There are restaurants everywhere, sadly an increasing number of them struggling to attract enough customers, yet two meals in London last week showed just what a distinctive contribution to the restaurant business this city is making. If you have not yet been, do eat at Zaika, and book well in advance for a table at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, a concept he plans to roll out elsewhere in the UK and to New York and Sydney according to a recent interview.
Having eaten a few times at the old Zaika in the Fulham Road, I needed no convincing about Vineet Bahtia's culinary skills and having worked with him on British Airway's Culinary Council I was well aware of his modesty. But in the new spacious Zaika on a corner that once housed a bank and almost directly opposite the Kensington Royal Gardens Hotel, he and his brigade have stepped up several notches.
The large room is an Indian transformation of a wood-panelled 1930s banking hall, with low lights and atmospheric statuary. It was an appropriate setting for what was to prove the best Indian meal I have eaten outside the subcontinent, outside in fact the restaurant in Rajvilas, Jaipur, owned by the Oberoi group where a man is employed to walk the turrets surrounding the courtyard restaurant carrying a large white flag to scare off the pigeons.
The service is naturally less flamboyant at Zaika although extremely professional, led by a knowledgeable manager who has worked with Claudio Pulze (the restaurateur who spotted Bahtia's potential when he was at the Star of India) for the past seven years.
And the food is not Indian as most of us would recognise it. It exhibits the same finesse, the same combination of fascinating flavours and textures, plus of course highly distinctive spicing, as any top French, Italian or even Japanese chef would deliver but uses very particular Indian ingredients, techniques and combinations.
One memorable example was a dish of tandoori spiced home smoked salmon with mustard and dill that sat at one end of a thin rectangular plate while the other was occupied by beautifully seasoned, minced duck on a crisp, wafer-thin base, a sort of miniature fried chapati. Just as fascinating was Bahtia's take on an Indian risotto, even more moist than the Italian original, with red onion, coriander and black chicken.
Equally memorable was the small bowl of chicken and coconut soup that set us on our way; six small scoops of ice cream at the end, of which the rosewater was the most inspired, and the colourful naan breads which arrive just before the main course, when you want them, rather than at the beginning of the meal when they stifle your appetite. And our eleven-year-old who went under some duress was mollified with a tremendous chicken dinner - morsels of chicken breast in green herbs and saffron followed by a traditional butter chicken.
Zaika's wine list is unusually impressive and we were seduced by an intense New Zealand red, a Murdoch James Pinot Noir 2000 Blue Rock Vineyard imported by Caves de Pyrène, £67 on the Zaika list and with such intense fruit and richness, it partnered the food extremely well. Fresh and often fruity cocktails are another speciality.
Zaika should never be anything but full. For anyone visiting London it is an excellent example of the culturally diverse restaurants the capital can offer with surroundings and comfort that will not disappoint. For any Londoner perhaps jaded by the run of the mill Indian restaurants on most high streets, a meal at Zaika will be the next best thing to a trip to this fascinating country.
Fifteen, the restaurant of the recent Channel 4 TV series in which Jamie Oliver attempts to transform 15 unskilled youngsters into chefs, produces an extraordinary physical reaction in its customers.
After they have gone down the stairs to the restaurant, checked in at the undulating, elephant's-foot-like section of tree trunk that serves as reception desk, everyone walks in and looks immediately left to the large opening on to the kitchen. Everyone wants to know, Is he there?
Well on the night we managed to eat there, thanks to a reservation made by David Gleave of Liberty Wines who has known Jamie since his early River Café days, he was. Right at the pass at 20.15 and still smiling, cajoling his staff and autographing his cookbooks when we left just before midnight.
We left with, I must say, an even higher opinion of Jamie Oliver than ever. Apparently limitless in his patience with customers who want photographs, signatures and his time, he also took us through the kitchen to show us not only the brigade who had cooked our meal but also a vast cod that had just been brought in that night from his supplier, Ben's Fisheries (line-caught as he insisted), two huge turbot and a stuffed baby pig that would be feeding City gents the following lunchtime. There is no doubt he is passionate about food.
The decor of the downstairs restaurant is fun. White walls, pinkish banquettes and a sign on the mirror in the gents that reads Big Boy are a prelude to the graffiti art that will cover the walls in the next few weeks. It is a good setting for the audience, mainly under 35 (with the exception of our table) who have put on their glad rags - even on a Monday night - for a special evening.
Which the kitchen duly delivered. With a menu reminiscent of the River Café where Oliver once cooked, he demonstrates not only that his culinary finger is firmly on the pulse of what people want to eat today but also his commercial acumen. Fifteen is expensive, starters range from £11.50 to £14.50 and main courses from £23 to £29. But with his drawing power and six receptionists unable to cope with the incoming phone calls, why should it be anything else? And of course any profits do go to a very good cause, his charity Cheeky Chops, which takes on unemployed youngsters to train as the next generation of chefs every six months.
There was no quibbling with what was on the plate. A thick Ligurian fish soup with mullet, squid, turbot and clams could have fed three not the one it was designed for. A more refined first course came in the shape of raw, thinly sliced Scottish scallops with crisp ginger, fresh coconut and Japanese yuzu lime. Grilled squid with smashed sweet potato and chilli fell somewhere between the two in terms of finesse.
The best pasta dish was undoubtedly thick papardelle with nuggets of Maldon sea marsh mallard, sultanas and orange, a dish that Oliver had just created a few days before. (He and Fifteen's 'wine pervert' sommelier from Melbourne recommend the Shadowfax Victorian Pinot Noir with this as a killer combination.)
Main courses are more classic Italian even if their descriptors are seasoned with such adjectives as 'wonderful' for the artichokes, 'best' for the olive oil and 'amazing' for the scallops. A thick tranche of turbot came with Sicilian lemons and capers; sea bass with wild mushrooms and salsa verde; and the scallops with sprouting broccoli, sage, pancetta and creamy cannellini beans. Luv'ly.
Fifteen is hugely impressive. The principles Oliver has espoused and inculcated, the enthusiasm he has generated, the real camaraderie he has bred in his team are fantastic and there is no doubt that the British restaurant industry is a far, far better place for him.
But I did leave with one quibble which I hope to put to him next time we meet. Why, given that he is using the best British produce and young British chefs and that he himself has become in such a short space of time such a British icon, is his menu so unambiguously, unashamedly and unreservedly Italian?
Zaika, 1 Kensington High Street, London W8 (tel 020 7795 6533)
Closed Saturday lunch. £45 per head for dinner.
Fifteen, Westland Place, London N1 7LP (tel 020 7251 3909, web www.cheekychops.org)