Until the 1990s, when London became an epicenter of master chefs, the city was associated with every slapstick cliché about British cooking: comic relief desserts like spotted dick and Eton mess; greasy fish and chips; and that creaking beef trolley rolling past like a vague threat on three rusty wheels.
But of course a lot of that conventional wisdom about London being the world capital of gruel was overstatement (there is in fact nothing better than Eton mess). And even before updated regional cuisine found its stride in England, and London diners rediscovered the beauty in a perfectly cooked leg of lamb, the capital could always flaunt one culinary treasure: a bulging buffet of dishes from both its colonies and from its European neighbors. And that's still the case—in fact, London's border-hopping cuisine just keeps getting better.
Begin your London-based round-the-world trip in India. Chicken masala and curries, which have long since eclipsed crumpets and scones as England's favorite comfort foods, are dished out on just about every block of the city. The critically acclaimed Amaya upends another hoary food cliché—that of the heavy, clotted curry. The restaurant is best known for its small plates of delicately prepared grilled food. As minimalist as the sleek dining room, Amaya's chile and rose petal chicken tikka, an elegant one-bite kebab, comes to the table spitting juice. The lamb kakori kebab is smoked with cloves, the tandoori monkfish tikka roused by turmeric, and the minced chicken piled in a crisp lettuce cup and infused with bright notes of coconut and lime. Another standout dish: two enormous wild ocean prawns plated just off the grill and lifted by a subtle blend of tomato and ginger that adds a sweet tang.
Order too many of those bites, though, and they'll bite back when the whopping bill comes. Thankfully, there are innumerable economical alternatives. For a quick fix of Indian street food, visit Mooli's, a glass-fronted café in Soho with roti rolls that are rich with flavor but cost less than £6 apiece. The Punjabi goat, accented with cumin, coriander, cloves, and cinnamon, comes bundled up with sautéed potatoes, red onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime; the chicken is wrapped with lentils, pickled turnips, and yogurt. Also centrally located, over in Covent Garden, Moti Mahal looks generically formal (with long curving banquettes and a neutral palette) but turns adventurous in the kitchen. Head chef Anirudh Arora roams all over India's culinary map, plucking star dishes from various regions and giving them subtle makeovers. The result: a Multan goat curry packed with garlic, apricots, and dried red chiles, with the sweet fruit playing off a spicy backbeat; a Lucknow dish of lamb and basmati rice seasoned with saffron, ginger, and cardamom and cooked in a sealed pot; and a Delhi-style panfried monkfish drizzled with tamarind and paired with cucumber salad.
London's range of Chinese kitchens is just as dizzying as its South Asian options. The original Hakkasan (there are now outposts in Dubai, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas, Miami, and New York, plus a second London location) is almost impossible to find on a dead-end street in Fitzrovia, on the edge of Bloomsbury. The underground dining room, as dimly lit as a darkroom, can become a din of noise when all the scenesters pile in and start downing Day-Glo cocktails at the bar. But unlike London's other pricey, glossy pan-Asian-inflected favorites, where the food just limps along, Hakkasan's contemporary Cantonese-inspired dishes are, at their best, thoughtful and seductive. Especially good are the meaty softshell crabs and the crispy duck salad, a mound of tender shredded duck, pomelo, pine nuts, and shallots, all mixed tableside. Even the roast chicken shines—the tender bird is crowned by ribbons of golden lacquered skin and served in a nutty satay sauce.
China Tang, located in the basement of grande dame the Dorchester hotel, makes up for a certain lack of street cred with an elegant Deco-goes-Chinois dining room and textbook classics like Peking duck, served along with its usual partners (plum sauce, scallions, and pancakes that are as thin as parchment).
Finally, for breakfast or brunch, the Royal China Club in Marylebone has a huge range of dim sum, including fantastic pork and crab soup dumplings that pop in your mouth.
For a real Asian epiphany, and one of the best meals in London now, period, book a table at the Halkin Hotel's Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Nahm. Australian chef David Thompson, who opened a second Nahm in Bangkok in 2010, didn't just rescue Thai food from the dumbed-down pad Thai many Western diners are used to—and bored with. He shows off the sophisticated complexity of Thai cuisine in a way that feels like a revelation. The dining room, which sits off the Halkin's restrained Belgravia lobby, is a subdued meditation space framing a quiet garden, but then it doesn't need to dish up any drama. The serious, hushed diners here are focused more on their food than the scene, and almost every plate qualifies as a main event, especially the bracing salads. Start with minced prawns and chicken simmered in palm sugar, tossed with deep-fried shallots, garlic, and peanuts, all spooned over mandarin oranges, for an ideal marriage of fruity and savory. A langoustine salad is piled with velvety pieces of the sweet shellfish, offset by lemongrass and toasted coconut, and the grilled prawns and banana blossom with chili jam offers another tumble of flavors, the spicy chiles playing nicely with the earthy salad and juicy seafood.