Restaurants & Bars 5

London food is tickety boo (long)

Julie | Apr 7, 200309:44 AM

My husband and I and another couple have just returned from a 6 day trip to London. Although we have traveled extensively in Europe this is the first time we’ve ever been to London and we enjoyed it thoroughly—especially the food, that stuff we had always thought to be so bad that we’d held back on visiting because of it. We now find that we are likely to return often also now because of it.

A surprise meeting
Some of you who may recall reading my report of my husband’s 60th birthday café crawl in Paris last October when we drank a toast to him in each of the 20 arrondissements. If so, you may also recall that I had planned the birthday to include a surprise meet up with our son to help celebrate. That meet up was thwarted by our son’s inability to make the Eurostar trip from London to Paris due to the chunnel cables being salted over. Well we tried it again, this time in reverse, and this time it worked. Our son was in Paris on business but making a stop in London before returning home to the States. He arrived in London almost at the same time we did and was waiting for us at Bibendum restaurant when we walked in—about 5 months late for the birthday surprise, but a surprise to my husband nonetheless.

Food is my favorite aspect of European travel. And it’s because England has always had such a bad rep in the food department that we’d put off travel to London for 30 years. Well, let me be the first to admit it—we were wrong! Food was one of the most enjoyable aspects of our trip. We had 12 meals in our 6 days there and fully 10 of them were ones we’d repeat and recommend to others. Here’s where we ate and drank:

This is I believe the first restaurant of Sir Terrance Conran, the design and style guru of London who now has probably 10 or so more restaurants to his credit in London. I believe it’s also generally credited with starting the revolution in London food and it was everything I’d expected. It’s in the Michelin building (Bibendum is the name of that funny little white lumpy marshmallow tire guy who is their mascot/logo) on the second floor. The first floor is an oyster bar and adjoins a Conran shop, a kind of upscale Pottery Barn décor store. The oyster bar has tiles depicting various motor races in Michelin history in Art Deco style. The upstairs is open, airy and very light with stained glass windows in various shades of blue featuring the portly Bibendum figure. Also lots of tall and wide stargazer lily bouquets and blue slipcovered chairs. I had mackerel with ratatouille and pesto for an appetizer, fishy but tasty, then fish and chips and a tarte au citron for dessert. All very well done.

This was probably my favorite restaurant, at least for its perfect, romantic décor. It is a Danish restaurant not far from our hotel in South Kensington, small (around 40 covers), narrow but with perfect, elegant, candlelit décor. Every flower in the place—and there were lots of them—was white-- lilies, roses, orchids. The wall facing the windows was comprised of table top to ceiling enormous gilt framed mirrors that picked up and dispersed the candlelight. Our only problem was entry. Our reservations, made a month or so in advance, had been canceled in error, either by someone else, or by an error of the staff in taking someone else’s cancellation. One of the gentlemen in our party was firm in requiring the proprietor to make good on the problem and after agreeing to return a half hour later, we were seated. Glad we were. The food was interesting and good. An appetizer of salmon layered with potato salad and pork filet with potatoes caramelized in sugar. Others had Danish meatballs which were very, very good. When we return to London, I will surely want to eat again at this restaurant but I will have a hard time deciding when. Evenings are surely superior for the candlelit ambiance but the evening menu is a more traditional service. Lunches appear to really show off the Danish type of food preparation with a variety of herrings and other typical Danish foods on the menu. They also offer a Sunday brunch with a smorgasbord approach which might be perfect in the food department, but then again, it’s hard to give up the idea of spending another perfect, romantic candlelit night in their lovely space.

Red Lion Pub
We had Shepard’s pie, fish and chips and Chicken and leek pie. All were tasty and certainly acceptable but since this was our only pub meal we weren’t in position to compare its standards to others.

Club Gascon
Located not far from Smithfield market, this place was mentioned in several fairly recent magazine articles I’d read on new, trendy places to eat in London. It was my friend’s favorite meal of the trip and all in our party were suitably impressed. The room, like Lundum’s, is also small and fairly narrow with gigantic floral arrangements featuring branches of flowering spring bushes/trees. All food is in small portions served on/in non-traditional pieces like slate slabs rather than plates or bowls for the most part. The staff encourages you to order 4 courses. We were first served house starters of cucumber foam then tiny thimbles of basil and grapefruit sorbet, the latter was eye-openingly refreshing. I followed with duck pie then fois gras slices on seaweed crisps, then smoked bay scallops in seafood foam with peas served in a long, narrow olive holder type dish. I finished with cassoulet which featured excellent duck, good sausage and somewhat mediocre beans. Though we didn’t order dessert, we were brought peppery lollipops and sambuco marshmallows with our espresso. A very interesting dinner.

