I'm a bit in love with London. I seldom go more than a year without a visit, and when I'm there I go restaurant-crazy, so I feel like I've been watching the city's culinary evolution over the last decade in a sort of time-lapse fast-forward. It has moved away from formal, expensive, mostly French-influenced dining centred on the West End to a more diverse, diffuse and inclusive scene spreading east, but also north and even south, taking in a broader set of influences along the way, and rediscovering the power of British tradition and local ingredients.
On that last front, it's hard to overstate the effect The River Café and St John have had in the 20 or so years of their standing. And it's a mighty good thing: if your twin north stars are both restaurants that place a tremendous premium on ingredients presented with a maximum of integrity, the future looks bright.
Here's a selection of the places that turned my head this time around. Almost all them have opened in the past 12 months, and some of them have been open barely a few months, but they're all worthy of a top spot on your London hitlist. Better still, the majority of them will leave you with at least part of your wallet intact at the end of the night.
The most talked-about opening this year among people who care about what's on their plates has undoubtedly been Lyle's. Chef and co-owner James Lowe was head chef at East End culinary landmark St John Bread & Wine for four of its best years and, while he still wears his influences proudly (the room is unmistakably on the St John spectrum, albeit up the polished end), the menu is very much his own. Lunch is à la carte, dinner is a set £39 (about $70 - a steal), and in both cases plates tend to be three or fewer things done very, very well: Dover sole in a fine broth topped with kale florets, say, or soft-boiled gull's eggs with seaweed salt, presented Noma-esque atop a plate of uncooked eggs in their shells. From the food to the wine to the service, it's young, smart and switched on. Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High St, Shoreditch, E1 6JJ, +44 20 3011 5911.
On the other side of town, in just about every sense, is Chiltern Firehouse, the first London property of star-whisperer and hotelier André Balazs. His Chateau Marmont vibe is here, but with a Marylebone twist. The former Victorian fire station has been fitted out with a superb eye for detail, the bar is excellent and the dining room is so thick with aristos, tyros and celebutantes that tables can be mighty hard to come by. Nuno Mendes, late of Viajante in Bethnal Green, is behind the food, but I get the impression Balazs is leaning on him pretty hard to keep the menu rich-person-friendly, keeping his flourishes to a minimum in the likes of the Caesar salad with crisp chicken skin, and lobster scrambled eggs. Make no mistake, you're not here to eat, you're here to dine. Say, is that Carrie Fisher over there with Renzo Rosso? 1 Chiltern St, Marylebone, W1U 7PA, +44 20 7073 7676.
Pity the adventurous wine-lover who doesn't like to leave the West End or the city. There's Terroirs, of course, but most of the really great wine-bar action in London lately has been a bit further out - notably at Brawn, near the Columbia Road flower market, Soif in Battersea, the excellent 40 Maltby Street in Bermondsey, and Sager + Wilde (see below). But help is at hand - Antidote has a list packed with the very best in organic, biodynamic and artisanal wine, much of it offered by the glass and the magnum, and it's just off Carnaby Street in Soho. The best news, though, is that Mikael Jonsson has recently joined chef Chris Johns in the kitchen. He's the Swedish genius behind Hedone, a restaurant whose only real drawback for the visitor is its Chiswick location. Antidote is the best of both worlds: you can drink superb wines in the bar downstairs with charcuterie, snacks and Jonsson's bread (it's the best bread I've had anywhere, full stop), or go the full Monty upstairs with the likes of belly of Salt Marsh lamb with wild garlic, onions and a potato galette. Definitely a dose worth taking. 12A Newburgh St, Soho, W1F 7RR, +44 20 7287 8488.
SAGER + WILDE
The wild eastern frontier is definitely where it's at in London these days, not least for interesting wine. Rather than working with a vast mine of Moria-style cellar, this latest hotspot prints its list daily, keeping things fresh and pacy. On any evening you're likely to find up to 10 whites and 10 reds on pour - an Anjou poured en magnum among them, along with the requisite ring-ins from Lebanon and Swartland - not to mention a sparkler from Kent, Mauro Vergano's excellent Chinato and the offer of a Sherry Old Fashioned. Food-wise things are simple but smart: 'nduja on toast, Marcona almonds, gordal olives and a cheese toastie to be reckoned with. 193 Hackney Rd, Hackney, E2 8JL.
