London, a contemporary center of world commerce and culture, long ago shed its reputation for stodgy food. So in addition to reviewing notable new hot spots, I decided to dine at what used to be the direst of the dire: museum restaurants. Each of the four I tried provided delicious food in a memorable setting. They’re ideal for a break in between viewing exhibitions, but these options can also stand as dining destinations in their own right.
The interior of this Italian restaurant attached to the contemporary Serpentine Sackler Gallery has an appealingly curvaceous style. After taking in an exhibition of colorful paintings by Tomma Abts, I took in some fresh tuna tartare, and, following our Italian waiter’s recommendation, a plate of bigoli cacio e pepe. Silky sauce with some heat from the black pepper clung to perfectly al dente bucatini-like pasta. It ranked among the best cacio e pepe I’ve eaten outside of Rome.
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, West Carriage Drive, Hyde Park. Tel. (44) 20-7298-7552
Its walls entirely covered with a pastoral mural, this restaurant in Tate Britain provides a beautiful and dignified space in which to lunch — particularly if you’re a regular. The sommelier spent half his time with one VIP couple and the other half with the remainder of the restaurant. Our server took more than 10 minutes to say hello. We ordered right away, but it was too late. She returned to inform me that the grouse special she had so highly touted had just sold out. The sommelier tried to salvage the situation by offering me complimentary wine, in spite of the fact I wasn’t in a mood to drink. In the face of his persistence, I finally relented and accepted the glasses of white Crozes-Hermitage and Morgon Côte du Py. In fairness, they were superb, as was my appetizer of violet artichoke hearts and artichoke crisps atop rich artichoke purée with tangy gremolata and crunchy breadcrumbs. And my pink Gressingham duck with squash purée, chard and cherries was almost good enough for me to forgive the fact that it wasn’t grouse.
Rex Whistler Restaurant
Tate Britain, Millbank. Tel. (44) 20-7887-8825
Hidden in plain sight in the Somerset House cultural complex, this bright and airy restaurant draws a crowd of stylish locals (two high-powered musicians’ agents discussed their clients, perhaps a bit too loudly, at the table next to ours). I started with a well-composed plate of delicate Cornish crab with tiny watermelon-shaped cucumbers, fresh corn, candy-stripe beet, radicchio and dill, paired with a flute of elegant English sparkling wine. A shake of salt perked up some underseasoned but otherwise perfectly cooked guinea fowl, with crispy, golden skin and juicy flesh. Earthy chanterelles and sweet corn purée made a fine accompaniment.
Somerset House, New Wing, Lancaster Place. Tel. (44) 20-3011-0115
The main café at this famous museum becomes absolutely packed at lunchtime, making it unpleasant in spite of its rich, historic décor. Instead, visit on a Friday and reserve a table for Victorian high tea. A food historian has re-created the finger sandwiches and baked goods that Queen Victoria enjoyed at her afternoon teas, such as a sandwich of crayfish, mayonnaise, watercress, anchovy paste, nutmeg and chervil dating from 1890, or a gooseberry tart from 1887. My favorite was the Victoria Sandwich, with buttermilk sponge cake, blackcurrant jam and elderberry whipped cream. The exquisite Morris Room is an ideal setting for high tea, aside from the din that penetrates from the adjacent café. (Fridays only.)
Victoria and Albert Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road. Tel. (44) 20-7942-2000