Just St. James
…or perhaps, St. James the Just, couldn’t really tell from the signs on the windows. This place is a very trendy looking two story hall with a sculpture of a fish riding a bicycle but an otherwise mostly Asian look. We only had a drink but the Asian menu looked excellent and I could imagine the space filled on a weekend night with the trendiest young things in London sipping cosmopolitans.

This wasn’t on my list and we had no reservations. We’d tried to get into Quaglino’s, another trendy Conran place in the St. James area, but had been turned away and stumbled on this. It turned out to be one person’s favorite place, so veddy, veddy British. Though we had no reservations we were greeted warmly and whisked into a lovely semi-private booth in a place that seemed totally proper, and it was. A gentleman attired in a white coat and stooped over his trolley presented the roast beef for inspection and told us it would be served with the standard Yorkshire “puds”—too cute! I started with kipper pate then chicken, leek and mushroom pie and the world’s creamiest mashed potatoes. Finished with raspberry crème brulee. My friend had welsh rarebit, something we’ve determined must be an acquired taste. The cheddar atop the toast was not yellow as we’d expected but brown, apparently from the brown mustard with which the cheese was paired. The worschteshire (sp?) sauce served with it helped, but not that much.

The best part of this meal (besides the creamy carrot soup that one member of the tasting team will remember forever) was the service. At one point we must have had six people hovered over the table each spooning something else onto one plate or another and no one bumping into us or each other—absolutely amazing, and flawless and unpretentious. The bathrooms at this place were also the best of the trip. Perfectly color coordinated little gardens of green wallpaper and white towels and wonderful smelling soaps. If you want a really traditional English meal, perfectly served in a most pleasant environment, this is the place to find it.

This is a Michelin one star Italian restaurant not far from Harvey Nichols department store near a nice residential square. Pleasant if unremarkable décor and worthy service. Tasty food and excellent wines—we had a Verdicchio and a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino. For food I had octopus and warm potato salad (I love anything with potatoes, especially if in oil and vinegar), ravioli stuffed with guinea fowl and finally Chilean sea bass with artichokes. Good.

Royal China
My husband would rather have Chinese than any other food so each trip we must hit at least one Chinese restaurant wherever we are. We all like dim sum so this place was chosen in advance. It has dim sum daily. There are 4 Royal China restaurants in London. This one was the first. It’s near the Green Park tube stop. The décor is not the typical red and gold but rather black and gold with flying ducks and fluffy waves painted on mirrors. Glitzy but fun. Among other dishes we had Cheung chow fun needles and chicken feet with garlic pork ribs over rice. Not bad. Good even.

This is listed as the oldest London restaurant and it, too, is very British. Tables are set close together and walls are covered with caricatures and prints of the famous who have dined there or perhaps just a who’s who of famous Brits. In the spirit of the place, I had a proper British dinner, starting with black pudding (aka bloodsausage) salad with poached eggs and potatoes then lamb chops with potatoes dauphinois. Both I and another in our party did the sticky toffee pudding for dessert—amazing! A sticky cake apparently made of dates in a muffin shape covered with butterscotch sauce then doused in vanilla cream with a bit of ice cream/whipped cream on the side—a gooey blob from heaven.

St. John
I’d read about this place in several places, including something by Anthony Bourdain, and in postings on this site. I was super excited to actually get there and it didn’t disappoint me in the least. It’s close to the Smithfield meat market in a building that was formerly a smokehouse. Fergus Henderson, the chef/owner, is a proponent of what he calls “Nose to tail eating” using all (and I do mean all) edible parts of the pig, cow, whatever. You enter through a bakery housed in a two story atrium with the most wonderful smells imaginable, then walk up a few steps to an all white room with tables set in rows under plain hanging black lights—all very stark, but interesting. The menu changes daily. Squirrel was on it on our day as was ox tongue, both of which I’d like to have tried, but whole leg of kid goat was also available and since goat is my favorite meat and my husband was willing to have it with me, it being served only for two or three, goat it was. But I started with their signature dish of bone marrow with parsley and caper salad. The marrow was as wonderful as I’d been led to believe from the accounts of others I’ve read on here and on other foodie sites. The only other place I’ve had marrow bones is Chez Clovis in the Les Halles area of Paris. They serve the bones cut open lengthwise and the marrow seemed much more fatty and of a single, yellowish color. Henderson’s marrow bones were served whole and upright but only about 4 inches in length compared to 12 or so for Chez Clovis. The actual marrow at St. John was more “meaty” and of a variegated color. The Chez Clovis presentation is more overwhelming but the St. John taste and texture is superior IMO.

Our friends had cauliflower drenched in white sauce with cheese and a veal shank with fabulous carrots. The leg of kid my husband and I shared had crispy skin which we both liked a lot and was done fairly rare, which I liked but which he’d have preferred be a bit less pink. It was served with mushy fennel. Fennel is one of my favorite vegetables but I’ve never had it mushy like this and it is now my favorite preparation—if only I can figure out how to duplicate it. No room for dessert. If I had, I’d have just kept on eating the goat. Henderson’s style of cooking and selection of what to cook is unique perhaps in the world. If you like organ meats or just quirky offerings this place is unbeatable, surely the most interesting food in London, or perhaps almost anywhere.

