Monday, September 26, 2016

Delicious London, the 2016 edit

Five years ago, Chris and I spent eight days in London to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Earlier this month we headed back to merry old England to mark our fifteenth, spending five days in London and three in gorgeous Cornwall, in the extreme southwest of the country. I'll get to all the fantastic food we consumed down there in the next post, but today I want to talk about London.

It's an overwhelming place in many ways. There are masses of people everywhere. It's big, but compact, with neighbourhoods that bleed into one another and yet are totally distinct. Sometimes you cross a street and walk into a different world. I love it so much. However, finding a place to have dinner can be like drinking from a fire hose - there are so many restaurants and a lot of them are total pants (that's British slang for crap). We rented a flat very near the place we stayed last time, so it felt natural to revisit many of the restaurants we tried and loved on the last trip. In fact, we only had dinner in two totally new-to-us places, which suited us just fine. Everywhere we went back to had only improved in the intervening years (see above re: plenty of competition - the places that last are generally pretty good).

Our first day we were exhausted from not sleeping on the overnight flight, so once we checked into our apartment we showered, napped for a bit, and then stumbled out to our favourite pub from 2011, the Green Man, which happily was two blocks away. We nabbed a table in the empty upstairs, far from the Friday-night pint drinkers downstairs, and enjoyed fish and chips, a chicken and ham pot pie, and two pints of Aspall draught cider, one of my all-time favourites. Then we did a quick grocery run and faceplanted back into bed for a great night's sleep.

One of the many benefits of renting an apartment instead of getting a hotel is the ability to make breakfast before going out for the day and facing other humans. We scrambled some eggs and veggies, enjoyed a vacation treat of pain au chocolat, and headed out to see us some rainy London sights. After our first stop at the Globe Theatre (which is an amazing tour - don't miss it if you're at all into Shakespeare) we walked the few twisty blocks to Borough Market on the south bank of the Thames.

It was lunchtime. It was Saturday. It was NUTS. And we fell madly in love with it. It's covered, fortunately for us, because it drizzled all day. It's packed with stalls selling everything from meat to cheese to veg to flowers, honey, wine and cider, chocolates and other sweets, and even leather goods and clothing. It wasn't hard to choose what to have for lunch once we spied a few folk walking around eating containers of paella, topped with whole prawns and mussels in the shell. We fond the vendor and ordered two, then stood as out of the way as we could get and chowed down. We were asked by no fewer than five people where we'd obtained such gorgeousness, and we kindly pointed them in the right direction. Warm, savoury, filling and a tiny bit spicy, it was perfection on a gloomy misty afternoon. We followed it up with coffee and dessert at a nearby cafe just to sit down and get out of the damp for a bit. I'm already dying to go back to the market when it's not so madly crowded, so I can actually shop around a little.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the City of London (which is how the business district is known) looking at the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater, then attending choral Evensong at St. Paul's. After a stop at home to dry off and tidy up, we presented ourselves at Barrica in Goodge Street and proceeded to have a slap-up tapas dinner complete with huge, fabulous gin and tonics. It's apparently the most popular cocktail in Spain, and it does go brilliantly with the food. They have about a dozen kinds of gin available, each served with a garnish chosen to match its botanicals. Chris tried Brockman's gin, which we both loved and later picked up a bottle to take home. (More on that later.) I stuck with good old Plymouth, since it goes with grapefruit, my favourite citrus.

After a day in the rain, the paella now a distant memory, we ordered with abandon: whole grilled prawns! Hanger steak with caramelized onions! Padron peppers! Chorizo! Patatas bravas! Eggplant with sherry and raisins! All of it was perfectly prepared, kindly delivered, and promptly devoured. The prawns were enormous and tasted like tiny lobsters, and Barrica's patatas (fried chunks of potato with spicy tomato sauce and aioli) are still the best I've ever tasted.

We wound down the evening with a warming glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry and some divine Spanish cheeses. Then we walked the six minutes back to our flat. It's so lovely when no one has to drive home.

Sunday was a wandering day, and a sunny one to boot. We slept in, then strolled down Regent Street, which was closed to traffic and fenced off down the middle for a good chunk. We figured out why when trucks carrying bicycles started going by - we'd happened upon the Tour of Britain's final leg, a 15-lap ride up and down Regent Street. We stopped and watched the leaders, then the peloton, whizz by us a few times, then wandered on, poking our heads into Liberty (such fabrics! such PRICES), Molton Brown (spendy bath stuff) and other gorgeous shops. At Picadilly we headed west to Fortnum and Mason, the fanciest food store you'll ever enter. F&M's hampers (literally wicker picnic hampers) are famous for being the best hostess gift to give or receive when invited to a fancy house party in England. Caviar, champagne, truffles (both fungus and chocolate) and biscuits all come packaged in glorious, tasteful tins and boxes, perfect for presents. We had a fantastic wander around, selected some tea for my sister and some biscuits for ourselves, drooled over the booze and chocolates, then headed even further west, to Harrods.

