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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.

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      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.