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Random Thoughts about Food on a recent trip to London (April 2014)

By far, the best meal we had was our dinner at The Harwood Arms. Every dish was a winner (indeed my wife said the lamb was the best she'd ever had, period; the Berkshire pork was delicious!), the wines perfect, and the trek from our hotel in Bloomsbury blissfuly easy (as this was pre-Underground strike). http://www.harwoodarms.com/

A close runner-up was our lunch at St. John Bread and Wine. The food was so fresh, at once simply prepared and with such bright intensity of flavor. https://www.stjohngroup.uk.com/spital...

Both of these restaurants are places which we are already looking forward to having our next meal upon our return to London -- which might be next year, might be in five years, who knows?

Wright Brothers @ Spitalfields was exactly what you want from a raw bar: great oysters, a bit of bubbly and/or crisp white wine . . . perfect for a quick dozen before we were off to St. John. http://www.thewrightbrothers.co.uk/re...

sketch for tea was completely unexpected (as we'd never heard of it prior to our trip) and completely wonderful! Highly recommended!

The Museum Tavern is a delightful Victorian pub on Great Russell Street across from the British Museum. In the perfect location for a tourist trap, this was anything but! The fish & chips were perfect -- the world's largest cod fillet was tender, moist, flakey, and not at all greasy; chips and mushy peas were charmingly delicious. The steak & kidney pie was a comfort food classic! The Theakston's Old Peculiar cask ale was a throwback to my days at college in Cambridge . . . some British classics are worth keeping, and, aside from the crowded room of (fellow) tourists, this was neigh on a perfect moment: just what a pub should be.

Two more places to comment upon for dinner:

28-50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen in Marylebone was delicious and fine in every way . . . so, too, was Antidote Wine Bar and Restaurant. HOWEVER, two thoughts:

1) Compared to prices in San Francisco, Antidote was over twice what we'd pay for a meal of comparable food quality and service¹. 28-50, too, was priced a bit steeper than we thought it should be, but had one of the more intriguing wine lists with choices not often seen *and* with a knowledgable wine steward/sommelier at hand.

2) Neither place had that certain "spark" that would make it a "must eat" destination, a la Harwood Arms or St. John.

We'd go back to 28-50 if we were in the neighborhood, but probably to pop in for a glass or two of wine and some hors d'oeuvres rather than a full meal. Antidote . . . probably not.

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¹ Now, having said that, maybe the price thing is just what is normal for London, or maybe it's because the dollar is weak against the pound, I don't know. I'm trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, so to speak. The price would have been right if it was $XX, but when it's £XX, it's just plain expensive for what you get.

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  1. Thanks for the report back.
    Two things strike me. First , you managed to find decent fish and chips in a central London pub.
    Secondly your comments about Antidote and 28-50. The prices aren't excessive for London (especially Marylebone) but mid price dining in London can sometimes be disappointing in London. Recently went to Little Social and wasn't that impressed. The mains were a good £4-5 more than St. John and apart from the starters the food just didn't do it for me nor did the service.
    I'm assuming you like your wine. Not sure if you tried Terroirs but the food is good and an interesting wine list.So maybe a choice next time?

    3 Replies
    1. re: Paprikaboy

      The other Atherton restaurants I've been to were also good not great (Pollen Street Social and Social Eating House), plus they seemed pricey for what one gets. The technique is often excellent, but somehow the dishes never really come together.

      1. re: Paprikaboy

        I do love England; it is a nostalgic home for me.

        I, too, was quite surprised that the Museum Tavern wasn't a tourist trap -- at the time, we were a bit too hungry to care, and came away very happy. Interesting comment re: Little Social -- we walked past it, and thought it looked interesting, but after getting some less than enthusiastic comments regarding Pollen Street Social, decided (rightly or wrongly) to pass on this as well . . .

        In terms of wine, you might say I like it -- I spent nearly forty years in the California and International wine trade. ;^) So, yes, it's something I like and notice.

        As for the rest, see my reply below.

        1. re: Paprikaboy

          I'm also impressed that decent fish & chips were found in a pub anywhere in the country. It is such a rare occurance. My rule of thumb is not to order it unless (a) the pub is in sight of the sea and (b) it has a reputation for its fish & chips. I broke my rule yesterday at a pub in Stratford upon Avon and it reminded me why I have the rule.

          As for London pricing, is the city not one of the world's most expensive? Certainly I often have a sharp intake of breath at prices charged in comparision with elsewhere in the country. Folk even get screwed on the service charge - 12.5% in London, 10% elsewhere.

        2. Great reviews - but I am wary of trusting someone who grew up on Old Peculiar ;-)

          London is expensive, although less so than it was as it more competitive. I wonder if part of the issue is that like for like it was easy to compare but you were OK with the prices in the more uniquely British places like the Harwood Arms.

          7 Replies
          1. re: PhilD

            Old Peculiar (and Abbot Ale) were pure nostalgia for me . . . I enjoyed the former at an event sponsored by CAMRA in 1977, and Abbot was the beer I had at my "local" (The Granta) while at college.

            In terms of pricing, I have been trying to be somewhat logical about the whole thing: my presumption is *not* "Wow, we must have picked some really expensive places!" but rather, "The restaurants we ate at were reasonably full of people; their prices must be normal for London."

            In other words, we never balked at paying, never chose to eat/not eat at an establishment due to the price, and never chose one dish over another due to cost. But in the end, London was *more* expensive than I recall it being two years ago. Now, admittedly, we were only in London for a couple of days in 2012, and I may not be remembering correctly, but I don't recall thinking that prices were ***significantly*** higher than San Francisco when we were there for a week in 2006, nor when I was in the UK for New Year's Eve 1999/2000, or on any of my previous visits dating back to 1968 when I had trouble with "£ s d" (which I always hoped Timothy Leary found as amusing as I did!) until I figured out that the exchange rate was $2.40:£1, and since there were 240 pence to a pound, it was 1¢=1d.

            All that aside, I think you have a point re: the "like-for-like" issue. As we were visiting London, rather than residents of it, we were a) eating out every meal, and b) going to restaurants that we might not go to on a daily basis were we residents.

            Case in point: oysters. Wright Brothers have their "own" oysters, from their own farm in Cornwall. They charge £15.50 for 6 oysters -- that's $26 at the current online rate, even more when you have to actually exchange currency at a bank, airport kiosk, or through an ATM. Hog Island is a local oyster farm located north of San Francisco in Marin County; they have a restaurant in the Ferry Building in the City (think "indoor Spitalfields"). They are $28 for 12!

            And that is a significant difference . . .

            Cheers,
            Jason

            1. re: zin1953

              What a coincidence, The Granta (plus The Free Press and The Eagle before they ruined it) was a regular haunt of mine around about about that time ('78).

              The Abbott and Adnams in those days was very much the local beer and the better for it....a half of Abbott and a bottle of St Edmund Pale ale was a definite right of passage. Back then Cambridge was a fantastic place for good pubs.

              1. re: PhilD

                I thought Greene King was the main beer in Cambridge in the 70s - and it was AWFUL. Abbott was good though we'd usually look for a free house and drink ales like Newcastle Exhibition or Old Peculier (that's not a spelling mistake).

                1. re: kagemusha49

                  Abbot is a Green King beer (as was their las appreciated IPA) and generally it was pretty good, but like all cask conditioned beers it depended a lot on how it was kept so choice of pub was critical. In those days you saw little Green King outside of area. I seem to remember they had two breweries for Abbott and ones was reputed to be better than the other (the Bury one I think)....but did they also do pretty awful keg in some bars?

                  Adnams was definitely around it only came from Southwold) which isn't that far - their bitter was a far "kinder" session beer than Abbott as it was far weaker. I think they only produced cask so it was rarer than Green King.

                  I remember Old Peculiar was pretty rare that far south in those days (I came from Yorkshire so it had been pretty local for me) as most pubs were tied and the free houses tended to stock local beers. I thought Exhibition was only ever a keg beer - so pasteurised and pretty dull, and I would be surprised if a free house took up cellar space with it, but it was a beer I cut my teeth on in my misspent school days (Brown was to sweet).

                  In those days the CAMRA guide was your best friend before it became too beardy as it helped find the pubs with cask beer and whose landlords knew how to keep it.

                  Did you ever get to the Tickell Arms in Whittlesford (an Adnams Pub) where Squire Kim Joseph Hollick De La Taste Tickell presided over the house in the best, if not better, Basil Fawlty tradition?

                  1. re: PhilD

                    I did indeed dine once at the Tickell arms and met the certifiably insane De La Taste Tickell. Had pigeon pie if I recall correctly - iy was pretty good.

                    1. re: PhilD

                      My Cambridge days were a couple of years pre-CAMRA. I did not know that Abbott was part of Greene King - onset of senility perhaps? We got the Newcastle Exhibition in bottles - most of us drank Newcastle Brown. I acquired a taste for Newcastle Exhibition after a summer working at a coke oven in County Durham (yes, I actually got to wear clogs and burned through 2 pairs). There was competition between the Newcastle brewery and Sunderland's Vaux brewery.

                    2. re: kagemusha49

                      I agree with Phil.

                      Back then Green King was a small regional brewer (and it was the Bury St. Edmunds), and was rarely seen outside of East Anglia. However, they have since acquired (through mergers and outright buy-outs) many other breweries and have grown to be the largest British-owned brewer in the UK. (Greedy King?) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greene_King

                      Abbot was one of my favorites back in the day, and when it first appeared here in the States, it was in "regular" cans that made those 25-ounce Foster's "oil cans" look small. They were at least 2 quarts, maybe larger, and had to be opened with an old fashioned "church key." Had it twice. The second time to make sure I didn't have a bad one the first time. It's a bit better in those "widget" cans, but I rarely see it here.

                      But it *was* delicious as a cask ale this trip . . .

              2. Oh, one more thought . . .

                I am rather serious about my espresso, having gone so far as to install a commercial espresso machine and two commercial grinders in my kitchen at home, as well as a semi-commercial machine and another grinder in my office. As such, I was looking forward to checking out places like Green & White, Sacred Café, Taylor Street Baristas, and a few others -- even hoped to bring some Square Mile coffee home.

                Missed ALL of them!

                But I did get to FreeState Coffee (23 Southampton Row), and quite enjoyed the coffee there. http://www.freestatecoffee.co.uk

                And the number of Starbucks in London is just DEPRESSING!

                4 Replies
                1. re: zin1953

                  Re: Starbucks - depressing indeed. But the growth in independent coffee shops in the last couple of years is great. Next time you are in London, you can pick up a handy map of coffee shops from Foyles bookshop so you are never far from good coffee.

                  1. re: Londonlinda

                    There's a whole tier of coffee that is completely underexplored. Ethiopian coffee ceremonies; Turkish/Lebanese/and other Middle Eastern styles; various SE Asian varieties etc etc.

                    1. re: Londonlinda

                      Jay Rayner notes in his column in today's Observer that it is "good news" that for the first time in 16 years that Starbuck's UK sales have dropped but that it is "bad news" that they have recorded a rise in profits. No news as to whether the company is going to pay the "proper" amount of tax that many of us think it owes here.

                      1. re: Londonlinda

                        >>> Re: Starbucks - depressing indeed. But the growth in independent coffee shops in the last couple of years is great. <<<

                        I agree completely, Linda, and that's why I was so looking forward to visiting some of the places I mentioned (and more -- Dose, Prufrock, Tap, ), but it simply wasn't to be . . . the Underground strike just made it that much more problematic, but -- bottom line -- we were in London for far too short a time on this trip.

                        Still, I was quite happy with FreeState.

                        And tea at sketch (https://www.sketch.uk.com) was wonderful . . . .