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a recent trip to London

My wife and I were in London from 14-21 December.

Food was a difficulty. I know about the usual snickering when English cuisine is mentioned, but Escoffier has words of praise for English roasts and game, and I think his attitude is properly scientific. I am also enthusiastic about Yorkshire pudding, trifle, scones, jams and jellies, cheeses, and other things, so I went to London hoping for more discoveries. I had intended to visit St. John's Restaurant (http://www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk/ ) for traditional English fare, but they were booked for all meals during the time we were there. The Notting Hill Brasserie (92 Kensington Park Rd), advertised as modernized English cuisine, was overpriced and pretensious - a few tiny pieces of venison and a squirt of liquified sweet potato cost £23 (abt $45) but there was nothing to be done once the plates were in front of us.

Hotel breakfast buffets were generally expensive, crowded, and disgusting, and the one Indian meal we took in was poor. We eventually found interesting Italian and Chinese/Japanese food at a small shopping center next to our hotel (built within the distinctive Brunswick Centre housing project; http://www.thebrunswickproject.co.uk/ ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunswic... ). The mushroom soup at the Italian place (part of the Carluccio's chain, http://www.carluccios.com/ ) was probably the best food we ate on the whole trip, although the laksa I had at the Chinese/Japanese place (Hare and Tortoise, http://www.hareandtortoise-restaurant... ) was also authentic and very tasty. Soups, then — it was a trip about exotic soups — I am still trying to digest what that means. Fish and chips at an Indian-run deli ("patisserie") with strong-smelling, unwashed male waiters opposite the Gloucester Road Underground Station (77A Gloucester Road) was a very unhappy experience, and brunch at an attractive little Russian-run café (Deux Amis Patisserie, Judd St. south of Euston) was strange because of the relative inattention to the food (they had no way of heating anything except water). Boureka at a Turkish-owned Italian restaurant (35 Woburn Place) was sodden and the lasagne was bland. Coffee, even "regular coffee", is generally espresso-based, as elsewhere in Europe, although I did find potable drip coffee here and there. The second half of the trip I stuck to chamomile tea, which placated my angry basur condition.

We had a traditional afternoon tea at Brown's Hotel, which was tasty: five kinds of finger sandwiches and a variety of sweets and clotted cream, with one's own choice of tea. We took a student of mine and his father, and followed that high-calorie meal with a multi-hour walk to and along and back from the Thames.

I visited one "cafe" ([khæf]), the English equivalent of the American diner; "café", by contrast, means the continental coffeehouse. A lot of the beer we had in pubs (both the darkened bar-like pub for young professionals and the brighter traditional kind where you can see and talk) was watery, and I think the tastiest beer we had was the strong Belgian brew Leffe — we were urged only to drink half-pints of it rather than full pints.

Of the many interesting crackers and deli foods in the supermarkets we sampled just a little because we had no real eating facilities in our hotel — I tasted white Stilton for the first time (in New York I have seen only the blue variety) — it tasted of residual whey, somewhat like Cheshire, one of my favorite cheeses, but was a little too salty for me. As in Berlin, Paris, and Barcelona, one really appreciates the culinary variety made possible by the absence of US food import restrictions, even without being able to partake.

Of other traditional English foods, I only tasted a commercial black pudding (in a cafe), which I found coarse and too salty. I saw jellied eel for sale in Harrods (in a sealed container) but decided not to buy it because I had no access to refrigeration. Two other Harrods items — bittermints and Victorian mints from Bendicks — were well worth the price. The unusual tisanes of Whittard of Chelsea were delicious (especially their nettle, fennel, and aloe vera tea; www.whittard.co.uk ).

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  1. Tealeaves, your post made me very sad. My SO and I spent a month in London this summer and were absolutely enchanted with the food and restaurant opportunities we found. We had many top grade prix fixe meals at great restaurants such as Petrus, Capitol, Zafferano, and Cinnamon Club, to name a few, for 30 pounds and under, not to mention excellent brunches and lunches at interesting venues like the National Gallery. We were thrilled to taste the cheeses and butters of the UK on excellent breads at merchants such as Neal's Yard. London is really a cornucopia, and I'm sorry you had such an unhappy experience.

