The age of the small plate has given way to the age of the snack. The rise of all-day dining and the financial imperative to maximise square footage has led to a proliferation of bar menus across town, carving out new terrain for the snack-happy to explore. Even in places lacking dedicated bars, sharing plates are ceding menu real estate to smaller and more personal dishes designed to whet the individual appetite. It is time that this glorious subclass of mini-bites got its due: this is the first of a series of localised lists seeking to celebrate the tiny but mighty, the dishes that set a restaurant’s stall out in but a mouthful (or two.)Read More
Where to Snack in Central London
The best single (or double) mouthfuls, including an iconic Soho sandwich, cloudlike parmesan fries, and an unmissable Spanish bite
1. Fried Egg and Camarones at Sabor
Nieves Barragan’s Heddon Street restaurant harbours both a Barrafina-style sit-down affair and a slightly more rustic upstairs asador. Everyone knows that the real fun is at the bar, where a short but inventive menu is the perfect script for pre-dinner snacking (though it also offers more than enough to constitute dinner in its own right.) It’s not totally out of leftfield — there is still jamón ibérico, there are still croquetas — but there’s no standing still on invention. This is the only dish on this list that really shouldn’t be attempted without cutlery, but anyone who has experienced the gold-on-gold alchemy that occurs when yolk meets tiny, crispy prawns would agree that it’s a nod to formality worth making.
2. Potted Shrimp Croquettes at Parsons
Of the myriad things Parsons gets just right, its sense of permanence is among the most alluring. That permanence is matched by a willingness to play with tradition and convention when it will benefit the diner: a burst of yuzu surprises trout tartare; grilled fish is just as likely to come with bok choi as baby leaf spinach. A less confident restaurant would serve potted shrimp as they come, perhaps with some toast; a more thrustingly modern one might pile them on a crumpet with a ‘grammable garnish. Only somewhere as comfortable in its own skin as Parsons would think to stuff them into a croquette — the result is a fittingly modern, old school classic.
3. Parmesan Fries at Luca
Luca has come under sporadic fire for the occasionally dizzying cost of dining there, but on a bar menu that already feels pretty reasonably priced, this is pure bargain territory. There is something evanescent in these cloud-like confections: the pleasure they offer is euphoric, but fleeting. Solo diners aside, two portions per table should be the bare minimum: it is terrifyingly easy to absent-mindedly graze through a bowl in a matter of moments while dining companions look on, horrified. On second thoughts, better make it one portion per person.
4. Smoked Eel Sandwich at Quo Vadis
Jeremy Lee reports that the late great AA Gill considered this a no-brainer — it was what he ordered immediately upon sitting down, what he ate while he made his mind up about what he wanted to eat. And for good reason: this is a platonically perfect blend of umami, acidity and heat that could awaken even the most jaded palate. Few are aware that Lee had originally intended it to be a truffle sandwich, and that it was only a shortage of the central ingredient that forced him to change tack. Thousands of contented Quo Vadis customers are probably grateful that he did.
5. Trotter Nuggets at Bao
London W1F 9AS, UK
It’s almost category fraud to include anything from the Bao restaurants on this, since handheld snacking is (pretty much) its entire raison d’être. But there are few better illustrations of how London’s burgeoning street food scene has influenced its restaurants for the better. These holdovers from the Netil Market stall taste phenomenal however they’re eaten, whether yawped down hot out of the fryer a stone’s throw from Broadway Market, or enjoyed from the comfort of a bar stool in gorgeously minimalist Central London premises, fancy cocktail in hand.
6. Chicken Liver Parfait at The Quality Chop House
Honorary mention must go, of course, to the smoked cod’s roe, one of the signal achievements in London snacking and arguably the precursor to the form’s current golden age. But in pure bang-for-buck terms, there’s no topping Shaun Searley’s parfait, which departing Guardian critic Marina O’Loughlin once deemed “as rich and luxurious as anything in Selfridges’ cosmetics hall.” If grating truffle and placing a giant chicharron on top arguably verges on overkill, few are complaining.
7. Fried Olives at Bocca di Lupo
The “Fritti” (fried stuff) section of Bocca’s menu lays claim to a great many of the city’s best single-bite experiences, from the outrageous Buffalo mozzarella bocconcini to a heady take on Rome’s beloved suppli (rice croquettes stuffed with tomato and yet more mozzarella). When lamb’s sweetbreads and artichokes are in season, the pairing arguably represents the best of the lot, but for a year-round treat, these olives come pretty close. The flavours involved — salty olive, herbed pork, smooth veal — may not be long on subtlety, but there’s no arguing with the final result, nor the surprisingly affecting beauty of a half-dozen piled on a square of grease-spotted paper.
8. Kid Goat Methi Keema at Gymkhana
It’s not an accident that this list is leans on JKS restaurants: few operators have done a better job at disrupting the three-course-meal value chain and eking out a precious few extra quid per head early on in proceedings with cannily priced cocktails and just-inexpensive-enough small bites. At the latest opening, Brigadiers, drinking food — spicy, salty, insistent — has been raised close to an art form, but it’s this offering from statelier older sibling Gymkhana that arguably perfected the formula in the first place. Matched with an ice-cold lager, it’s a perfect window into what has allowed the Sethis to soar.
9. Aged Lamb Skewer at Kiln
London W1F 9TL, UK
Pour out some Tsing Tao for now-deceased Manchurian Legends, which could once legitimately boast the best lamb skewer in Central London. But celebrate with a glug of west coast saison or zingy Zeren Wilson-curated Riesling, too, because in Kiln’s version there is a more than worthy successor. Other dishes may bring more fire and fat and funk, but there are few that encapsulate the specialness of the Kiln / Smoking Goat project with such economy — or provide such a dazzling advertisement of its success.
10. Welsh Rarebit at St. John Restaurant
London EC1M 4AY, UK
When considered as a savoury, the Welsh rarebit should be taken later on in one’s repast at St John. But also consider the facts: it’s (relatively) portable, it’s rich, it’s spicy, it goes just as well with an ice cold beer as a glass of Picpoul or a steadying measure of sherry. Does that sound like a savoury? Or simply one of the city’s finest bar bites?
11. Oysters at Noble Rot
This is a bit of a cop-out: a good oyster is a good oyster wherever in the world it’s served; it’s not like Noble Rot sources theirs in a way that puts other dedicated shellfish-slingers in town to shame. But it’s more the ceremony with which they’re presented here that makes them special — adorned with fronds of bladderwrack, impeccably shucked and chilled, mignonette and tabasco on the side — and the knowledge that it’s hard to go wrong in terms of potential pairings from a reliably wide-ranging list of wines by the bottle and glass. Along with the anchovies and the bread basket (and a plate of paleta Ibérica), this is surely one of the most sophisticated and complete opening gambits to be found in town.
12. Egg Mayonnaise at Café Deco
A soft-boiled egg, cut in half lengthways and laid yolk-down, blanketed in rich, beige mayonnaise and criss-crossed with two lithe anchovy fillets. That’s literally it for this iteration of the classic snack at Anna Tobias’ Cafe Deco in Bloomsbury, which sets out its brand of flawless austerity with aplomb.
13. Gilda at Quality Wines
Quality Wines sits alongside and opposite a couple of Greek restaurants, and Nick Bramham’s cooking clinches this stretch of Farringdon Road’s unlikely transformation into Med-vibes. The gilda — a classic snack of gordal olive, anchovy, and pickled guindilla pepper — is a briny, acidic, cleanly spicy hit, so much so that it’s impossible to have just the one.