Hello from a train. I’m writing this as I make my way from London to Paris through the Chunnel; there’s no Wifi, so by the time I hit “publish,” I’ll be in my hotel, but you can still picture me on a train. Last night, after getting in from “The Pajama Game” (more on that in a bit) I spent over an hour editing pictures from my three days in London. I couldn’t believe my eyes; had I really done so much in such a short period of time? More importantly: had I really eaten so much?
The last time I was in London was fourteen years ago when I would visit, semi-regularly, as a summer student at Oxford studying Shakespeare and Modern British Theater. I hadn’t yet gone through my food awakening, but the British food scene hadn’t yet broken out the way it would over the next decade. Nigella Lawson and Jaime Oliver weren’t yet household names (at least not in America). I have very vivid memories of standing there at Oxford at the college’s food hall, as a British woman slopped indescribable food on to a plate. Some days the food was so awful, I would go next door to a recently opened Starbucks to buy an egg salad sandwich (known in these parts as an “Egg Mayonnaise”).
How strange that all these years later, I arrived in London so eager to devour the city. But in my culinary education, I became slowly aware of the deep influence of places like The River Cafe (where April Bloomfield and Jaime Oliver got their start) and St. John (where Fergus Henderson inspired a new generation of chefs to cook all of the parts of the animal). Meanwhile, so many exciting restaurants and markets have sprung up all over London (and England) since my Oxford days, it’s now considered one of the world’s great food cities. This post should prove that point.
Last I left you, I’d danced my heart out in Edinburgh; the next morning, Craig and I flew from the Edinburgh airport to Heathrow, where he departed for Nantucket (his movie is the opening night film at their film festival) and I descended into the tube where I made my way to the flat where I stayed near Marble Arch. The tube is absolutely wonderful; maybe the best public transportation system I’ve yet encountered. I soon used it again to meet Edd Kimber, The Boy Who Bakes, for lunch at the Maltby Street Market.
The Market, pictured at the top of this post, is a sort of a hidden-away gem in what I believe was a converted railway station (I may have that wrong).
Edd, who I’d met long ago for lunch at Prune in New York, before he went on to win the Great British Bake-Off and became something of a celebrity, happily toured me around. There was lots to see; this man, famous for his Piri Piri sauce:
A grilled cheese stand:
And a tapas bar where we sat down to have lunch.
And olives and marcona olives that you had to peel (I learned that the hard way after I ate a whole one, shell and all.]
Lunch was a lovely chance to catch up with Edd; then, next door, we indulged in treats from the St. John Bakery, an extension of Fergus Henderson’s empire.
Here’s Edd with the Eccles cake he purchased within:
And here’s that Eccles cake up close (Edd, a food stylist, made this look very pretty):
Apparently, this is a British dessert that Edd grew up with, filled with dried fruit and an abundance of brown sugar. Me, I went for the famous St. John doughnut filled with vanilla cream (caramel was also an option). It didn’t disappoint.
Afterwards, we had a drink from Little Bird, which apparently makes its own gin. Here’s my aperol spritz:
The Maltby Spring Market was such a charming way to begin my trip to London; it felt like an in-the-know sort of place, a bit like Shmorgusberg in Brooklyn. Thanks, Edd, for taking me there.
After that, it was back to the flat for a quick nap (I was pooped from the early morning flight) and then, it being Sunday, I spent some serious time figuring out where to have dinner. Many of the places I wanted to try were closed; the ones that were open (like Nopi) closed insanely early (like 4 PM). At some point, I found a comment of yours suggesting Tayyabs and I typed that into Google and came upon Jay Rayner’s review which was glowing. I made that my destination.
Good thing I did because, without question, this was the most sunning meal of my whole trip so far. It’s located in East London, in a neighborhood that’s way more diverse than any other neighborhood I visited over my three days; as a Zadie Smith fan, it felt like I’d stepped right into one of her novels. I loved that.
The place itself was bustling (apparently Sunday night is a popular night there); every table was full, and there were two floors to the place. Luckily, the host found a place for me in a corner, squeezed up against another man eating alone. I studied the menu, but I didn’t need to. Based on Jay Rayner’s review, I knew I had to get the lamb chops and the dry beef curry.
