The head chef of London’s Polpetto restaurant reveals her favourite spots for coffee, cake, a bowl of noodles or a glamorous dinner
Quo Vadis was one of the first Italian restaurants to open in Soho, in the 1920s, and it has recently been given a new lease of life with the arrival of Jeremy Lee. Jeremy is a chef after my own heart. His cooking is simple yet superbly executed and he has a fascination with seeking out slightly unusual ingredients that he presents against a backdrop of the best British cooking traditions. The menu (mains from £15) changes daily but summer fare has included sweetbreads, squid, duck hearts, samphire and pickled gooseberries.
There are few undisputed champions in the restaurant business but I would argue that Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion, a traditional osteria-style restaurant specialising in Umbrian cuisine, makes the best bowl of pasta in London. When I have a craving for spaghetti al pomodoro (£7.50, mains from £19.50) there is simply nowhere better.
The best time to go to Japanese noodle bar Koya is at about 5.45pm on a cool evening, just before everyone pours out of their offices and the queue for udon noodles snakes up Frith Street. This little restaurant is an absolute delight and consistently delivers well-measured portions of Japanese dishes (from £6.90) using locally sourced seasonal ingredients, whose flavours are both clean and satisfying. I usually try as many of the dishes from the specials board as I can handle.
I have a weakness for chocolate eclairs that means I’m often to be found sitting outside Maison Bertaux trying to perfect eating one without dropping cream all down my front while doing a spot of people watching. While it seems increasingly popular with Japanese tourists, Maison Bertaux is a real Soho stalwart and has been around for over 100 years, so I always feel it’s a little corner of local history.
There are three Fernandez & Wells coffee shops in Soho, and luckily one of them is a stone’s throw from my front door. I’m particularly fond of its coffee and the rich custardy softness of the pasteis de nata, which I can eat happily at any time of the day. I usually pop in during the morning, on the way home from walking the dogs, to pick up a grilled ham and cheese croissant and a “stumpy” – a triple ristretto coffee with frothy milk.Nungwi Village
In the dark days of Soho’s gastronomic life, Andrew Edmunds held a candle for great quality, simple, seasonal cooking, and the flame has never really gone out. This romantic – if slightly cramped – bistro in Lexington Street is hard to get into as it effectively acts as a dining room for the great and not so good of Soho’s literary establishment, who often frequent the Academy Club upstairs. But once you do secure a table you won’t be disappointed.
Jacob Kennedy’s Bocca di Lupo (mains from £15) was one of the first of the new wave of Soho restaurants that changed the local dining scene. His take on classic Italian regional cuisine is like the Silver Spoon cookbook brought to life with the stripped down simple food served in buzzy, glamorous surroundings.
Polpetto’s first premises was above the French House and I have many happy memories of being there. The restaurant is now an extension to the ever-popular pub, but the dining room used to be run by Fergus and Margot Henderson before they opened St John, so it has great provenance. The pub is still full of Soho characters and in many ways is the beating heart of what’s left of the authentic Soho life.
The Society Club is a bookshop and gallery in a pleasingly quiet nook of Soho, with a fantastic collection of new and vintage books, paintings, photography and objets d’art. I usually try and stop there in the afternoon for a cup of tea and a Tunnock’s tea cake – with my two dogs in tow again. In the evening it turns into a little speakeasy-style cocktail bar and is a great place to meet for a surreptitious chat or a discreet liason.Nungwi Village
Florence Knight is head chef of Polpetto, which will reopen in November at 11 Berwick Street, Soho. Her book, ONE: A Cook and Her Cupboard, is published by Saltyard, price £26. To buy a copy for £20.80 with free UK p&p call 0330 333 6846, or visit guardianbookshop.co.uk