Is it okay to say 'fusion' again? These restaurants in London show a new way of mixing up global cuisines
Despite the culinary world’s distaste for the F-word and its 1990s vibe, a vanguard of London-based chefs are remixing fusion for the 2020s – and creating a radical new food phenomenon. The Financial Times’ Marianna Giusti checks them out.
“Fusion is a term that no longer has meaning,” French celebrity chef Cyril Lignac wrote to me from Paris, describing the concept behind his Mayfair outpost Bar des Pres with its marked Japanese and French references.
His feelings about the 1990s restaurant buzzword, since fallen out of favour, are nothing new in the culinary world, and far from isolated: Washington DC-based chef Tim Ma, of the now closed Asian-French restaurant Kyirisan, used to instruct his staff to never, under any circumstances, ever describe their food as fusion; Daikaya chef Katsuya Fukushima once said that he preferred to describe his creations as “freestyle… kind of like how jazz musicians can get together and jam”; and Washingtonian food editor Jessica Sidman likened the term to the culinary world’s F-word.
If it’s true that, as explained by food historian and Parma university professor Alberto Grandi, the most authentic kind of Parmesan cheese can now only be found in Wisconsin, that carbonara pasta was invented by American soldiers during the second world war, and that there is no such thing as a starter outside of France, all those hoping to neatly catalogue cuisines within national borders – and the mix thereof – should give up. “All food is fusion in a city like London,” said the co-founder of Angelina, a Japanese-Italian eatery in Dalston.
While categorising any food as fusion is dated, there are a host of new eateries in London leaving the now-unfashionable 90s approach behind in favour of a creative and thoughtful new take on the F-word.
Long gone are the days of dishes such as ramen burgers, Thai red curry risotto and Brussels sprout sushi. Instead, these radical new menus subtly reference established traditions, drawing inspiration from existing recipes and niche ingredients while testing the limits of culinary creativity – and the results are both surprising and exquisite.
As I have our readers’ best interests at heart, I took upon myself the Herculean task of trying many of them for you, so you can make your own informed – and delicious – choices. Here’s what I found.
1 St James’s Market, London, SW1Y 4AH
When asked about the best feedback he’s ever received from a customer, Ikoyi co-founder Jeremy Chan cites words of criticism: “A guest once said, ‘There are no reference points.’ And this is Ikoyi’s whole point.”
Chan’s cooking is bold, mind-bending and acutely visual. The fabric of Ikoyi’s menu is made up of ingredients such as grains of Selim [a smoky peppercorn with the scent of eucalyptus], plantains and scotch bonnet chillies – which the restaurant ferments, burns and pickles – and lots of spices, primarily from sub-Saharan west Africa. All vegetables are biodynamic, and the fish is sourced from British waters and dispatched using the ikejime method.
“Fusion is when you take concepts from existing cuisines and you mix them to create something new,” Chan specified. “Here, we’re creating our own cuisine. What we do is more artistic, and based on flavour and scent.”
This approach is evident throughout Ikoyi’s offering. Its caramelised, milk-brined sweetbreads, with honey mustard, morels, aromatic crispy chilli oil and an emulsion of wild leeks and broccoli, are like nothing you’ll have tasted before; the plantain with smoked kelp and blackberry is a recipe that could have been brought to Earth by aliens.
The presentation of many dishes brings to mind Kandinsky paintings, with dramatically juxtaposed colours and shapes: a teardrop-shaped fritter next to a tiny splash of Dutch orange mayo, and a perfectly circular pool of green foam poured next to a slanted cross-section of bright red meat, with a leaf asymmetrically propped next to it.
While their menu seems aggressively avant-garde, you can identify some regional proclivities: Clam dumpling with pepper soup, smoked apple oil and cabbage braised in caraway [which undergoes a four-stage process of layering flavours, infusing dried condiments and clarification] is based on a Nigerian moin moin, a steamed bean pudding that is a staple of the country’s cuisine. Chan also cited a paste he likes using made of smoked ginger, garlic, spring onions and a bit of chilli, which he interpreted from the Chinese cooking he ate growing up with his father.
The St James’s restaurant, which was awarded a second Michelin star this year, is a sleek Sophie Ashby-designed space that allows guests to focus on flavours and scents. “We think if the space is too over the top it alienates people, so we keep it simple – comfortable enough to have an amazing meal but not too stiff or too precious.”
