When my mother and I began planning our five-day sojourn to London in May, I immediately began researching restaurants like it was my goddamn job. It was a first time visit for both of us, and I live in some kind of irrational terror about not knowing where to eat in a new location and ending up overpaying for tourist grub. It’s easy to fall into the rabbit hole when it comes to London restaurant reviews – it’s obviously a first-rate foodie town with review ink spilled to match. I read about all kinds of super-bobo things like “gastropubs” and “locavore menus” and something that people were calling “the St. John diaspora,” apparently with a perfectly straight face. Part of me was a bit skeptical about the heavy-duty language that seemed to align itself with a cuisine that I always suspected was bland city. The fact is that no matter how many times I had heard that London was the new culinary center of the world, I just couldn’t believe that a nation that consumed potatoes in that many different iterations could possibly on the new wave of progressive cooking.But I’m still a restaurant researching fiend, so I did a lot of homework (and made a lot of reservations) before we arrived in London.
Much to my surprise, London really is all that it’s cracked up to be from a culinary point of view. I will seem like the ultimate Paris traitor in saying this, but London really does have the monopoly at this point on beautifully simple, seasonal ingredient-driven cooking that draws on the rich international community who inhabit the city. Libelous as it may seem given my current digs, visiting London was like waking up in an Technicolor dreamscape of exquisite produce and fish and meat. Locally sourcing ingredients has obviously become de rigeur in London, as has providing comprehensive lists of where ingredients originated on menus. London is basically how I imagine West Coast cooking in the US will look in about a decade. And while all of this is obviously the product of a lot of food-obsessed people with a lot more money to put where their mouths are, it has trickled down into even the most basic sorts of fast-food lunch spots around town. I was flat-out amazed by the quality of the food at places like Prêt à Manger and Eat, chains that are as ubiqutous as Panera in the States or Bonne Journee in Paris, yet manage to be about a hundred times more ethically sourced and delicious than their American and French counterparts. And I know that as Americans we are always getting pounded sideways by the dollar/pound conversion, but I was geniunely surprised by the reasonable prices on food in the UK. Even my mother, who, um, was footing the bill pointed out the radical discrepancy between the cost of eating in Paris at a place like Rino and some of the spendier places we dined at in London, namely that you can get a lot more bang for your buck in London. I particularly loved the democratic feel of dining out in London, where suits mixed with totally casual duds, white tablecloths were rare (if not totally absent), servers were almost irrationally friendly, and you can make reservations just about anywhere online. I hate talking on the phone with strangers. I love being able to make reservations online, puzzling over the best time slot for as long as I need to in crafting the perfect eating itinerary. London is this obsessive deliberator’s fantasy city as far as that is concerned.
So where’d we eat, you may ask? In fact, my dearest J and B did ask me recently, as they are visiting cute-as-all-get-out niece and nephew in London this coming month. So for them, and for all of my other dear readers, here are some highlights, in chronological order:
Electric Brasserie (191 Portobello Road, Subway Ladbroke Grove) was our first stop after taking the Eurostar from Paris and checking in at our quirky, if un-recommendable accomidations in Notting Hill. It’s as hip as they come and attached to an interesting-sounding cinema, balancing a slightly formal dining room with an outdoor patio that is quite popular with locals that camp out for hours on end. As we were feeling a kind of “when in Rome” vibe, we both ordered the fish and chips with mushy peas and homemade tartar sauce. Oh man, did this ruin me for all future versions of this dish. The cod was perfectly cooked, just the right amount of crispy and greasy on the outside and flaky and moist on the inside. The mushy peas were super-sweet and tasted of spring. And that tartar sauce was sexy enough to slather all over your lover. The rest of the menu looked dreamy as well, and would pair delightfully with a date-night movie at the Electric Cinema (not that I’m already planning date nights for when I live in London or anything foolish like that. Ahem).
Dinner on our first night was at the original location of St. John (26 St. John Street, Subway Farringdon), the gastropub that apparently started it all. I made reservations about a month in advance online, and it was evident by the smirk on the hostesses face when the guy in front of us asked if they had any availability that night that reservations are a must and a half here. Our server actually continually reminded us of our good fortune to be eating at St. John, not in an ugly way, but in a “well, of course you should order some Welsh rarebit, you’re HERE after all!” kind of way. It was actually quite charming, so we did.