A quick lap through the main floor, with its stunning array of handbags and perfumes, a turn around the food halls for chocolates and chutneys and sighing over the pies and scotch eggs, was all we had time for. We caught the tube to Sloane Square and walked (a good long way) down the King's Road, through Chelsea, where I could happily live forever and ever. We turned off the main road for a couple of blocks, imagining ourselves inhabiting one of the bijou white-painted row houses with the doorknobs in the middle and the manicured hedges, with obligatory fancy car parked in the tiny laneway out front. Such stuff as dreams are made on.

On we walked, to Kurobuta, a trendy yet tasty izakaya (Japanese pub) further along the King's Road on a slightly less flashy but still lovely block. This was one of our new places; we'd not been exploring in Chelsea last time and had regretted it. One of the perks of going for an early dinner was the free bottle of wine we were offered via OpenTable; it turned out to be quite a decent rosé, which went very well with the yummy small plates we ordered. Sashimi of course, and a tempura roll topped with avocado, but also pork belly buns with an insanely spicy and sweet peanut-soy sauce; chicken yakitori, well-executed; sushi pizza with salmon and scallions; and a thin slice of fudge cake with peanuts, mango caramel (yes really; it was awesome) and creme fraiche ice cream. The place filled up as we munched, and turned into a very convivial and pleasant room with warm and friendly staff. We'd go back.

Monday was Tower of London day, complete with hilarious yeoman warder ("beefeater") led tour. The sun shone on us again; in fact it was quite warm. We lunched quite tolerable on coronation chicken sandwiches in the museum café and stopped in at an exhibit of Harry Potter film props before dinner at Yalla Yalla, just seconds from our flat. We'd found it while shopping on Oxford Street five years ago and were thrilled to see it still thriving this time. It's billed as Lebanese street food; we enjoyed grilled halloumi and baba ganoush before tucking into some perfect seafood: more prawns for me, with a tangy red harissa sauce, and grilled sea bass fillets for Chris with a green sauce that was herby and kicky. Fun cocktails like the Beirut sangria (red wine and orange Fanta, which Chris said was shockingly good). Thus fortified, off we went to the Adelphi Theatre for Kinky Boots, the Musical, which we adored. Must appreciate drag queens and fun shoes.

Chris and I split up on Tuesday - he went off to the Churchill War Rooms while I visited Kensington Palace, in 31-degree heat. Not what I was expecting from London! We rendezvoused in the late afternoon for tea in the Orangery of the palace, with tiny sandwiches and cakes and scones. It was good, but not as impressive as the tea we had at Harrods five years ago. The interior of the Orangery is quite plain and boring too, mostly white with a few plants. It was a perfectly fine way to spend an hour, but next time I think we'll spring for one of the fancy hotels like Brown's or Claridge's.

It wasn't a heavy tea, thankfully, as the day was so hot and humid. We had a much-needed siesta back at the flat and went out for a late dinner at a nearby branch of Wahaca, a Mexican chain opened by a Masterchef UK winner from a few years back. (The name is a phonetic spelling of Oaxaca, the Mexican state that inspired the cuisine.) I had a fantastic hibiscus agua fresca and a shockingly good grilled hangar steak with a nice smoky chipotle salsa, and Chris had a tasty chicken quesadilla. The place was hopping at 8:30 on a Tuesday night, so I cannot imagine it on a Friday or Saturday. Not bad for British Mexican food, really.

Now imagine an ellipsis for three days in Cornwall.

We returned on Saturday afternoon to spend one last night in London before flying home, and spent part of it wandering in Mayfair, just a stone's throw south of our nice hotel in Marylebone. We crossed Oxford Street and it got quiet, and the cars all got way, way nicer (think Lamborghinis and Bentleys; nothing lower-end than a Merc) and the buildings larger and cleaner and more historic. In Davies Street we found Hedonism Wines, truly a temple to the god Bacchus. Thousand-dollar scotches, rare California cabernets, you name it. But they were the nearest place selling that lovely Brockman's gin, so in we went and purchased a bottle.

The French fellow who sold it to us asked us very seriously, "When you tried eet - did you smell zee purple Skeetle?" Noting our quizzical faces, he scurried off to fetch an open bottle to demonstrate the candy-like scent of the straight gin. Damned if he wasn't right: purple Skittle. (It doesn't taste of it, just something in the botanicals smells of it.) Hilarious moments like that are what make a vacation memorable.

Finally, the last supper in London, at Rasa W1, the nearest-to-our-hotel branch of the Rasa group of South Indian restaurants. We ate at the now-defunct Rasa Samudra in Charlotte Street back in 2011 and loved it so much we had to find another place to eat the Keralan and Hyderabadi delicacies it offered. Our friend's family is from Kerala and their food is so different from the northern Indian standards we most often see at restaurants in Ottawa. We had to order the bagara baingan, a creamy eggplant and cashew dish from Hyderabad that we've dreamed of since the last time in London. We also chose a chicken biryani (rice dish, like a pilaf) and a mango and prawn curry that was delightfully sour and bright-tasting. We were so sad when it was all gone, because there's nowhere here that makes this kind of food. The people were kind and friendly and the restaurant is tiny and pretty, packed on a Saturday evening and doing a brisk takeaway business as well.

In the morning, one last full English at the hotel and we were off to Heathrow for our flight home to reality. Every time I go to London I'm reminded what a wonderful city it is, full of history and fun and utterly terrific food. We already can't wait to go back.

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