THE CLOVE CLUB
The Clove Club had barely opened when I first visited it last year, but it knocked my socks off. In the months since they've showed no sign of slowing down. Set in the Shoreditch Town Hall arts and events venue, it's wine bar out the front, restaurant out the back, and oddly it's the restaurant that's often rowdier. Chef Isaac McHale, along with Lyle's chef James Lowe and Momofuku Seiobo's Ben Greeno, did pop-ups and events under the Young Turks banner, and his food is no less interesting for having found a more permanent home. He and his fellows flavour ice-cream with clementine leaves, enliven fried chicken with pine salt and make a dangerous liquid-centred petit-four filled with Dr Henderson (that is, Fernet Branca and crème de menthe). When I dropped by the bar I was more than a little taken with the duck consommé spiked with a century-old Madeira, not to mention the crunchy fried, boned chicken feet. These boys know how to party. 380 Old St, Shoreditch, EC1V 9LT, +44 20 7729 6496.
When Ollie Dabbous opened his eponymous restaurant Dabbous just off Goodge Street in 2012, it fast became one of the toughest tables to book in town. The premise was simple: smart, powerfully delicious food served at prices fair enough that - if you could get a booking - you could conceivably eat here all the time. His new place, on Charlotte Street, swaps the industrial cool for an almost Disneyfied pastoral theme, and offers food that's notably more rustic, but also even more inexpensive. Barnyard doesn't take bookings, so slip in at lunch or an off-peak hour to score corn made magical with the addition of meadowsweet, or the inspired pairing of hispi cabbage and clover. The very young staff are so nice they're almost hard to take seriously, and the soundtrack, which mingles Two Door Cinema Club with Badly Drawn Boy (no, really), does little to dispel the happy-go-lucky vibe. 18 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, +44 20 7580 3842, W1T 2LZ.
Soho udon specialist Koya has been on the radar of savvy London food-lovers since 2010, generating interest as much for the surprising side plates (which bear the influence of chef Junya Yamasaki's time at Fäviken in Sweden and with Dan Hunter at the Royal Mail Hotel in Victoria) as for the house-made noodles. Koya Bar, the extension he opened last year, has all that and more - including breakfast. Allow me to heartily recommend the English breakfast udon, topped with bacon, a fried egg and shiitakes. It's easily the greatest moment in Nippo-British relations since the writing of The Remains of the Day. 50 Frith St, Soho, W1D 4SQ, +44 20 7434 4463.
THE HAND & FLOWERS
Not perfectly new and not technically in London, but definitely allowable on the grounds of awesomeness, The Hand & Flowers is a gastropub for the now. Tom and Beth Kerridge do such a sharp job in the kitchen and front-of-house respectively that they've found themselves with two Michelin stars. Certainly the package, from the local beers in the front bar to the likes of the parsley soup with smoked eel in the dining room, ticks the "table excellente, mérite un détour" box. I'd definitely consider the 90-minute drive from London again on the promise of the Essex lamb bun (more a sort of chartreuse of a cutlet wrapped in a forcemeat of sweetbreads, wrapped again in a cabbage leaf and then sealed in golden pastry) and a pint. 126 West St, Marlow, Buckinghamshire SL7 2BP, +44 162 848 2277.
White Lyan is a bar, not a restaurant, but in some ways it shows more allegiance to the culinary world than the standard boozer. Ask for something that's not on the list and the chances are you'll be politely directed to, well, something that is on the list. Working to take their drinks up a notch, the team here does 99 per cent of its prep in the hours before service, just like a restaurant. More outré still, they use almost only booze they've distilled themselves, and they chill everything down so that it can be served sans ice. It's a bit confronting at first, but the singular quality of the drinks quickly assuages any concerns. Notes of beeswax make for a highly distinctive Old Fashioned, while the Moby Dick Sazerac's unsecret ingredient (ambergris - ambergris!) is as radical as it is perfectly apt. Best of all, owner Ryan Chetiyawardana and bartender Rob Libecans (late of Sydney's Baxter Inn and Melbourne institution Black Pearl) keep things chatty, their manner smooth enough to make bone and grass and such seem perfectly reasonable things to find in your glass. 153-155 Hoxton St, Hoxton, N1 6PJ, +44 203 011 1153.