some much-deserved applause. Ten courses with six pairings – £135
Worm your way through Hackney Wick’s kaleidoscope of graffiti-daubed streets and you’ll eventually wind up at Tom Brown’s much-lauded fish restaurant. The exterior is a bit meh but the airy dining room has a charming, almost homely feel. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to plonk your kitchen bang in the middle of the action but the studious chefs look more like surgeons as they micro-garnish fleshy Irish oysters with the aid of precision tweezers. The eight courses include sea bream tartar paired with a light Chablis and a luscious mussel pate with devilled butter, brown shrimp and cockles. The baked cheesecake with peach and raspberries has just the right cheese-to-cake ratio, perfectly complemented by a sweet flowering 2016 Chateau de Mons. It’s great value too.Eight courses – £70 Paired wines – £70
12.51 by Chef James Cochran
Tasting menus don’t have to leave an expensive taste in your mouth – and at this tiny space on Upper Street in Islington it’s value all the way, with a fine selection of dishes at a rock-bottom price. James Cochran’s signature restaurant reflects a varied upbringing; his parents are from St.Vincent and Glasgow but he grew up in Whitstable, famous of course for its bountiful oysters. You’ll be offered a choice of hearty snacks before the five-course taster, but you can probably skip them – there’s plenty to get your teeth into with a tasting line-up that includes cured sea trout paired with gin and tonic, and Scottish mackerel with tangy fermented gooseberries paired with a hefty Chardonnay/Rabula from Slovenia. It’s a hearty mix but there should be plenty of room left over for the oozingly decadent toasted marshmallow filled with cooling yoghurt. Five courses (inc. veggie option) – £40Paired drinks – £40
Opened last year, Ormer is chef Sofian Msetfi’s first solo project following stints at Michelin-starred establishments such as Adare Manor, the Hand and Flowers and Midsummer House. The 30-year-old has created two seasonal tasting menus with six or eight courses that focus on organic British fare and seasonal produce. The stylish basement dining room has a hushed air of sophistication that is anything but stuffy. Expect an international crowd of high-rolling Mayfairians as you run the gamut of fine dining, from warm Iberico jelly paired with a fine New Zealand Pinot Gris to barbecue rack of limousine veal with Marsala and mushroom sauce paired with a light 2019 Valpolicella. There’s a good balance of fish and meat including a generous hunk of native lobster with tomato, pine nut and basil. Vegetarian tasting plates include Jerusalem artichoke velouté, hazelnut, grape and pickled trompettes and a raviolo of tomato, pine nut and brown butter. Six courses – £85Eight courses – £100Paired wines – £100
If you’re a fan of the bucolic nurseries in south-west London you’ll feel right at home here, despite the Petersham’s location in the heart of busy Covent Garden. The Boglione family’s food and plant empire has come a long way since they first moved from Italy to Petersham House near Richmond where they took over a local nursery, but the tasting menu stays true to the company ethos of using seasonal fruit and vegetables sourced from the family’s farm in Devon. Choose a table outside among the flowering fauna and tuck into sticky risotto with courgette flowers and dense, creamy burrata paired with Gruner Veltliner Eichberg, followed by a generous helping of perfectly pink beef fillet with parsley salad paired with a lush Chianti. The rich chocolate mousse comes with Zisola olive oil ice cream, perfectly offset by a small measure of tangy Valpolicella. Seven courses – £90Paired wines – £90
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
When dining at a celebrity-owned restaurant I always like to think that grumpy Gordon, cuddly Jamie or Cornish pasty-faced Rick are beavering away over a hot stove just for me. Of course the reality is that we pay a premium for their name rather than their actual hands. Nevertheless, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge has a lot to recommend it. The airy space overlooking Hyde Park is a little too Dubai-generic, but the verdant views just about make up for all those hard shiny surfaces. There isn’t the usual Heston-style gimmickry, although you will be expected to choose between various ‘serving styles’ that include letting ‘the food do the talking’ and taking a ‘trip down Heston’s imagination’. My advice is to let the Hay smoked trout with a garnish of Gentleman’s Relish partnered with buttery Bourgogne do the gabbing. The cloud-tender Hereford beef with triple-cooked chips and truffle slivers also has great chat, especially with the 2019 La Chevaliere pairing. Considering the alcohol content, the tipsy cake with spit roast pineapple is surprisingly coherent.Five courses – £135Paired wines – from £125