With its menu mainly focused on fish and shellfish, with several meat courses, Ikoyi does not accommodate vegan and vegetarian diners. But those without dietary restrictions and endowed with adventurous taste buds should try Ikoyi with an open mind: Its food tasted to me like the culinary equivalent of Dadaist poetry – intense, seemingly disjointed, but wonderfully surprising.
56 Dalston Lane, London E8 3AH
Fans of the east London aesthetic – and of the area’s ever-evolving restaurant scene – will certainly enjoy Angelina. The Dalston space, just off Kingsland Road and designed by co-founder Joshua Owens-Baigler’s mother, is minimal but dotted with chic accents, and is home to one of the more unlikely culinary unions: Japanese-Italian.
Fittingly, rice-paper lanterns hang from the ceiling over an L-shaped black and white Carrara marble counter surrounding a large open kitchen. From the counter, guests can observe fresh focaccia being baked and little gyozas and fagottini being lovingly assembled.
Founded by childhood friends Owens-Baigler and Amar Takhar, Angelina is named after a Louis Prima Italian-American swing song that the pair loved to listen to as kids [it’s often played at the restaurant too]. The Italian and Japanese menu, which features predominantly British ingredients, is equally rooted in their memories: the vision for Angelina began during a trip they took to Italy’s Veneto region, where the duo had a memorable meal of local dishes prepared using Japanese ingredients. “This started an intriguing juxtaposition that now feels like our authentic voice,” Owens-Baigler said.
Angelina offers a four- or 10-course tasting menu, prepared by head chef Usman Haider. “The intense smell of rosemary in the mornings when we make focaccia takes me back to the summer smell of the Umbrian countryside where I spent the best of my teenage years,” Owens-Baigler said of the menu at the time of my visit.
The focaccia starter may evoke the Umbrian hills, but has a marked twist – it comes paired with caprino and rhubarb, served alongside Hokkaido milk bread, an intensely flavoured miso shrimp, and a venison tartare piadina that delightfully mixes soft and crunchy textures.
Another highlight is the pasta ripiena (stuffed pasta), which they serve in a variety of shapes and flavours: the caramelle – candy-shaped, fresh filled pasta – are to die for, overshadowed only by the tortelli, filled with ricotta, truffle soy and furikake, finished with burnt soy butter. “The traditions of soy sauce making on Shodo island, the intense homely pasta shape of Emilia-Romagna, and the amazing St Ewes estate British eggs and dairy holding the dish together really poke fun at how we consider authenticity and where our food comes from,” Owens-Baigler explained.
“Challenging tradition actively and respectfully is what makes us excited.” And they do it with remarkable results.
8 Patriot Square, London E2 9NF
On a busy high street in the east London neighbourhood of Bethnal Green sits a two-Michelin-starred Brazilian restaurant with an Italian heart. Da Terra is housed in the Town Hall Hotel’s imposing Edwardian premises, which served as Bethnal Green’s town hall until the building was bought by a hotelier in 2007.
Behind this temple of haute cuisine is chef Rafael Cagali, whose great-grandfather was Italian and whose native Sao Paulo is home to one of the largest Italian communities outside Italy.
His complex dishes with marked Italian accents blend seemingly disparate elements and techniques to the point that you might wonder what you just ate, but do so with unparalleled flavour. It is no surprise that Da Terra received its first Michelin star just eight months after opening.
Cagali’s tasting menu offers an assortment of dishes that reflect his eclectic curriculum – he worked in Italy under chef Stefano Baiocco at A Villa Feltrinelli and in Spain for Quique Dacosta and Martín Berasategui, before settling in the UK with stints at The Fat Duck, Yashin Ocean House and with Simon Rogan (at Fera and Aulis).
Fare emerges from the pass of the open kitchen and are brought to each table by various members of the team – including Cagali – who explain the history of each recipe and the provenance of the ingredients and methods.
To me, an Italian and decided Brazilophile, the food at Da Terra is pure ecstasy: The delicate and delicious vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce) taco pairs an Italian classic with Japanese seaweed and caviar; a savoury custard made from Scottish mussels and sake kasu (a byproduct of rice used to make sake) is an unforgettable explosion of flavours that is hard to put into words; and the bone marrow, finished with sage powder and served with a selection of butters and perfectly baked sourdough, is a Lombard staple (osso buco) on steroids.