When the lamb chops arrived, they came with such a loud sizzle and smell, I had that same feeling I get at a Broadway show when the orchestra strikes up the overture.
Some food stays with you forever and this is one of those dishes. These are the best lamb chops I’ve ever eaten; they were so brilliantly spiced, I hope the flavor never leaves my memory so I can attempt to recreate them at home. The key was the boldness: lots of chile, ginger, cumin, cardamom, all of it, I’m sure. There may have been a yogurt marinade, but that’s just a theory of mine.
The garlic naan that I ordered was so beautifully made, it rivaled a pizza from Franny’s.
The mango lassi was a necessary way to temper the heat of those chops:
And also the heat of the dry beef curry, which came soon to the table:
If those chops were the best ever, this curry was the best ever too. So profoundly flavored; not just spicy, but deep. There’s wisdom there in that bowl. I’ve made something similar (see the Asha Gomez chapter of my cookbook) but these flavors were even more assertive; more of everything that’s in that recipe, I imagine, which is what I’m going to try to do when I get back home.
Look at all this food, just for me:
It’s a testament to how good it all was that I couldn’t stop eating any of it, especially that curry. I kept going back for more and more until I made myself stop. I’m so glad all of the other restaurants I wanted to try were closed Sunday night; Tayabbs was definitely a highlight of my trip.
The next morning, I woke up and tubed it to Shoreditch, a new up-and-coming neighborhood that has hip stores and coffee shops.
One of those stores, Albion, had a lovely vegetable display right out front.
(I’d later go in and buy some jam; bramble and apple because I don’t know what brambles are. Please don’t spoil the surprise.)
I started in Shoreditch because my brilliant travel-writing friend, David Prior, suggested coffee at AllPress. It was an excellent suggestion.
Going here felt like a secret passage into a real, vibrant, gathering of locals. Not a tourist in sight (as far as I could tell).
I sat among the Londoners, and drank a cappuccino dusted with cocoa (a thing in Europe) and ate a shortbread cookie; while reading “My Berlin Kitchen.”
After sitting there a while, I began the journey (by foot) to one of those culinary institutions mentioned at the top of this post, a restaurant so influential that Anthony Bourdain–one of the most well-traveled people in the history of the world–says he wants his last meal to include one of its dishes. That place is St. John.
I’ve long had Fergus Henderson’s Nose-To-Tail cookbook (it was a gift from Pim) and as much as I admired the style and voice behind it, I couldn’t bring myself to make any of the food. Pig ears? Trotters? Knuckles? You get the idea. This was the kind of stuff you have to eat at the restaurant itself to know what it’s supposed to taste like before you give it a go in your own kitchen (if you can even find those parts at the butcher).
Walking into St. John is like walking into a dream restaurant. It’s a bewitching space; all white, almost clinical, but with sunlight coming through and enough elegant touches (white tablecloths, wooden chairs) to make it feel very welcoming.
My waitress couldn’t have been more delightful. She wore plastic green glasses, came from Ireland, and steered me thoughtfully through the menu. The first course wasn’t really a debate. I knew I had to get that dish that Anthony Bourdain rhapsodizes over in both his books and on his show; that dish being bone marrow with grilled bread and parsley salad.
Before it came out, I was presented this instrument for scooping out the marrow:
And then there it was, a dish as iconic as Adria’s spherical olive and Keller’s salmon cornet.
At first, I’ll confess, I was slightly underwhelemd just looking at it. I’d had bone marrow before (most notably at Blue Ribbon in New York). This didn’t look very different.
Then I scooped some on to the grilled bread, sprinkled on the gray salt, and topped it with the parsley salad.
Oh, reader, if only you could reach through the screen and grab a bite for yourself. It was meaty, rich, decadent; and cut, refreshingly so, by the parsley and slivers of shallot. It’s a dish that lives up to the hype.
Along with it, I ordered a bowl of English peas that the waitress ever-so-subtly steered me away from. I understood why; it’s just a bowl of pea pods that you peel yourself. Who’d want to do that?
But I liked the idea of it and wanted to give it a go:
Some might call this a gimmick, but I really appreciated it. It’s actually very provocative, in a way. Why would you pay good money to perform a kitchen task that any other chef would dispatch to an intern? Because, the peeling of the peas and eating them out of their pods is one of the great joys of late spring, early summer.