We also ordered the roasted beef bone marrow with parsley, onion, and caper salad served with toast. Mama L was skeptical about spreading marrow on bread, but the look on her face was pure complicit joy at first bite.
Our main courses were roasted lamb and fennel, which was quite possibly one of the most amazingly gamey-while-delicious cuts of meat I’ve ever encountered and pigeon with lentils (slightly bloodier than I usually like my pigeon, but maybe I’m in the wrong on that one). Either way, both were completely amazing, if a total departure from the oft-fussiness of high-end Parisian cuisine.
The next day we spent a lovely morning at the Tate Modern and decided to duck in to their museum restaurant before heading over to the Globe Theatre for an afternoon matinee of Much Ado About Nothing, an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone of either a theatrical, touristical, or human disposition. The restaurant at the Tate Modern was a totally yummy surprise, with an inventive menu with all-artisinal ingredients (the tomato chutney, the cheese, and the beef on my burger had homey-sounding names) and an excellent booze list. Yes, I drink and go to museums. Sue me. I got to sample my first-ever Scottish Brew Dog Trashy Blonde beer, which was a welcome change from the beer-desert I live in here in Paris (cue world’s tiniest violin, I know). Mama L had a vaguely Middle-Eastern platter of roasted vegetables, hummus, and salad, because she felt that we had eaten too much meat the previous evening and needed a reprieve. Amateur.
Our third night, we followed the “St. John diaspora” (snort) and decided to try Hereford Road (3 Hereford Road, Subway: Notting Hill Gate), a relatively new space from the former chef at St. John Bread and Wine, Tom Pemberton. I’m going to just go ahead and say it: we liked it even better than St. John. The space is beautifully designed with an enormous circular skylight in the main dining area. The staff is thoughtful and articulate about the food and wine. And the food, while simple and unfussy, is gutsy and delicious and traditional while also being totally out-of-the-box. To start, Mama L had an exquisite spinach, bacon, and seared scallop salad. Don’t you love it when a simple scallop screams “Whoever cooked me is a total artist!”? I sure do:
I began with a Meantime Pilsner (yum!) and the potted crab, a dish which I’ll admit I had never heard of before that night. Consider me schooled: potted crab is just about the most decadent fat-kid concoction you can imagine, pairing fuss-free crab claw meat with drawn butter and toast. I could literally eat this every single day for the rest of my life and live a warm and happy existence:
For our main courses, I tucked in to a serious slab of pork belly served with a sweet broth and some game-changing zucchini. I’m not kidding, this zucchini transformed everything I ever believed about zucchini.
My mama took one bite, and another, and another, until I actually had to bat her fork away from my precious vegetable side dish. It was that good. Mama L had braised rabbit with fennel and a healthy scoop of aioli. She took a bite, closed her eyes, and said “My goodness, London has sure changed my opinion of fennel.” Clarence’s mama WOULD have “an opinion about fennel,” wouldn’t she?
For dessert, we shared an Eton Mess. Like many Americans, I had heard of Eton Mess but didn’t have a clue what it comprised. At Hereford Road it’s a mix of fresh sweet strawberries, candied rhubarb, and bits of meringue cookie smothered in whipped cream. It’s the kind of thing that I imagine might give a schoolboy a serious sugar high.
Our final culinary destination was Ottolenghi (several different locations, but we ate at the restaurant in Islington at 287 Upper Street, Subway Highbury & Islington). I’ll be frank, I am straight-up, fan-girl obsessed with chef Yotam Ottolenghi since “discovering” his genius Guardian column The New Vegetarian. So obsessed, in fact, that I’m seriously contemplating using his amazing sensibility as a framework for revamping my cooking to include more veggie-centric meals. Take the best vegetarian (or, at the restaurant, vegetable-driven) dishes you’ve ever had or imagined you could have, then multiply it by about a thousand. That’s how good this man’s food is. Mama L went back to the States and promptly ordered his cookbooks. I would die a happy, smug vegetarian if Ottolenghi was my personal chef.