This is a Michelin one star in the theatre district with, as you might imagine from the name, a French flair. We were seated at 6 p.m. and done by 7:15 in time to go next door to collect our tickets and be seated for a 7:30 p.m. show. Even so, we didn’t feel hurried and the overall mood was relaxing. The décor is light yellow, peach and moss green in very muted tones. I selected the pre-theatre menu of two courses for less than 20 pounds. Starting with a refreshing tuna tartar with dill and then a gnocchi with tomato and arugula, my food was good but another person who started with the supposedly signature escargot found his snails not up to snuff. So overall our experience here was uneven.

Four Regions
This time my husband got not one but two Chinese restaurants on the trip. This one was a lucky break for him as he spotted it just as we were getting hungry upon debarking from the London Eye so he got no resistance when he suggested we dine there. It’s in the Saatchi gallery where we’d seen a Salvador Dali exhibit on a previous day. It occupies a semicircular space facing the Thames with nice views back to Parliament and has an upscale décor for a Chinese restaurant. My husband preferred the food here to that we had at Royal China but the rest of us thought the reverse based primarily on a poor wonton soup offering we had that he didn’t. The best I can say is if you have a Chinese food freak in your party this isn’t a bad place to permit him to indulge his habits.

Real Greek
Unfortunately our last big meal of the trip was a real disappointment. I’d read good things about this place in magazines and Time Out guide named it best new restaurant in London in 2000. Selecting it in the first place was a mistake. It was probably as far from our hotel as you can get and still be in London proper. It’s in the Clerkenwell area and it took forever and nearly 30 pounds of cab fare for us to get there. To top that off the cabbie, purported to be unfoolable when it comes to addresses in London, couldn’t find the place even though I had the correct address. Apparently the name Real Greek means that it has none/little of the kind of food we traditionally consider Greek like gyros or tabbouleh or even roditis wine so ordering became a challenge. But worst of all we seemed to wait forever for our entrée only to have the veal stifado three of us ordered come out quickly when we complained to the waiter followed a fairly long interval later by my husband’s duck which was plainly underdone to the point of being near raw. The owner took the duck dish back and offered something else but by then my husband was so steamed that we just asked for our check and a cab to get us back to the hotel. A dreadfully disappointing experience from a restaurant from which I’d been so expecting good things. To be fair I’d have to say that the stifado was very good. Unfortunately the overall dining experience was not.

Caviar House
I guess that this was really our last meal in London. We ate it at the counter seated on stools at Gatwick airport and it was really good, the second best airport food we’ve had next to the wonderful seafood available at the Oslo airport. My husband had a smoked salmon plate and I had the seafood sampler—an oyster, herring, large and baby shrimps and two types of salmon with a mayo and a mustard/dill sauce, all washed down with a bottle of champagne, a great way to fortify ourselves for the flight home.

One last food related incident
While at Harrod’s I found a large (somewhere around 3+ pounds) tin of ox tongue. I have a friend who has been instrumental in introducing me to various eccentric foods who had only recently commented on the lack of availability of good tongue so I became very excited and bought it for her even though I knew I’d regret having to carry such a heavy souvenir home. On exiting Gatwick I was quizzed about the bomb-like object in my carry on but had no further problems when I identified it as tongue from Harrod’s food hall. I expected a similar round of queries in Detroit but to my shock and amazement instead had my tin of tongue confiscated and was threatened with a $250 fine and a demerit on my passport as a known tongue transporter or other such infamous type of traveler. I was truly taken aback being firmly of the opinion that anything canned was acceptable and did not even need to be declared. I guess I also expect that a place like Harrod’s would not be in the habit of selling contaminated meat products to its customers. My tin of ox tongue has by now been incinerated at some phenomenal temperature and I shall be giving my friend an empty plastic bag with the Harrod’s logo upon it telling her it’s the thought that counts. C’est la Vie!

My son who has traveled to London several times told us that London is not like the rest of Europe, it’s just London, a unique kind of place—and so we found it. Some of the architecture reminded me of that we’ve seen in Amsterdam and a lot of the neighborhoods seemed like Georgetown in DC. In six days we saw fewer than 5 dogs and no doggy doo doo on the sidewalks—very different from Paris. We only saw two or three musicians in the underground and only one or two people begging. We were enchanted by the British sayings, in particular one found in a newspaper article on some sporting figure who was pronounced tickety boo. Ray Skinner, the driver of the van we’d commissioned to carry us to and from Gatwick airport, informed us that that translates roughly to something like A-ok. And that was how we found London overall and its food—tickety boo.

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