Some of the peas were sweeter than others, but when they were good, they were really good.
Now for my entree. I went for the ox heart because I saw Bourdain eat that on his show, once, when he visited St. John and the waitress enthusiastically endorsed the idea when I mentioned it. Here it is with with expertly fried chips and house made ketchup.
I’ll confess, I found this a little disappointing. The ox heart was sliced thin and quickly grilled; sort of like Korean BBQ, but without any sort of marinade. I understood what the idea was behind the dish–to highlight the natural qualities of the heart, to showcase it as an alternative to other cuts of meat–but this didn’t make such a great case for it. It wasn’t gamey at all, but it was leathery, sort of unpleasant to chew through. I was very grateful for the ketchup, which was zingy and spicy and bright; and those fries were undeniably good, but you knew that already.
Everything was redeemed with dessert; my first Eton Mess, which is basically whipped cream with meringue and berries folded in. I’m definitely making this when I get back to L.A.
There was a mistake on the check, a mistake that may have been a hate crime:
Don’t worry, though, “faggots” (as the waitress explained to me) are pork meatballs wrapped in caul fat. LIKELY STORY.
The rest of that day involved lots of walking and sight-seeing; towards St. Paul’s, at first.
Mary Poppins would’ve been offended by this sign.
Then on a bridge (over the Thames) past the Globe Theater…
To the Tate Modern where I saw an excellent exhibit of Matisse’s cut-outs.
Towards the end of his life, wheelchair-ridden, Matisse could no longer paint; so he’d have his assistants paint pieces of paper various colors, then use scissors to cut those papers into fascinating shapes which were then assembled, painstakingly, on to walls and canvases. The show features video of Matisse cutting, samples of his stained glass (which went into a church in France), books he created, canvases, and–most moving of all–the walls of his bedroom which he decorated from his bed. It’s definitely an exhibit worth seeing.
From there, it was over to The National Theater:
Where I saw a play by an aspiring new playwright called “King Lear.”
The performances were great, but the play needs work.
I kid. The production is directed by Sam Mendes and stars the pre-eminent British actor Simon Russell Beale. It’s an undeniably epic production, with an enormous cast and powerfully acted scenes; some of which are disturbingly violent. It was a great thing to see in England, a country that takes pride in its Shakespeare.
The show lasted three hours and by the time I left, at 10:30, my stomach was growling (ox heart can only fill you up so much). So I hopped in a cab to SoHo hoping I could get into one of the many restaurants my friends and readers (that’s you) had recommended. I showed up first at Duck Soup (a David Prior suggestion) and was turned away because the kitchen was closed:
Though the host sent me here:
A place that wasn’t even open.
After being turned away from a polenta spot…
I turned to something simple, Maoz falafel, which exists in New York so feels less special but whatever. I was hungry.
This is good falafel (stuffed with as much stuff from the salad bar as you can manage):
The next morning, I journeyed to Notting Hill:
To visit the store of this cookbook guy, you may have heard of him:
I felt bad that I relegated Ottolenghi to breakfast; his places also offer lunch and dinner, but the way my day was shaping up, it was my best chance to eat his food before leaving London.
The interior is charming; check out the window display:
And some of the breakfast goodies:
I went for the savory danish with sweet potato, feta, parsley and pumpkin seeds.
This really blew me away, more than it had any right to. The filo dough was flaky and rich; the sweet potato nicely cooked and combined with the feta; but what really got me was what seemed like a garlicky parsley pesto dribbled over the top. That extra detail made this unforgettable.
I had to have more than one Ottolenghi dish, so I also bought the yogurt parfait which came with a layer of raspberry at the bottom and passion fruit in the middle, granola at the top:
This too (unsurprisingly) was excellent; the star of the show being the yogurt itself, which was tangy and intense in a way totally unlike the yogurt I’ve had in America.
Oh and the cappuccino was neatly presented:
From there, I continued my walk through Notting Hill:
To Books for Cooks, a store many people told me about:
It’s a great space–I could’ve spent hours there–but having recently purged much of my collection, it felt irresponsible to be perusing so intently. So I left.