The dinner menu at Ottolenghi is made of two sections: from the counter and from the kitchen. Everything is a small plate meant to be shared, and the servers recommend that you order a mix of plates from the counter (usually cold, and served more or less immediately) and from the kitchen (hot dishes that take a little bit longer to arrive). Our server recommended five dishes between two people, which was exactly the perfect amount with dessert. Our dishes from the counter were barley and farro with asparagus, feta, preserved lemon, green peas, and pink peppercorn (left) and roasted aubergine (eggplant) with apricot and ginger yoghurt, spiced pumpkin seeds, chili and sumac (right), served with the most orgasmic selection of bread I’ve seen in awhile:
Plus a char-grilled courgette (zuchini for you Yanks out there) with Parmesean, chervil, pistachio, and truffle oil, which will have you putting Parmesean and truffle oil on every vegetable that comes out of our kitchen, trust me.
From the kitchen, we ordered a pan-fried sea bass with garlic crisps and a mixed mushroom, seaweed, and truffle oil salad. While the sea bass was as perfect as can be, the real star of the show was the seaweed salad: tangy-sweet, tender, and umami to the max. My mom, never before a fan of seaweed salad, declared herself a convert.
Our second dish from the kitchen was smoked lamb cutlets with miso burt aubergine, pickled Jerusalem artichoke, and jalapeño sauce. Again, the lamb was great, but the vegetable accoutrements were the real breakout stars. I want to take a bath in this bright green jalapeño puree:
For dessert, we split a slice of amazing carrot cake, and on the way out we bought two “granola bars” (let’s just say that these are unlike any granola bars I’ve ever eaten before) for our travels the next day. Mama L said Heathrow airport looked a hellava lot nicer at five a.m when paired with a hot cup of coffee and an Ottolenghi granola bar.
So the food was great and unpretentious, the museums are mostly free, the people are absurdly friendly, and the public transportation wasn’t nearly as confusing as everyone made it out to be. Other things I’d totally recommend you do in London (besides the stuff you are already probably going to do) include visiting the Freud Muesum and the Esorick Collection of Modern Italian Art (both fascinating and largely empty) and taking a nice long stroll along the Canal or inside the Hampstead Heath. I’d also recommend, especially in the summer, a classic Pimm’s cup (for the uninitiated, it’s a refreshing combination booze, sparkling lemonade, cucumbers, berries, apples, citrus, and borage or mint). I had mine at the excellent-looking The Bull and Last (168 Highgate Road, Subway Tufnell Park), where among other things, they have a delicious sounding dog snack menu. I’m pretty emphatically sold on London – now all I’ve got to do is convince B that it is an excellent setting for our future adventures.
Speaking of B, I told you a few weeks ago that I had a big announcement to make. Well, here it is: I’m leaving France at the end of this month as expected, but instead of heading back to Southern California, I am moving to Indiana for a year (and I don’t mean the Tex-Mex restaurant chain in Paris). B’s got some coursework to finish and a teaching gig there, you see, and I’m in desparate need of a place free of distractions with a university library for my year of fellowship-funded dissertation-writing. I know a lot of you will be taking me off your regularly scheduled blog programming without the “Paris-factor” (and I don’t blame you) but I hope that you’ll still keep stopping by for the crêpes-to-cornfields chapter of my life. We’ve got big plans, you see, including a Bourbon tour of Kentucky, a pulled-pork orgy in Memphis, and lots and lots of home-cooking. I’ve been chomping at the bit to start some smelly home-fermentation projects (can anyone say “homemade kimchee and sauerkraut”) that B has prohibited me from beginning in our tiny Parisian apartment. Moreover we’ve got Amish farms to visit, fruit to pluck, and an entire Larousse Gastronomique to work our way through in a Bloomington kitchen. What I’m saying is that I hope you’ll stick around for the ride. I’ll bribe you with some Best Of Paris entries soon, that is, when I can stop my current cycle of pre-packing, compulsive shopping at Dehillerin, charcuterie-eating, and weeping. I hope you are happy and staying cool this summer, dearest reader. As always, you’re looking lovely.