Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Culinary London – travel the world in 4 days

January 2010

Culinary London – for those that say there is no good food in England. 

In January, I spent 4 days in UK visiting a friend and seeing the daughter. Incidentally also seeing Matthew Bourne’s  Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, about which I am  still speechless. I know!... (Lovely Sadler’s Wells – home of some fantastic dance performances, and where my family used to go every year to see Gilbert & Sullivan operetta – often rushing up the stairs at the very last minute. The décor and comfort have changed and we have seen some fantastic dance performances of many varieties here  -
We ate:
1. England: pub food – a so-so lamb shank with rather damp roasted veg – but hugely copious and I was only there for the beer anyway. My favourite London beer is London Pride from Fuller’s ( – an eminently quaffable English bitter. The first half pint goes down before you even notice.
2. Italy: coffee and pastries – a hazelnut croissant – utterly delicious, the perfect croissant and the filling was more of a light spread – just hazelnuts. The “coffee” made with espresso, chocolate and whipped cream – to die for. The daughter ate a hazelnut tart which had no observable pastry but was delicious and drank a Monte Bianco coffee – espresso with crème de marrons and candied chestnuts – oh boy! Oh and whipped cream of course. This at Ca’puccino (have to forgive the naff name because of the excellent quality).
3. India: What my hostess refers to as Indian chuckaway – too good to be true – really excellent lamb something or other, chicken with almonds – all fragrant and tender, sag aloo with what looked and tasted like real spinach, the indispensible but usually disappointing popadum (the anticipation is always better…) and a lentil thingy which was also truly excellent. What a great luxury to have such wonderful takeaway food just around the corner. I know that my region of France has the best food but we are light on takeaways of any kind – 40 minutes round trip to get a pizza, Lebanese food or a Thai takeaway plus waiting time. Why would you bother when duck confit is so easy and relatively cheap. So I enjoy the Indian takeaway with movie scenario, enormously. Can’t remember the movie of course, but the food was great.
4. Morocco: On Sunday morning, somewhere near the Portobello Road, feeling tired and in need of sustenance, we went into a Moroccan restaurant to have a coffee and ended up drinking mint tea and eating lovely Moroccan pastries – all on the theme of almonds.  We were then seduced by the aroma of grilled lamb from the next table – there has been a lamb theme, I feel. Lamb kebab with a serviceable salad and chips of course – the lamb, succulent, rosy and perfectly cooked – large pieces of tender, spicy meat with a home-made harissa. Delight! And lovely people – also a very clean loo – not to be despised.
5. Thailand: Before the ballet: surprisingly aromatic Thai soups in a tiny restaurant near Sadler’s Wells after our timing got out of hand and we had to eat NOW! The fried food was not as good but the Tom Ka Ghai and Pad Thai bordered on excellent. The soup, delicately fragrant with the right balance of coconut milk and spices – plenty of kaffir lime. Later, in the interval (having cunningly ordered ahead), the daughter and I drank  champagne which was then an essential medicament because we were so shocked and delighted by the ballet. And afterwards being still shocked and almost speechless, we had to go trot round the corner and have a beer – Timothy Taylor’s Landlord ( The daughter’s favourite. We eventually recovered the power of speech and critical thought, though not much criticism was going on – but it took a while.
6. Malaya: Monday – Malaysian food in a local mall – I say a mall but this is West London’s mega mall opened just in time for the financial crisis and doing very well apparently. In order to get to the supermarket, you have to walk through the entire mall, unless you come by car – very good planning but exhausting – all those lights and sounds and smells. I became quickly allergic to listening to music someone else had chosen. It’s not like that in Petit Bersac! We were astounded to hear teenage screaming – apparently some 15 year-old teen idol that nobody else had ever heard of was appearing at HMV records – very odd. That painful, hysterical, super-soprano sound like parachute silk tearing. Anyway, we had spotted this restaurant during the Italian coffee and cake episode and since both of us used to live in Indonesia and she had just returned from Singapore we decided to investigate. It was excellent – we had fried chicken pieces and potato cakes – unexceptional with a sambal that resembled the real thing, very good pepper-coated fried squid, rendang – oooh yummy, the beef tender and not quite dry but spicy and delicious, and prawns in coconut of a deliciousness and complexity that made me want more with nasi lemak (rice cooked with coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves), gado gado – a lightly steamed vegetable salad perfectly spiced with a peanut sauce. We scorned the Hungarian waitress’ offer of sate – we know about sate thank you and if it isn’t being made on a tiny charcoal brazier fanned by a small man squatting in the road and wielding a pandan, fan we food snobs aren’t interested. But we would go back to Jom Makan ( one of two restaurants in London started two years ago. The produce used was of very good quality.
7. Italy again: Tuesday – we finally made it to my favourite Italian restaurant in London – the Spaghetti House in Goodge Street – the original Spaghetti House which smells of Italian cooking and where the waiters are Italian and sometimes sexy. Where we had our 18 birthday meals before or after going to the theatre and where KK had to cut me out of my Sarsparillas with an enormous chef’s knife to the enormous appreciation and amusement of the kitchen staff. Apparently they had no scissors… My hostess had never been there. We drank Prosecco, and I tried the chick peas and spicy sausage – not bad and the cannelloni were delicious, except that I prefer the meaty version they used to serve and which lives in my memory as a rival to the perfect cannelloni once eaten in San Francisco with the daughter and KK’s parents. Ah well – such is life! My hostess had a grilled vegetable starter and an innovative roasted squash, grilled chicken and melted goats’ cheese assemblage that was really good. The food at the Spaghetti House makes the daughter cry – I think it’s the roundness of the flavours and the appropriateness of the textures. It was a veal dish that did for her the first time. A word of warning – this was the first Spaghetti House – the others are faint simulacra  (only my opinion). The other authentic one was the one of the infamous Spaghetti House siege in Knightsbridge in 1975. Earlier in the day, we had a mid-shopping restorative beer and plate of chips in a lovely pub just off Oxford Street – all Victorian mahogany, dark red, embossed ceilings and etched glass snuggeries. Pint of London Pride, please. Cath thinks she should learn to like beer but she didn’t like that.
8. Somewhere in Asia: On Wednesday, just before I left on the Eurostar (what a civilised way to travel), we ate a cheap lunch at St Pancras (or Pancreas as I like to call it – it’ll be interesting to see what they’ve done to the hotel when it’s finally done) – large pot of coconut and salmon soup (actually enormous) in which there were glass noodles and freshly, thin sliced raw savoy cabbage and carrots, a slice of artisan bread (walnut with oat and rye with walnut) and a fruit for under £5.00. I forgot to get myself a sandwich at Pâtisserie Paul just outside the Eurostar terminal, so on arrival at Lille had to go to the Irish pub in the station and eat rare steak and chips (I think the chips are a theme too!) with salad and a Grimbergen beer – bit heavy and sweet for my taste. The food was fine but I object to then having to pay to go the loo. Lille station is an architectural aberration – ugly, uncomfortable and cold. Even the Irish pub (Irish pub in France???!!) is badly designed.

Home and nothing in the fridge.

So  much excellent food at reasonable prices!