The background: Mark Sargeant is the man behind Folkstone’s beloved Rocksalt. In recent years, he has channelled his expertise into London restaurants, with chef director roles at Plum & Spilt Milk at the Great Northern Hotel, King’s Cross St Pancras, and The Strand Dining Rooms. Sargeant has now launched his own London restaurant for the first time – Morden & Lea – located on the Leicester Square side of Wardour Street. This might not be the area you’d usually expect to find an exceptional meal, but Morden & Lea could change all that – the food is great and at just £35 for three courses, very reasonably priced. Plus the restaurant’s location is very convenient for pre- and post-theatre or cinema suppers.
The space: Morden & Lea is spaced over two floors with a relaxed all-day no-reservation dining room downstairs and a more formal brasserie upstairs. The space is elegant and modern, with dark wooden floors, industrial-style exposed pipework across the ceiling and mismatched artwork, but the overall feeling is welcoming rather than so achingly cool it’s cold.
The bar: The restaurant offers a selection of really reasonably priced cocktails, which are original and delicious. If you want to try something new, look for unusual ingredients such as tonka bean, oak smoke, peat or black walnut. The wine list at Morden & Lea is also really well put together and includes a number of bottles served in 500ml carafes. Refreshingly, this includes some of the more expensive and interesting varieties – ideal if you’re having a quick meal before the theatre and don’t want to either waste the end of your bottle, compromise on taste, or rush the bottle and snooze through the third act.
Start with: The speciality of the restaurant’s more casual downstairs dining room is the tartine, so order one of these delicious open sandwiches if you’re only stopping by for a quick bite. If dining upstairs in the evening, then choose from the small but perfectly formed selection of starters, which will change with the seasons but could include tortellini of rabbit, mackerel rillettes, smoked trout or roast quail.
Go on to: The selection of mains is equally small with a selection of around seven dishes available – each well thought out and impeccably prepared. Carefully sourced meat and fish take centre stage, as does seasonally sensitive cooking. Try the loin of Romney Marsh lamb with deep umami mushrooms, spicy chicken with aioli, potatoes and salad, or stone bass served with curried potatoes, a coco-nutty sauce and fresh coriander salad. For somewhere that embraces a fairly traditional meat- potato-and-veg-style set-up, Morden & Lea serves creative, interesting and delicious food.
Finish with: Try what could be calledMorden & Lea’s version of an Eton Mess: pressed strawberries, almond crumble and Brillat-Savarin chantilly – whipped fresh white cow’s cheese that gives it a richer, slightly acidic cheesecake flavour. Or the poached apricots with fresh almonds, honey and ice cream for something sweet and succulent.
The bill: Morden & Lea charges just £29 for two courses, or £35 for three – which is astounding given the quality of the food and the restaurant’s central location. Bottles of wine start at £21 and cocktails are around £10. A three-course meal for two with cocktails and a good bottle of wine should come to around £120.
In summary: The restaurant’s location just opposite flashy, overpriced and somewhat soulless Leicester Square only serves to highlight Morden & Lea’s good points. Great quality, friendly, modest, British and fun, it’s difficult to think of another restaurant from a big-name chef in London that charges reasonable prices for top-notch cooking. Morden & Lea is a real addition to central London and one you’ll probably find yourself returning to over and over again.
Morden & Lea, 17 Wardour Street, London W1D 6PJ; mordenandlea.com