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London Food Finds

On either end of my trip to Italy, I spent several days in London.  It’s been difficult to convince the folks back home, but I have to say that some of the better food that I had when while traveling was in this capital city.  I can hear your disbelief from here, much the same reaction as I’ve been getting from other people to whom I’ve said the same thing.  On the UK side, the Brits are shocked that everyone is still hanging on to the outdated notion that English food is nothing to write home about, especially with some of the world’s top culinary stars making their marks there.  The thing of it is that I didn’t have to look very hard to find these gems, and I really didn’t do that much research in advance.  Here are some of the highlights of my trip.
It would be fair to say that I cheated a little bit as I stayed near the neighborhood where I once lived, so that gave me a bit of an advantage as I wasn’t in the central tourist district.  The fact that I have lived in London twice, in the late 80s (Thatcher era and just after pubs were able to stay open all day long) and in the late 90s (just as Jamie Oliver was breaking through and the attention to British food heritage was ramping up) probably gives me a different perspective on the evolution of UK foodstuffs and what to eat while visiting.  Is it still possible to find dreadful things to eat in London?  Yes, of course, but there’s also so many fantastic options to try while you are in town.  As a side note, I found some sensitivity to my taking photos inside of places, so many of the photos of food in restaurants are not available.  You’ll just need to visit for yourselves to try them out!
Dinners/Lunches
Starting with one of the more well-known and innovative places that I tried during my stay, St. John Bar and Restaurant near Smithfield Market is known for nose-to-tail eating and for inventive dishes.  Not surprisingly, the menu has some more unique carnivore options (like Ox Heart with Chips and Aioli), it also has seafood plates and vegetarian options as well.  I met up with a friend of friends from New York who is doing some research in London for a few months. We met in the Bar part, which filled up rapidly as the folks left their offices to head out for a drink and a bite to eat.  My big tip is just that, that we ate in the bar part and not the restaurant itself.  While not all of the same menu options are available, there’s definitely plenty to choose from, and the price points are lower, too, with you reaping the benefit of the same high culinary standards.
I’d never eaten Bone Marrow so we shared a plate of that, along with some parsley salad, one of their signature dishes.  The fatty, smooth marrow spread on toasted bread still had that taste of meatiness while being rich and creamy.  The Parsley Salad was a great bright, herbal counterpart to it.  Then, we shared a terrific Lentil Dish.  Bathed in a broth, dotted with tangy goat’s curd and dressed with some greens, this was a hearty vegetable dish that left us both scraping the bowl to get at all of its warm, soupy goodness.  I would definitely go back again for this type of meal.  Next time, however, I want to sample some of their dessert options as well, as I was staring at the ones that the next table over had ordered to share.
After weaving our way down several back streets in Mayfair, which was really the fault of my friend’s boyfriend not giving her good directions, we ended up at Hush, tucked away on a side street with a courtyard.  Originally, we were just there for a drink, but then we decided, after a bottle of wine and huge rings of fried calamari with tartar sauce, to head downstairs to the restaurant.  This was actually my first real meal in London.  The dining room had tables spaced well apart and provided some great people watching opportunities.  Soon, however, I was too focused on the food to pay attention to anything else.
As a starter, my friend and I decided to split the Carpaccio of Beef “Harry’s Bar” Style and the Organic Salmon Tartare with Lemon Oil and Chilli.  I love carpaccio, and this dish reinforced for me how wonderfully prepared it can be when put in the right hands.  Tissue paper thin sheets of beef perfectly rare enough dressed with a horseradish and crème fraîchedressing just melted lovingly on my tongue with the sauce providing a kicky backnote of heat and pepperiness.  The fresh fish was delicious and fatty with a citrusy-hot bite.  This was the perfect way to begin a meal.
My friend ordered The Hush Hamburger, which might seem like an odd choice at a more upscale restaurant, but when it arrived, I could see why.  Without even tasting the burger, which was delicious, you could see the high quality of the meat resting on the bun.  The side of Aspen Fries dressed with aromatic truffle oil and dusted with parmesan cheese perfumed the whole table and gave our dinner a more indulgent air.  She was nice enough to share them with me.  Her boyfriend had his favorite dish, and one that’s on my list to try the next time I eat there, which were Scallops in a fragrant, not too hot, Curry Sauce served with a Saffron Rice.  I don’t see it on their current menu nor do I see the dish that I had that night which was a Pasta stuffed with a Duck Cassoulet.  Each bite was succulent and meaty.  The pasta was drizzled with a butter sauce and sprinkled with arugula, whose peppery bite helped balance out all the richness of the meat.  This was the perfect way to start off my trip, fully of good food and wine and after catching up on all the latest news from friends.