You may well miss this appropriately named culinary masterpiece as you amble up Piccadilly, because most of the action takes place above street level in what’s known as the ‘Above’ restaurant – yup, these days it’s all about literalism when it comes to naming restaurants. Ascend the elegantly curvaceous Gaudiesque staircase and be suitably wowed by the enormous plate glass windows overlooking Green Park. Ollie Dabbous opened his first venue, Michelin-starred Dabbous, in 2012 to much acclaim and now he’s done it again here in the West End. Book a corner table by those giant windows and let Ollie’s 1970s west coast playlist wash over you. To appreciate all that natural light go for the lunch menu which includes their signature wood-smoked nest egg, meaty Cornish monkfish and the glazed, intensely flavoursome veal sweetbread with summer vegetables and lemon thyme. There’s a good selection of English and French cheeses (with supplement) and you’ll end proceedings with a soaked cherry blossom teacake with creamy Tahitian vanilla ice cream. If you’ve chosen to pair that lot with the classic wine selection you may struggle to make it back down that mighty staircase. Seven courses – £160Classic wine pairing – £105
It’s rare to find a restaurant that gets all the basics right, and I don’t just mean decent grub. A Michelin-starred chef can work his tail off but if the venue’s lighting is harsh, the acoustics off-putting and the seating uncomfortable they may as well be serving egg and chips. Chef and owner Carlo Scotto has worked hard to make sure his newly opened Amethyst has all the peripheries covered. Despite hardwood floors and concrete walls, you won’t have to bellow to make yourself heard. In fact the roughed-up concrete actually helps absorb excess noise, and while I don’t usually condone piped music, the subtle beats remain very much in the background adding just the right amount of chilled ambience. Where this place really excels however is in its seating arrangements. Scotto and his wife agonised over the look and scale of their single, beautifully crafted quartz-topped dining table. Combining the intimacy of separate tables with the sociability of a friend’s dinner party the cleverly angled edges allow up to 30 customers to engage with each other, but only if they choose. It’s a simple but remarkable achievement and I’d be surprised if their ingenious design doesn’t catch on. Perhaps we will look back in a few years with wry amusement at today’s starchy table-clothed islands. There’s no menu to fawn over here, but who needs florid prose when the food is so eloquent? Yes the blackened cod puts competitors in the shade but leave a few superlatives for the beef fillet with sticky dates paired with an award winning 2015 Chateau Ladignac Medoc. The blackberry, vanilla oil and bronze fennel pudding may well leave you speechless. Six courses – £9012 courses – £135Wine pairing – from £155
This cosy, pared-back neighbourhood Indian in Marylebone Village attracts loyal locals and those happy to travel for something more interesting than the usual chicken korma and pilau rice. The kitchen delivers a contemporary taste of Indian coastal cuisine with wine pairings that focus on emerging regions and boutique wineries from around the world. The place is often packed so book ahead to enjoy their imaginative tasting menu that unusually includes a choice of mains. For those who baulk at having to make such decisions, one of the knowledgeable staff will happily take responsibility. The shahi salmon tikka with royal cumin, dill leaf, smoked raw papaya and samphire chaat is as tender as the night while the lamb chops are some of the tastiest in town. Wrap the evening up with their tandoori pineapple and coconut with jaggery sorbet. Trishna gained a well-deserved Michelin star in 2012. Three courses – £39Four courses – £45Pair with 2021 L’Esprit de Provence, Le Grand Cros, Provence, France – £40
Gaucho Charlotte Street
Head to the basement of this much-loved Fitzrovian meat emporium and enjoy five extravagant beef courses prepared by your very own chef. Known as the Beef Bar, it offers a display of precision cutting with accompanying commentary, starting with a lightly smoked carpaccio with juniper and mustard cure in yerba mate tea finished with miso chimichurri paired with a light Burgundy. The steak tartar topped with slow-cooked duck egg transports you over to the heavy side, so best take a breather before launching into a selection of tender cuts that includes a slab of Lomo marinated in spicy chimichurri and butter-soft cuadril churrasco, both cooked over charcoal. The hunks of Valrhona milk chocolate to end could easily be mistaken for yet more beef, but paired with a delicate 2014 Malamado Malbec they make for a refreshingly sweet and satisfying end to the meatathon.
Five courses – £50Five courses with wine pairing – £80
Indigo at One Aldwych
Once home to the Morning Star newspaper, this venerable London landmark is now a stylish, independently run hotel aimed at those who insist on being in the heart of the action. Indigo overlooks the hotel’s tropically themed lounge area, although chef Dominic Teague is all about creating English classics using seasonal ingredients. The six courses includes Dorset crab with compressed watermelon, lemon and coriander, delicately spiced monkfish cooked over charcoal with fennel and minted couscous and charred Irish pave of beef with watercress, girolles and red wine jus. There are a couple of classic English puds to end with including poached cherries, chocolate sponge and ice cream. If you need a lie down afterwards why not check into one of the hotel’s stylish rooms; the views are sensational. Arrive early for pre-theatre bookings.Six courses – £120 with English drinks pairing
Prices given are per person