But the Hereford short rib with globe artichoke, morel and cassava terrine was the highlight for me – and a dish whose memory will obsess me until I return again.
10 Berkeley Square, London W1J 6BR
Self-described as a “sensory journey through the Amazon”, Amazonico London wholly lives up to its name: Stepping inside the Berkeley Square space is like hopping out of a time machine and into a plush Art Deco hotel in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
Some critics have called it kitsch, but the immersion into an Amazonian parallel world is pure fun: the Lazaro Rosa-Violan-designed space is covered in luscious foliage, which may well make it London’s only indoor restaurant with a dedicated team of gardeners. There is a bar, sushi counter, dining room and a basement speakeasy, where bartenders serve signature cocktails (and where sadly the FT wasn’t permitted to take pictures).
Walking past the bar, you can see picanha being smoked over the open fire and chefs chopping raw fish in the open kitchen, just a few metres from an aquarium. The dimly lit restaurant, almost entirely covered in green velvet and tiles in tropical hues, welcomes guests to dine surrounded by palm leaves, with a live band playing bossa nova and Cuban jazz in the background.
After unveiling Amazonico in Madrid in 2010, husband and wife co-founders Sandro Silva and Marta Seco chose Mayfair for their first branch outside Spain in 2019, with Venezuelan chef Vito Reyes at its helm.
Reyes’ menu is an urban homage to the entire Amazon region – and the Asian and Mediterranean communities that have long inhabited it – with inventive food drawing from a range of Latin American dishes, from Peruvian sushi to Brazilian picanha and Argentine chimichurri. Each delights the palate and the eyes alike, served as they are on brightly coloured trays.
Vito said he loves preparing fish dishes because they transport him back to the Caribbean beaches close to Caracas where he used to swim as a child. I’ve never been to Venezuela, but when I have his hamachi tiradito [raw fish, cut in the shape of sashimi] with refreshing passion-fruit pulp and shiso leaves, I can almost hear the soothing sound of ocean waves.
But his non-fish dishes are equally impressive: the chimichurri-marinated entrana skirt steak is delicious, and for those who especially enjoy tropical flavours, the sweet Amazonico salad, made with mango, avocado, confit tomato and calamansi dressing, is a must. To finish, order the famous pina rostizada dessert: slow-roasted caramel-glazed pineapple served on a homemade corn cake with a creamy coconut sorbet. Inolvidable [unforgettable].
BAR DES PRES
16 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4HW
Literally meaning “bar of the meadows”, chef Cyril Lignac’s Bar des Pres oozes casual French charm from every pore, but what’s on offer is more varied than soupe d’oignon and steak au poivre. This classically trained French chef highlights pan-Asian ingredients and flavours, with Italian touches for good measure.
Bar des Pres is the first London outpost for Lignac, who was the star of Oui, Chef! (a French version of Jamie’s Kitchen) and is originally from the Aveyron region. His menu is the culmination of years of work in some of the top kitchens in Paris and plenty of travel further afield.
He trained alongside acclaimed chefs such as Alain Passard and pastry chef Pierre Herme before eventually opening Le Quinzieme, which earned him a Michelin star.
“My cuisine is rooted in the French terroir,” he wrote from Paris. “I like sauces, simmered cooking and the (regional) typicality of certain meats.” But, he added, “opening up to other culinary cultures is essential to nurture a chef’s creativity”.
He cited how visiting Morocco inspired him to work more with spices, and travelling to Japan made him understand fermentation and seasoning with mirin (a Japanese rice wine).
When you taste Lignac’s creations, his insatiable inventiveness is obvious. The highly Instagrammable crunchy crab and avocado galette, for example, elegantly layers wafer-thin pastry with crab covered in perfectly sliced leaves of avocado, served with a touch of Madras curry mayonnaise (it’s his favourite dish, he said]). I am blown away by the miso-caramelised aubergine, which reminds me of the Italian favourite melanzane Parmigiana, with an intriguing Japanese twist.
The langoustine ravioli, served in a creamy ponzu bisque, and the beef fillet with a delicious satay sauce and lime are also standouts. Cocktails too take a similar approach, with a menu where French bar staples such as St-Germain and champagne sit alongside umami bitter, Casamigos mezcal and sake.
Overall, while some restaurants may offer novelty, Lignac has created a place that guests will want to return to time and again, especially if they’re looking impress without it seeming too effortful – exactly as the French do.
By Marianna Giusti © 2022 The Financial Times.