The Gallery Mess, located next to the Saatchi Gallery on the King’s Road was a surprise find on my trip.  As you can see from the photos on the site, the bright interior open interior is welcoming space, set back from the road overlooking Duke of York Square.  With a relatively new chef behind the stove, as the waiter told me, who is putting a seasonal and local spin on the menu, I was interested to see what was available for lunch.  I was not disappointed. Following on the previous night’s theme, I had the house-cured Carpaccio which came dressed with an Endive and Radicchio Salad drizzled with Balsamic Vinegar.  The peppery beef was delicate which was a great foil for the crisp greens.

My main course was a dish about which I was still thinking today, a few weeks later.  I had the Wild Boar Ravioli in a Tomato-Herb Sauce.  Soft, tender hunks of juicy meat just pulled apart when I cut open the pasta.  Thick tomato sauce perfumed with herbs hugged every bite.  It was one the best dishes I ate on my trip.  It was savory, tangy, and even a bit sweet, with the thin pasta wrappers cooked perfectly.  I wanted the bowl never to end.  I had to pass on dessert this time, but on my next trip, I’d like to check out their offerings.  Better yet, I’d like to sit at one of their courtyard tables, glass of wine in hand, sharing a few small plates, watching the sun go down.

For my next recommendation, I’m just going to send you straight to Ottolenghi’s website so that your eyes can feast for a bit.  In the photos by location, you can see the gorgeous spread that awaits you as you enter their Notting Hill shop, where I stopped off for lunch.  Back on the front page, I believe that the chocolate item behind the fruit tarts is the sinfully delicious, tastebud delighting Flourless Chocolate Fondant Cake.  This time I did not pre-ssert, I ate in the correct order.  There are several locations, but the seating is limited at a few of them so you might want to time your visit for before or after the lunch rush.


You can choose from a variety of plates with two or three of their many prepared salads like the Roasted Aubergine [eggplant] with tahini yogurt, panko-almond crust, red chilli and basil or the White Cabbage and Kohlrabi Slaw with currants, dill, spring onion ones that I tried.  I also added a meat course to mine and sampled the Seared Beef Fillet with Horseradish and Chive Sour Cream Sauce.  I loved the snap of the cabbage salad and the delicate meatiness of the eggplant.  The beef was cooked perfectly.  Even after I finished my plate, I was looking around at all the beautiful combinations that the others around me had chosen.  I was completely satisfied after my meal but, being on vacation, just had to push it over the edge with the cake.  I didn’t regret it one little bit.  Another sweet option would have been their chewy, dark chocolate cookies as well.


Snacks/Tea



The Orangery at Kensington Palace Gardens is one of my favorite places to pause after a busy day of walking around and sightseeing.  I find it calm and soothing.  The interior is beautifully decorated with columns and statuary, as befits a building that was once used by royalty.  The afternoon tea is much the same as you would find at many places, although slightly cheaper.  It isn’t the best tea that I have ever eaten in London, but I will confess that the location and setting are really what make this worth a visit.  I have eaten a pretty decent lunch there as well, however, the menu is limited to soups, salads, and sandwiches.  The other places that came up in discussion with friends as good places to have tea were Fortnum & Mason (where I’ve eaten several times) and Claridge’s (this was everyone’s top choice).




Back in 2007 on another trip to London, I discovered Hummingbird Bakery’s cupcakes.  I have long since been over the craze for these treats, but every so often, I try to give them another chance.  These do not disappoint.  The Red Velvet is their post popular overall, I was told.  With moist cake and just enough sweetness and tang to the frosting, I could totally see why.  Their daily specials are also bit hits, like their Nutella cupcake or the Lemon Tart version that I had when I was there.  Can a cupcake be juicy?  I’m not sure, but this totally was a lemon-lovers cupcake.  Lemon sponge cake with a blob of lemon curd nestled inside of it.  Lemon frosting and an additional dot of lemon curd on top.  This was pucker-icious.  I could have eaten several of them.