Soon, it was time to make the journey to The River Cafe, a restaurant I’ve been dying to try ever since I bought their cookbooks in the early 2000s. My favorite college professor Rick and his partner Chuck would cook from these books at their dinner parties; and the recipes always seemed effortlessly simple. I had to experience it in person, despite the heavy cost (the place is expensive).
Getting there from the tube is a bit of a journey, but one that I enjoyed.
As the name suggests, it rests on the banks of the Thames.
Here it is from the river path:
And here it is from the inside:
It’s an absolutely stunning restaurant; everything so elegant and bold and perfect. I wanted to move in, I really did.
The menu is clearly written with love (though also a desire to take lots of your money):
23 pounds for spaghetti with bottarga? That’s like $40 for spaghetti. It’s almost criminal, but the place is legendary and I had to experience it, at least once.
The first bite was impressive, though. Grilled bread, olive oil, salt. That’s it–something you may have had before–but the restaurant hits it out of the park. Every component right on point. You want to sit up in your chair and cheer after eating it.
I started with the calamari which came, as you’d expect, simply grilled and presented with a bright chili sauce and arugula salad.
I had a bit of an internal monologue about the seeds still in the lemon. “At these prices?” I thought at first. But then I thought, “Maybe it’s by design. To be more rustic.”
The calamari, on first bite, was clean-tasting and fresh. It was a nice thing to eat. Worth the money, though? On second bite, I began to reconsider: the calamari itself was more robust than the calamari I’ve had in America. Thicker, somehow, and tasting more of itself. The preparation, in fact, was so expertly done it was almost hard to notice the thought that went into it. (Like the knife cuts that give this calamari its texture.) But that’s precisely the point: at The River Cafe, everything is stripped away to its bare essentials and every component is done to perfection. Almost like Matisse simplifying his forms with his cut-outs, the River Cafe simplifies its food to just what’s necessary to make it sing.
The entree, then, was a study on the same theme: airy, ethereal potato gnocchi with sausage, fennel leaves, and peas.
I ate this with a big smile on my face. Even though I’ve had dishes like it in the past, this was like the Platonic ideal of gnocchi. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the plate itself lifted up and floated right out the window.
For dessert, I ordered two scoops of gelato (strachiatella, roasted almond) and the waitress brought me three because she wanted me to try the caramel.
The caramel was wildly intense; burnt tasting (on purpose). I preferred the almond, most of all, because it had a real purity of flavor.
By the time I was done, two hours later, I felt like I’d gone to a spa of sorts. The airiness of the room, the simplicity of the food; I suppose you’re paying for more than just nourishment when you go to the River Cafe. And whatever that is that you pay for, I certainly left feeling full of it. Let’s check out the pink oven before we go:
Now you may find this hard to believe, but I left the River Cafe at 2:30 and I had a dinner reservation at Quo Vadis at 5:30. But after the fiasco the night before, I wanted to eat a good meal before the show I was seeing (“The Pajama Game”; an excellent production that suffers, ever so slightly, from British people trying to pull off American accents). So to Quo Vadis I went, for their pre-theater menu.
The room was very elegant, if a bit formal for my needs.
The menu itself, though, was delightful. I love how it’s designed.
I started with the very refreshing QV apperitivo with Campari, orange and Cava:
Then the pre-theater menu began with an Arbroath Smokie salad (that’s a smoked fish) with watercress and potato.
I really liked the combination of cooked and raw components in this salad; the raw, bracing watercress; the smooth, silky potatoes; the rich and fishy smokie. The capers tied it all together.
The entree–pork belly and borlotti beans in a spinach puree–failed in the presentation department:
I don’t know: something about the separation of the two components made it feel incomplete. And the pork belly looked like bacon on the plate.
But the flavors were good. The beans were swimming in that spinach puree which was weird. Let’s just say, the entree portion of the evening didn’t win me over.
The gooseberry trifle went a long way, however. Felt like a perfect end to my visit to London.
Now I’m in Paris in my hotel room getting ready to meet my friends Mark and Diana for dinner (yes, I made it here from the train where this post started). Hope you enjoyed my jolly holiday. Now I’m shedding my English accent for a French one. Au revoir, chaps!