    1. I am really sorry your expectations were not met. My DH and I had a wonderful week in October and lots of great dining. Maybe doing better homework before you go would prevent disappointment. London is full of great restaurants and food. You made some poor choices.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Candy

        I certainly did do research, right here on Chowhound. St. John's Restaurant, Notting Hill Brasserie, and Brown's were all chosen on the basis of Chowhound recommendations. In a trip of 7 days, I didn't think we could afford more than 3 very expensive meals. 1 of the choices was not available and 1 was excellent.

        As I say, two restaurants chosen without prior research turned out to be superb.

        1. re: tealeaves

          Actually if you had read most of the posts and really filtered through them you would have had a Time Out and a Harden's guide, they sell it on line, and they both have a Cheap Eats guide. On the strength of a reco. in the guest book in our flat we went to Dino's in Kensington Church St. I have never had a better Carbonera in my life. Simon suggested Cay Tre in Old St. most excellent Vietmanese, Chinese Experience in Shaftesbury Ave had wonderful Dim Sum, and all 3 were very inexensive. Howler's suggestions of Randa and Zaika which I had already bookmarked to go to anyway were all fabulous. Randa was so good we had 3 meals there. We go to London quite a lot and I always do in depth homework before I go. I go way back on CH, order my Harden's guides and work most of it out before hand. As I said the only bad meal we had was all of our own fault and it was pure tiredness. We also have never gone with any pre-conceived notions or expectations. We have had wonderful "Indian-Sub-Continental" food, Lebanese, British, Lundum's brunch is to die for (Danish) Cambio de Tercio (Spanish) or the little brother across the street which is a BYOB place and Odd Bins is just a few block up the street so wine is not a biggie. But I first determine where we will be staying and then start doing in depth explorations. After I have gotten to know what is where in 'my neighborhood" I start branching out. We have educated ourselves and were well educated before our first trip. Hey it is all an adventure. Some are good and some are bad but the better prepared and the more open you can be the better the experience will be. Can't wait to go to Vietnam and eat street food!

          1. re: Candy

            You wrote, "if you had read most of the posts and really filtered through them you would have had a Time Out and a Harden's guide". Yes, it was probably a mistake to make my notes on the basis of individual Chowhound postings, although I did read quite a few on this board; I will indeed try Time Out or Harden's next time. Actually, I have recently grown so tired of the inanities published in Zagat NYC that I have simply been shutting out guidebooks altogether when it comes to food.

            In this post, you're recommending Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Danish, Spanish, Lebanese... We did run into some very good "foreign" food in our short stay. But my hope was to find real, traditional English cooking - the kind you can't get anywhere else but England. I still firmly believe that the conventional ridicule of English cooking has some sort of non-culinary basis, and I'd be grateful to hear recommendations of native cooking for future visits.

            I wonder if it isn't true after all that, as many have said, the best of traditional English cooking is to be found only in the home. After years in China and foreign Chinatowns, I am convinced that a major part of the best Chinese cuisine (though far from all of it) is only to be found in private homes; there are enormous numbers of interesting local ingredients that you cannot count on finding in any restaurant. I have heard Indian friends say that it is true in India, as well.

            1. re: tealeaves

              For traditional British food, I recommend Canteen in Spitalfield's Market. It's been written about here and elsewhere, and on a recent visit we had a very good meal there.

      2. It is a shame. London has excellent, albeit expensive, food choices. Even the restaurants in museums tend to be good (the one at the Wallace Gallery for example). I agree though that the much hyped Indian food is a disappointment. I spent six months in London this year and the only good Indian food was at Porte des Indes and Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, both upscale. The average run of the mill tikka masala joint has pathetic food. It is surprising that you found the food to be uniformly bad because even the chains (Cafe Rouge, Cafe Uno) are tolerable and some, like Sofra, are actually very good. Thai food in pubs is usually quite nice and the several gastro pubs I ate at were uniformly good.

        English cakes and pastries are delightful though I couldn't help picturing my arteries with each bite of a jam laden tart or a flaky buttery scone! A good place for English Tea is at the Orangerie in Kensington Gardens. The best price/value option out there!

        1. I would think hotel buffets in most countries are not that good.

          1. Have to agree with the dissenting voices - the list of places mentioned in the original post (Browns aside) is hardly inspired or inspiring and there are countless better options throughout London.

            As a Londoner who has been living in New York for the last 18 months, I'm certainly enjoying the culinary horizons in the Big Apple (especially sushi bars/Japanese places) but I can say with confidence that London in recent times loses nothing by comparison and indeed surpasses NY in certain respects but that is a different debate altogether.

            With respect to the Bendicks purchases, I know that London prices are high (especially for people earning in US$s) but people do themselves no favours by buying items readily available in all the major supermarkets in Harrods food hall!!

            1. I am sorry that you had such a bad experience. We don't necessarily go to London for the food but I honestly can't think of a really bad experiece. We were disappointed at breakfast at Fifteen, Jamie Oliver's place. Thought it was overpriced and not as tasty as the breakfast we had at at a neighborhood place in Chiswick. We don't stay in hotels-we prefer apartments and enjoy cooking and eating the local foods. We have lunch out everyday though. We have our favorite places that we go back to each time but also try new ones too. And there are some excellent pubs for food and beer!

              1. hmmm...I am in London right now, and haven't had anything even as close to being as poor a choice as yours: even when we have chosen randomly without any CH consultation!

                I could use some advice though, on good and not to heavily priced places within walking distance of Russell Square for those times when hubby wants to stay close to 'home'. (Besides the weather is great for walking right now). Any Suggestions?

                will probably wait till I get home to do a report: too much to see, do, eat and drink, and too little time...

                1 Reply
                1. re: susancinsf

                  Try the two places mentioned in Brunswick Centre.

                2. Why, oh why would anyone trust entirely to luck in choosing their eating venues (assuming your enemies didn't recommend you to the places you ate)? Presumably, if you're posting in Chowhound, and therefore know what it's about, you'd have spent just a few minutes perusing this board; you'd have come up with tonnes of decent eating choices. Or there are such things as guides - most bookshops sell the Time Out guides, or better, Harden's guides. And what is it with tourists and Brown's for tea? Far cheaper, much nicer ambience, and better food in (nearly) any of the patisseries in Soho or, if you have to have scones, go to the Wolseley.

                  Russell Square thoughts... Malabar Junction for excellent Kerala cusine (Museum St); a short walk down Theobalds Road gets you to the Bleeding Heart (restaurant or bistro are both really excellent) in Bleeding Heart Yard - although they may be closed until January; Lamb's Conduit St has both the Lamb and Flag (one of the nicest un-mucked around with pubs in central London - it's a Fuller's house) and a pretty decent Spanish restaurant, whose name escapes me... At the end of Lamb's Conduit St, again if it's open at this time of year, you'll find the Fryer's Delight, an old school fish and chip shop on Theobald's Road. You might have to deal with a bunch of cabbies if you get your timing wrong - but that's generally a good sign :)

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: SpikeyD

                    There is nothing wrong with tourists going to Brown's for tea. I did it many years ago and long before I ever dreamt of living near London. It is an American's dream (especially now with the refurb) of what tea in London should be. Would you deny a tourist that experience? :-) If you go to Manhattan, you'll see many a tourist having an overgrown corned beef sandwich at a place like the Carnegie or Stage Deli. This is their dream of a thing to do in that city but many New Yorkers would shy away and know a better place to get one. Please.. some compassion for the tourists.

