I'm very grateful to the UK 'hounds for all the advice I got about my two days in London. Now, the report card!
L'ATELIER DE JOEL ROBUCHON. Had no reservation, so tried to arrive right at noon, when they opened; thanks to unfamiliarity with London, showed up at 12:15, apologetically asked if there might still be space available. I got a strange look from the maitre d', explained moments later when she led me into the dining room, which was empty except for me. So reports of the crowdedness of L'Atelier are much exaggerated -- it was never more than half-full while I was there (though this was right after Christmas, so perhaps people were away?)
The food: I ordered the three-course lunch menu for 25 pounds, which would be a bargain if the dollar was what it usually is. I was by myself, so sat at the bar -- you get a nice view of the kitchen at work, and since it wasn't busy, the staff was happy to chat.
The deep-fried hen's egg is terrific -- the deep-frying gives the white an interesting yolky texture, and the fine dice of apricot, roasted pine nut, and caper the egg sits on is excellent. You do have to make the effort to get some of everything on your fork for the dish to work at its best -- maybe I was supposed to mix it up?
The langoustine fritter wasn't part of the set menu, but I had loved it so much at L'Astor that I ordered it a la carte. This was great, but not what I remembered; at L'Astor the basil leaf inside the batter was a kind of shockingly vegetal contrast to the meat of the crayfish. In this version, I didn't think the basil leaf was even in there. No, it was there, the waiter said, and I could see from seeing other plates go by the leaf was indeed visible inside the batter. So it just wasn't asserting itself enough.
Highlight of the menu: a canelloni stuffed with boar, deer, and hare, and swimming in a rich mushroom sauce. Sounds like a standard dish, but the meat was cut with some kind of chilly herb (a little cilantro?) that made it exciting as well as delicious. The best thing served to me in the whole meal was the warm, fresh raisins that came alongside the canneloni, each with a quarter of a cilantro leaf on it -- an unexpected and completely winning combination.
I told the waiter I was sorry not to see the mashed potatoes on the menu, since I'd really loved these at L'Astor as well -- and they were nice enough to bring me a little ramekin of them, which they didn't charge me for. Delicious as usual.
Finished off with the cheese course, since it was a rare chance to eat illegal-in-the-US unpasteurized Camembert. I felt like a criminal. A criminal full of cheese. In case you don't know, this is a good way to feel.
NOURA: I was seeing a play, and needed to eat something quickly.
Noura, a Lebanese place a block from Picadilly Circus, took care of me
I had the plate of 8 mezze, which was first-rate. Some
standouts: fatayer,a pastry filled with spinach in a slightly tart
dressing. Baba ghanoush, usually something I don't care for, tastes
great to me here for some reason; it comes topped with pomegranate
seeds. A simple and delicious cold okra in tomato sauce. Kibbe in a
pastry shell, a bit saucy inside, with pine nuts: the star of the
show. Falafel, hummus, and taboulleh are more ordinary but perfectly
satisfying. An expensive light meal at 13.50 pounds, but I'd already acknowledged to
myself that everything in London was going to be expensive.
Meals here come with a big dish of olives and pickles, including
deliciously pungent slices of pickled turnip, pink and crisp.
Their website says they have locations in Belgravia, Knightsbridge,
and Mayfair as well; they also apparently have live music Thursday
through Saturday nights, which could be a plus or minus, depending on
BOMBAY BRASSERIE: My wife ate at this South Kensington stalwart 15
years ago, and still remembers it with something like awe; so I
combined a trip out to the V&A with lunch at their famous buffet.
Once again, I was worried about getting a seat, once again I got lost
and showed up later than I expected, once again the place was almost
empty. I really enjoyed Bombay Brasserie -- but, expecting something
different and much better from a good Indian restaurant in the U.S., I
was a little disappointed. They warned me that the achari murgh would
be very spicy, but it was actually extremely mild and subtle. The
lamb dhansak was a bit tough and the flavors were muddy. The real
standout on the buffet was the shrimp balchao, small shrimp in a rich,
complicated tomato sauce. I'd go back just for that dish. A cold
chickpea salad with a citrusy (I think) dressing and a mushroom dish
whose name I didn't catch were also very good. Again, this was
certainly a good restaurant; but I'd expected more.
RICE BOAT (Cambridge) It doesn't seem fair _only_ to write about
place that Chowhound already knows about, so let me sell Rice Boat, a
friendly Keralan place in Cambridge. I don't know anything about the
food of Kerala, so I don't have much to compare Rice Boat to; but I'd
certainly go here again if I were in Cambridge. I had the Aleppy fish
curry. The fish was cooked much firmer than I expected, to an almost
meaty texture; but in the creamy, mango-flavored sauce, it all worked.
Green beans mezhukkuperaty, fried with mustard seeds, were standard
but very tasty. Judging from the facial expressions of my brave
dinner companions, the dishes described by the menu as very spicy live
up to their billing.
MASTERS SUPERFISH: On my last night in London, I stopped here on the
way to the Tate Modern. This place, by contrast with some others, was
completely full -- a tourbus full of senior citizens had pulled up
just before my arrival. So I got the Masters Special -- a half-pound
piece of cod, with chips -- to take out, and ate it as I walked up unscenic
Blackfriars Bridge Road. As advertised, this is some excellent,
moist, delicious fish. But let me warn you that the Masters Special
was more than I could eat; and I can eat a lot. The fried prawns
looked very appealing; if I had to do it again, I'd get the smaller
order of fish and throw in prawns on the side.
It was a great trip, and thanks to Chowhound I ate a lot of great food
in a very short amount of time! Hopefully next time I'm there, I'll
make it to Quilon, Moti Mahal, St. John, Snazz Sichuan, and all the
other places that you guys made sound so enticing.....