Jeremy Lee is one of London’s most popular and respected chefs among his peers, yet he’s flown under the radar in terms of fame. He doesn’t appear on television very often and his cooking is unflashy and unfussy.
Lee has just moved to Quo Vadis after 16 years at the Blueprint Cafe and his impact has been instant. He’s dumped the old menu in favor of a single sheet that is printed daily and features a woodcut illustration and a line on the weather.
The restaurant -- one of London’s oldest -- had looked tired. Now, it is buzzing and it can be difficult to get a table. It is filled with diners. Many of them know each other, giving it the feel of a private club or a staff canteen for the media and hospitality industries. I feel at home.
You may not want to go to somewhere that’s in with the in crowd: Cool restaurants can leave me cold and a single snooty receptionist can turn a warm welcome into so much hot air. The difference here is that Quo Vadis is built around old-fashioned generosity and good manners. And the food is good, too.
The establishment was opened in 1926 by an Italian, Pepino Leoni. During World War II, when Leoni was interned, Indian restaurateurs took over the space. Leoni returned after the war and ran Quo Vadis for 30 years. Chef Marco Pierre White and the artists Damien Hirst were among subsequent owners, before brothers Sam and Eddie Hart moved in, in June 2008.
(Karl Marx wrote “Das Kapital” while living on the third floor. These days, there’s a private club upstairs favored by friends of the Harts, including the singer Suggs, of Madness.)
On Lee’s menu, there are about half a dozen starters, mains and desserts, plus a daily pie and snacks such as baked salsify and parmesan. The lunch/pre-theater menu is 17.50 pounds ($27.65) for two courses and 20 pounds for three.
It’s uncomplicated seasonal fare, well-executed with good ingredients. Lee is a flamboyant chef who doesn’t confuse simplicity with timidity. Neither is he one for formality, such as being respectfully addressed as chef, rather than by his name. (He told Restaurant magazine: “If anyone says ‘chef’ in my kitchen, they get spanked.”) His flavors are as big as his personality. Watch out for smoked eel & horseradish sandwich; hare soup; salt mallard & pickled prunes.
The daily pie on one of my visits was generously filled with pheasant, duck & mallard (14 pound) and another time I went for the onglet, watercress and pickled walnuts. (While I don’t think pickled walnuts will catch on, who knows?) Other favorites are neck of Middle White pork with braised beans and green sauce; and whole grilled mackerel, cucumber & dill salad.
Desserts may include shortcake, goat’s curd, lemon curd and marmalade. I say “may” because the menu really does change daily, depending on the supplies that arrive. Lee spends the best part of his day in the kitchen, emerging occasionally to kiss customers: male and female, he’s equal opportunity.
It’s a strong team at Quo Vadis. The Harts, who also own Barrafina and Fino, have spent a life in hospitality and it’s rare not to spot one of them in any of the restaurants: chatting to customers, taking orders and even clearing tables. Their new general manager at Quo Vadis is John Spiteri, a veteran of restaurants such as St John, Bentley’s and Corrigan’s.
The wine list is good value and it’s worth examining because the Harts put in the time with growers as well as importers, so it’s less predictable than you might see elsewhere
If you are looking for somewhere ground-breaking, Quo Vadis may not be for you. Lee tends to marry ingredients that have a history of getting along rather than trying to create a congress between exotic bedfellows. If he were Danish, he’d serve you the best open sandwich, rather than poached sea urchin and powdered cucumber with frozen cream and dill.
Lee’s cooking is simple without being easy. It’s a perfect match for Quo Vadis.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Less than 30 pounds a head for food.
Sound level? About 75-80 decibels. Air kissing can be noisy.
Inside tip? Try for a corner table.
Special feature? Historic setting.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70- 75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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