                    1. re: zuriga1

                      but theres the rub: there are decent corned beef sandwiches in ny that people actually eat.

                      tea as served at browns/ritz/langham etc is strictly a tourists affair. theres nothing 'real' to compare it to.

                    2. re: SpikeyD

                      Brown's is by far the mostly highly recommended afternoon place on this board. Do take a look for yourself. That's why I chose it. The two English people I went with talked about the meal for days afterwards. So, with respect, I don't think it's something only tourists can enjoy.

                      1. re: SpikeyD

                        I second Fryer's Delight(19 Theobald Rd.); I always eat there when I'm in London. The fish is fresh, the fries spectacular, and the portions are big; I can never finish a meal. If you go before or after the dinner hour you shouldn't run into a line.

                        1. re: SpikeyD

                          We did have an excellent meal at Malabar Junction, including the very good chick pea curry that Limster had recommended in an earlier post, and a nice idli (although as my BIL pointed out, it is hard to screw up idli, at least if one is in London and isn't in SF, where South Indian food is rather hard to come by....).

                          Thanks for the suggestions, is the Spanish restaurant you are thinking of Moro? I believe it is fairly close by (although I admit that the weather has turned pretty unconducive to much walking.... :-))

                          1. re: SpikeyD

                            Just a quick correction on the pubs you named. The pub on Lamb's Conduit is the Lamb, not the Lamb and Flag, which is in Covent Garden. The Lamb is indeed a great pub, but it's a Young's pub, not a Fullers.

                            The Spanish place is indeed good as well -- Cigala. We were there on the 29th for tapas after finding most of our usual haunts closed for Christmas week. The prawns were incredibly fresh and sweet.

                            1. re: Joan Kureczka

                              I stand corrected on the pubs - sorry about the confusion... As I was writing Fullers I had an uneasy feeling that it might have been a Youngs house. However, Youngs is much better beer, so that worked out OK :)

                              I forgot about Moro in the original post - it should be on your list next time you visit; still seriously good food, even though it's become way too exposed.

                              Off topic, but I've never felt the urge to eat Indian in SF when I've visited - too many other wonderful options, and I imagine it could be disappointing. But I quite fancied trying the Punjab Kebab House on Eddy St. - worth bothering?

                              1. re: SpikeyD

                                We'd debate you and say that Fullers is the better, although the Youngs ordinary bitter is exceptional. Sadly, did you know that Youngs is no longer a London brewery? The company merged recently with Charles Wells, and so the beer is no longer brewed by Youngs, which now only runs the pubs.

                          2. I have lived here for four years and could easily understand how tealeaves had the kind of food experience he posted. Most of the food is overpriced and you have to do an extensive amount of research both on Chowhound and other places in order to come up with restaurants which are good to great. Consequently most of us who live in London, entertain at home and enjoy picking up food at Borough Market and other food emporiums for at home dining.

                            Why you would have thought the Notting Hill Brasserie was worthwhile off of a Chowhound recommendation is anybody's guess. I live three blocks from the place and it and many of the recommendations on Chowhound by tourists for tourists are tourist rip offs, inconsistent and usually expensive.

                            The best source for restaurants in London is the Time Out guide but only the restaurants with the red star critics recommended places. Galvin Bros on Baker Street is the best value for money brasserie in London, hands down. Museum Cafes in the V&A or the National Gallery are usually decent value for lunch but unless your willing to pay the equivalent of $200 US per person; a thoroughly satisfying gourmet dinner is not available

                            Sorry your week wasn't great but London is one of those places which two or three recommendations for each place are necessary in order to consider going to a place. Better luck next time.

                            The Time Out Guide Site is http://www.timeout.com/london/restaur...

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: An American Living in London

                              Please note: kristainlondon's post recommending London food blogs has been moved here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/355718

                              1. re: An American Living in London

                                Actually, our week in London was a great pleasure over all, and Carluccio's made happy occasions of all our late breakfasts (sometimes ordering from the regular menu). I was indeed stunned at the prices of everything in London, though.