London trip report, April 2011
Dear London CHers, please don't hate me for this trip report.
My sweetheart and I wound up taking a decidedly middle-brow approach to eating in London. Mostly everyday kinds of places. We wound up skipping Viajante because, frankly, I just don't like tasting menus. It's usually too much food and too exotic and more culinary art than eating. We also didn't go to The Ledbury or to Le Gavroche because I've had lots of rich meals and we had a long trip ahead of us.
Also, my sweetheart caught a bad cold on the plane and finally put his foot down one night after I'd dragged him to the far ends of the earth (to Bull and Last actually) and refused to go any place that wasn't walking distance from our hotel. So we missed Ishbilia.
That said, here are my impressions...
ST. JOHN: http://www.stjohnrestaurant.com/
Man, I wish I could cook like this. For me, it really doesn't get any better than beautifully prepared meat. Elegant and low-key. And amazing smells! We had rabbit offal with white beans (fabulously savory and mellow), squid with tart onions, pickled meat and celeriac-cream salad, and roast beef with intensely-mustardy chard. Gorgeous presentation. Perfectly prepared meat. And the butter was some of the best I've ever tasted. So sweet and pure.
PIERRE HERME MACARONS (SELFRIDGES FOOD DEPT): http://www.pierreherme.com/index.cgi?&cwsid=8279ph0A000108ph2614015
I was trying to do some quick clothes shopping in London but was quickly diverted from Selfridges' women's department into their food department. Oh my goodness, I've never seen so many shapes and sizes of chocolate Easter eggs. But ultimately I wound up treating myself to two divine Pierre Herme macarons: olive oil with vanilla and apricot. A delicately textured cookie that evaporated after a brief moment of crispness, followed by really decadent buttery filling and perfect flavors. Really, really good.
SERVICE AT BULL & LAST: http://www.thebullandlast.co.uk/
The food at Bull & Last was pretty good: nice nutty bread with butter, decent beer, a tasty Indian-inspired eggplant and lamb dish (but tough meat), an ordinary saucisson, decadent Ferraro Rocher ice cream. Overall a mixed bag. What really blew us out of the water was the service. By accident the waitress misted my sweetheart with a bottle of sparkling water since she'd hustled upstairs with it on a busy Sat night. They were so apologetic and charming about it. Brought us several free treats. Moved us to a better table. Kept lighting the little tea candle at the table that got blown out by the overhead fan. Very attentive and empathetic and concerned with making things right. All of this in the middle of a super busy bustling atmosphere. We found them charming and would definitely go back because of the service.
I found the environment to be a bit awkward. The decor was a little amateurish (one light fixture had a different brightness of bulb, the large painting on the wall wasn't very good, too many waiters walking around in a distracting way). I liked the plates: darkish green earthenware, sort of rustic. I had a phenomenal glass of red wine, but forgot to write it down due to jet lag. Perhaps it's my naivete about Scandinavian cuisine, but I found the combination of both crisps with a mayonaissy dip AND crusty bread with a yogurt and seaweed spread to be too much carb at the beginning of a meal. The fresh peas with foam of some kind and a sort of mouse below had fresh ingredients, but some unpleasant goopy textures. The lamb was nicely cooked, but the waiter failed to mention that it *also* came with the same peas as my appetizer. Overall, the restaurant feels like it has some promise, but got a bit over-hyped.
I read a very positive review in the Guardian (Jay Rayner?) that said something like perfect food, perfect service, perfect meal. So was very excited to go here. My smoked eel was very nice, but the dandelion that came with it was awkwardly cut for eating. The risotto balls with fresh peas were bland, although nicely deep-fried. My tagliatelle had a somewhat oily sauce that wasn't particularly flavorful. My sweetheart's pork was dry. And the chairs were not so comfortable. The staff were hard-working and eager to make it better, but ultimately it felt like the kitchen didn't know how to produce better food. It seemed like they thought this was good and were surprised we didn't love it. We thought it was ok.
VEGETARIAN ETHIOPIAN IN BRICK LANE MARKET: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alcattell/5356963188/
A fresh piece of injera with flavorful lentil spread, very satisfying. A nice, fresh cabbage and radicchio salad (with coriander?), black and green olives and spicy sauces. Good value for something like 5 pounds. However, there's no place to sit at the market so I wound up standing in the alley with a bunch of 20-somethings (18-somethings) next to an overflowing trash can and drugged out dudes singing "Halleluja."
GRAZING GOAT: http://www.thegrazinggoat.co.uk/home.html
This was the night my sweetheart had a stomach ache and refused to walk more than three blocks. Kind of a fake country theme going on. Lots of children in expensive buggies. A very white clientele. I had a pork knuckle and cornichon terrine that was palatable, but my sweetheart's roasted chicken was very dry, and the staff seemed to have no idea that the food was mediocre. The waitress kept insisting that my partner try their tuna ("everyone loves it!").
BOROUGH MARKET: http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk/
Not so clean. Trash cans overflowing. Some beautiful-looking food, but when I finally settled on a nice pork pie from Mrs. Kings Pork Pies (can't resist hockey puck-shaped food), it turned out to be a thick mass of dough wrapped around a lump of jelly and flavorless pork. The pork in China is so flavorful, you could never get away with serving a pork-centric specialty like this and make so little effort to bring the flavor out. Did they put any salt, even? Then I bought a package of kumquats and they were mushy. (My fault, I guess b/c it's not local, but still...)
In any case, because my partner was sick, we missed many places we wanted to try: Ishbillia and other Lebanese places, 805, a proper fry-up at Regency Cafe, Modern Pantry, Tamada, Brixton Village...
Simply not enough time. I think we would've needed a month or more to get a proper sense of London eating. And again, apologies if any of my criticisms were too snarky. Everyone was so nice to us in London, it feels wrong to say anything less than complimentary.
No disrespect to pork pies. I love that kind of food.
I think that living in Hong Kong has turned us into pork snobs.
We eat at places like Sun Tung Lok (3* Michelin dim sum, very affordable) and Din Tai Fung regularly, where the pork is transcendental. When you know it can taste that good...
Much porky discussion on the China & Southeast Asia board: