Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lunch at St. John - London

Lunch at St. John
The problem with being a food lover in a great city full of fun stuff to do, is that at the end of the day - after doing all that stuff - it's hard to muster the energy for an evening of fine dining.   We solved that dilemma by keeping our eating in London pretty casual for the most part, with the exception of two pre-planned meals:  lunch at St. John and dinner at the Clove Club.  Other places I strongly considered:  The River Cafe, Wild Honey, Arbutus, the Ledbury (which was booked solid for the week) and Upstairs at Ten Bells.
Lunch at St. John
I had heard about St. John from several people and it seemed like a great "only in London" dining experience.  A chance to try some real British food.  My main quandary was whether to do St. John Smithfield, or St. John Bread and Wine. Since this was our first visit to either and the location was slightly more central, I went with the original at Smithfield.  Generally it seemed Bread & Wine might be more casual with a focus on smaller plates, but that's about all I could discern about the differences. When you walk into the building you pass through an airy enclosure holding the bar and the bakery counter - and then upstairs to the right is the dining room. It's white paper table cloths and rather formal service, but not quite fine dining exactly.
Lunch at St. John
On the day we visited a large table in the center of the room was "Feasting" - which allowed them to order special dishes that aren't on the regular menu, such as heaping platters of whole crab and hog roast. It appeared to be a wedding party with the bride and groom on the far right, above. They were very chic and fab.
Lunch at St. John
The menu at St. John changes daily - almost entirely.  There are three things that are always on the menu.  The bone marrow, the rarebit and the eccles cake (and possibly the madeleines, now that I think about it.)  Other than that it's entirely fluid, and they actually post it ahead of every meal on their website. We had the bone marrow, broad beans & berkswell (a cheese) and the brown shrimp with cabbage to start - all of which are pictured below.  The marrow was served with the traditional parsley, shallot and caper salad with a little mound of damp, gray salt.  If you like marrow, and I do - it was terrific.  The broad beans and berkswell was very good too - but the "brown shrimp and cabbage" was entirely different from what I was expecting, basically a slaw with parsley dressing and a few shrimp sprinkled in.  For some reason I was expecting a hot dish, and I expected the shrimp to be a bit more prominent.
Lunch at St. John
After receiving our first round, I realized the broad beans and brown shrimp were far more salad-esque than expected, so I canceled our order of an additional salad and substituted the welsh rarebit.  I was really glad I did.  If you were looking for a food that exemplifies the concept of umami, this is it.  It's the English version of a Croque Monsieur - toast topped with a creamy strong paste of cheddar, mustard, worcestershire and ale - with even more worcestershire broiled on top. I thought it was amazing, but I think James thought it was a bit much.  In any event, the recipe is here, maybe I'll give it a try around the holidays.
Lunch at St. John
Finally, we capped off the savory portion of our meal with the braised rabbit with borlotti beans and aioli. This was nice, but somehow seemed a bit wan.  We also considered the Plaice and the Kid Chop, so maybe we chose poorly.  We weren't really interested in the "faggots" or the pigeon.  The restaurant specializes in offal - Fergus Henderson, the chef, is basically the originator of "nose to tail" eating - so you can expect to see it all on the menu.  
Lunch at St. John
Things took an upswing with dessert. The Eton Mess was a delightful jumble of fresh strawberries, strawberry coulis, meringue and whipped cream.  James had the Eccles cake with cheese - which was very similar to mince meat pie and almost as savory as the rest of our meal.  A word about the wines.  We asked for a white burgundy, and wound up with a Pouilly Fuisse.  It was ok, but we really should have done better in that price range (49-50 pounds) given their focus on wine. James had a dessert wine with his eccles cake - it cried out for dessert wine for sure - but I seem to recall he wasn't too crazy about it.  They weren't really a negative, but overall I thought the wines should be more of a positive under the circumstances.
Lunch at St. John
Our feasting neighbors also had the Eton Mess for dessert - the groom poured the strawberry coulis over the wedding cake style dessert himself.
Lunch at St. John
After dessert, we ordered the "madeleines" since they are a specialty of the house and were highly recommended in several reviews.  All I can say is, they weren't madeleines. They looked like madeleines, with the humps and everything, but they had a scone-like biscuit flavor instead of the tender texture and buttery rich flavor of a madeleine.
Lunch at St. John
Overall I enjoyed St. John and I'm glad we went - but there are a few drawbacks that give me pause.  The service was just the slightest bit "sniffy" and I never quite settled into that warm, jovial feeling you want to have during a great meal.  I think you have to enjoy a certain level of adventurous eating and be willing to give some deference to the restaurant in order to enjoy the experience.  There's a smidge of that "lucky to be there" factor that many find off-putting.  Altogether with that and the fact that (most of) the food we ate was good but not phenomenal, I'm hard pressed to say whether I'd rush back there if I found myself in London again tomorrow.  Unless the invitation is for feasting - with platters heaped with whole crab and mounds of Eton Mess. In that case, count me in.


Thursday, August 07, 2014

Notting Hill - London

Portobello Road
Our neighborhood for our week in London was Notting Hill.  I chose it because it was a place I had always wanted to visit but never had the chance, and it seemed like a likely place to find a good Air BnB rental. Our flat was a small studio with a fold out couch, but there was a stand of Barclay's Bikes within spitting distance, a bus stop right out front, and a tube stop a block away, and the $140. per night price would have made up for any shortcomings in any case.  (I really wanted this one, but someone booked it before I could get to it.)
Our building in London
We were within walking distance of Notting Hill's trendy business district Westbourne Grove, and Kensington Palace with it's beautiful gardens and the Orangerie tea room.  The building was an old art deco style building that had recently been refurbished, on Palace Garden Terrace, just off Notting Hill Gate.  There was a Paul Rhodes bakery just at the end of the street (that's the bus stop in front of the building out the window below).  I wasn't familiar with this chain but they are numerous in London.  Don't go out of your way, it's nothing extra. We popped in for our morning coffee and a bite several times during the week and I was sort of fascinated by this stack of scones.  It stayed there, for several days. I couldn't tell if they were selling them all every day or if it was the same stack.  They must have been new ones, but it was a little strange that they never moved.
Scones at Paul Rhodes Bakery
After grabbing emergency coffee at Paul Rhodes on the first morning, we walked over to Granger & Co. in Westbourne Grove, a popular breakfast spot owned by Australian chef Bill Granger. It had a surprisingly West Coast vibe to it with a boho chic crowd to match.
Granger & Co.
At breakfast they specialize in these velvety looking scrambled eggs.  I didn't try them but they do look interesting don't they?  Ben said they were good.
Granger & Co.
I chose the chili fried egg and bacon brioche roll with spiced mango chutney and rocket. It tasted just as good as it looks - in other words, damn near perfect.  (And I mean, who could resist a chili fried egg??)
Breakfast at Granger & Co.
James had the avocado toast (he was a leetle hung over.)  The last time I spent time in London, I don't think I even saw an avocado, but good news travels fast I guess.  This was lovely with huge creamy chunks and cilantro - definitely a taste of home.
Granger & Co.
They have a beautiful display of pastries and cakes piled on the counter near the entrance - this was a popular thing there, often accompanied by a beautiful oversized flower arrangement.  We saw it in lots of cafes and at the festival - it reminded me of the desserts displayed at Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley.
Granger & Co.
The Ottolenghi cafe around the corner from Granger & Co.has theirs right in the window, and it looks over the top amazing.  The fact that we didn't get a chance to eat here (or at any of the other Ottolenghi restaurants) was one of the (few) disappointments of the trip.  Next time, for sure.
Ottolenghi in Notting Hill
Westbourne Grove is a trendy district of shops and cafes - it reminded me a lot of the West Village in NYC, in terms of the vibe and jewel box shops showcasing the best of everything - like Daylesford Organics - where the picture below was taken.
Daylesford Organic in Notting Hill
And Nicki Tibbles' Wild at Heart florist shop....
Nicki Tibbles Wild at Heart in Notting Hill
And of course, Ottolenghi.
Ottolenghi in Notting Hill
One of the reasons I picked Notting Hill was to check out the Portobello Road Saturday morning antique market.  I was warned that it was "touristy" - but I figured that was kind of a given. I was completely unprepared for the onslaught of humanity that descended on the place at 8 AM.  It was so overwhelming and unpleasant that we didn't make it very far - and the few stalls and shops I saw didn't seem to be offering anything very exciting.  We were running a few minutes late, so we bailed out of there and headed on up to Cambridge, where I spent the summer of 1990 drinking beer and Bailey's on the rocks and trying to smoke Silk Cuts.  More on that, plus dining at St. John and the Clove Club - coming up.  :)  

Friday, August 01, 2014

Borough Market & Tally Ho Bike Tour - London

Bike ride at dusk - Royal Albert Hall
Before we went to the Glastonbury Festival last month, we spent a few days in London.  I hadn't been in a very long time, and I have to say, it's come a looong way since my first visit in 1984. For starters - the food is edible, they put ice in drinks, and the beer is cold. I was pretty much all set - except for the unfortunate fact that everything costs about twice as much there as anywhere else.  If anything, I was actually a little disappointed that it doesn't feel very different from the U.S. anymore. Even their sirens make the same wailing sound as ours now. It just doesn't seem right.
Tally Ho Cycle tour
We biked a lot while we were in London. We were pleased to find that we could check out the Barclay's Bikes (locally known as Boris Bikes) using a regular credit card - no chip and pin required. For two pounds per twenty four hour period, we could go pretty much anywhere our little legs could carry us.  On our first day in town, we grabbed bikes from the station right in front of our Air BnB flat in Notting Hill, and cruised all the way down to Borough Market - on the south side of the river - for lunch.  It was about a 45 minute ride through Knightsbridge and Westminster to the Thames, and then over to the South Bank.  We cruised past Buckingham Palace just before the changing of the guard - I felt just like this little guy.  Crossing the Thames right by Big Ben and the London Eye was pretty exciting too.  We never bought the (very expensive) Oyster transit cards.  Instead, for 2 pounds per person per day, we got our transportation, and our exercise too.  It worked out well.
Tally Ho Cycle Tour
After lunch at Borough Market (more on that later - saving the best for last) we went on a bike tour with Tally Ho Cycle Tours, one of a few companies offering cycling tours of London. I looked at other options, but just couldn't resist the vintage Pashley bikes at Tally Ho. I wound up with a pretty pink one.
Tally Ho Cycle Tour
We took the "Old City" tour, which took us along the South Bank to Borough Market again, then across the Tower Bridge (a little hair raising) to the original City of London - which lies within the confines of the wall around the original Roman city of Londinium. We rode through the financial district, ringing our bells at the drunk bankers out for a round on a Friday afternoon after work, and stopped at the one of the oldest continuously operating pubs in London for a pint - pausing to marvel at the gallows used to hang pirates in the 1700's.  We also stopped by one of the few pieces of the wall still standing - tucked away in a hidden spot in the business district - where we took the photo above. Our guide, Niall, is an architecture scholar, so he provided a lot of historical background and interesting details about the sites and buildings, which added another level of interest to the whole thing.
Borough Market
If you are a food lover, and you find yourself in London, you absolutely must go to Borough Market.  That's what I heard over and over again, and it's absolutely true.  The market has been around forever, and in recent years it's become a phenomenally popular destination for eating as well as shopping.  There are hundreds of stalls in and around the historic Victorian building selling everything from produce and cheeses to sandwiches and drinks.  It's not inexpensive, but you can eat very well - it's probably best to bring friends and share a few things, because you'll want to try a lot.
Borough Market
We sampled the chorizo sandwich, pictured above, which was good but not amaaahhhzziing - I had heard some raves about it.  It tasted exactly as it looks - a firm chorizo sausage on a roll with arugula, soft roasted peppers and aioli.
Borough Market
The other thing I had heard a lot about was the toasted cheese sandwich.  It was one of the first things we walked past and we weren't ready to make a selection yet so we missed it, but I'm sure it's popular for a reason.  (With the description on the front of the stall there, how could you go wrong?)
Borough Market
After sharing the chorizo sandwich with James (and letting him eat most of it) I got in line for some roast pork at Roast. Roast is actually a fancy restaurant that overlooks the market, serving upscale versions of traditional British food - along the lines of the Sunday roast with yorkshire pud, etc.  The market stall serves a takeway version of that cuisine - hog roast and roast beef sandwiches, scotch eggs, etc.I didn't need anymore bread after the chorizo sandwich, so I sweet-talked the girl into putting my chopped pork and cracklin in a box with some arugula, horseradish sauce and applesauce.  It was heavenly.  There was also another hog roast stall outside that had the actual pig going.
Borough Market
We walked around all over the market in between and after these repasts, and when I saw these doughnuts, I immediately knew what I was having for dessert.  There was a bit too much cream inside (but it looks so pretty spilling out, doesn't it?)  I was able to squeeze some out (and all over my hand) to obtain the right custard to pastry ratio.  Heavenly.
Borough Market
Interspersed with the stalls selling prepared foods are wine shops, olive bars, cheese shops, produce stalls, the list goes on and on...
Borough Market
Borough Market
Borough Market
Around the edges of the market are a few restaurants and wine bars.  We sat down for a glass of wine at a wine bar looking onto the market, but the restaurants and bars outside spill onto the sidewalk making for a lively scene too.  It would be a fun place to head for a casual dinner.
Borough Market
We wandered over to the Neal's Yard Dairy cheese shop after the market to check out the shop and sample some English cheeses.  It's not just a shop, they make the cheese there too - there was water on the shop floor from them washing the rinds.   If you like English cheddar and sharp cheeses, this is your place. Some of the wheels they produce there are just absolutely massive.They also had a dairy case selling butter and cream, etc.
Neals Yard Dairy
All in all it was a perfect way to kick off our trip - some great food, lots of vigorous exercise to burn it off and some fabulous sights.  We had almost as much fun on our trip in London as we did in Glastonbury. Almost. :) I'll be back with more next week - and who knows, maybe I'll even throw in a local post too, just to mix it up!