Belleville Boutique and Café was one of my more delightful finds on this trip.  Part café in the French sense and part housewares boutique, along with a small art gallery display up front.  Hervé, the owner and creator, left a career in fashion in Paris to open up a small store in the south of France to sell specialty syrups, olive oils, mustards, and other foodstuffs.  Several years later, he’s opened up this charmingly decorated spot, which has some gorgeous finds located within.  Its tables make the perfect place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a croissant or perhaps a slice of quiche with salad.


Breakfast

While Belleville would also make a great place to stop off for breakfast, I also found a few other options, too.  What was interesting is that the number of old “caffs” featuring all-day English seem to have dwindled in my old neighborhood.  Some of the things that have moved in like GAIL’s Artisan Bakery are so far and above a better quality of food and experience that they have elevated the English breakfast experience to a whole new level.

GAIL’s has several locations around the city, each with its own chef.  I was told by the one at the Notting Hill branch that each place really has its own distinct clientele and personality as well.  The one here on a weekday morning was full of folks holding business meetings, moms and their tiny children, and a few folks like me who’d popped in to have a real breakfast to fuel their day.  I had the most beautiful Fried Eggs with orange yolks served over a bed of Spinach and Mushrooms covered with Taleggio and a side of their bread.  That, and the steaming cappuccino that I had with it were the perfect way to start the day.  There were several other options for a hot breakfast as well as pastries available.  They also serve lunch and have things to take away, in addition to selling their beautiful-looking bread.

Another place I tried out for breakfast was another semi-chain called Cotê.  These are designed as French-style brasseries, which have an interesting feel being in the UK.  What I really liked about this place, aside from the fact that I could reliably get my morning caffeine fix, was that they serve their egg dishes where you can get one egg in an Eggs Benedict, which I did.  That way, I didn’t feel too heavy after eating breakfast.  Their prices for lunch and dinner also seemed to be good as well, but I didn’t eat any of those meals there.



There seems to have been an explosion of places in Notting Hill that sell UK products and showcase regional produce.  When I lived there, these would have been so welcome instead of always relying on what was in the Portobello Road market or the Tesco Metro around the corner.  One of the few places that is still around and has been an anchor for the neighborhood is Tom’s.  They operate as part grocery store, part takeaway lunch place, and part eatery.  They also stock UK-made chutneys, jams, mustards, and other items, many of which are used in the cafe part of their operation.  For those of you craving a peanut butter sandwich, I also spied jars of Jif on the shelves.

Borough Market



I’m not even sure that I can accurately describe the experience of visiting Borough Market.  If you take the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays and double it, add in Essex Street Market, throw in a dash of Arthur Avenue Market, and toss it together with a few heaping tablespoons of New Amsterdam Market and the food tables at the Brooklyn Flea, you might come up with this.  In fact, I have so many photos that I’m really just going to send you to the album on Facebook to experience it for yourself.  A friend of mine gave me a huge and invaluable tip, to visit there on Friday afternoons about lunchtime.  Many of the vendors bring out their portable stoves and burners and cook up small plates, wraps, or even steaming savory bowls of food based upon their products to sell to customers.  Folks were lining up to get these reasonably-priced bites.  If you want to walk around one of the historic markets in the city (and ever-changing as the construction demonstrates), fuel up here and just spend the afternoon wandering and taking in all the great food delights.

I had a wonderful trip to London.  On the food front, there was just so much great stuff to try that I couldn’t possibly fit in all in, although I did make a respectable attempt to do so.  I really needed my New York food festival gang with me on the Borough Market trip, as I wanted to sample everything that a saw, so much of it appeared to be delicious.  While I know that you can still get less than great food in the UK, as you can anywhere, I’m really begging everyone to put their culinary biases aside and open up their tastebuds and minds to the reality that London is one of the great food destinations to savor.


Buon appetito!