Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Polycaloric Spree

Now that my parents have returned to California, we’ve been eating a lot of home cooked meals. And salads, lots of salads. We had a few dinners at home during their visit, but we ate out far more than normal. From their standpoint, they had a free hotel (our deluxe living room suite, aka our creaky sofa bed), so they might as well go out and eat some of London’s best food offerings. Naturally, we weren’t complaining too much about this plan, since it involved eating great food (our favorite pastime), plus we got to show them some of our favorite spots and try out some new ones as well. Now, however, I need to do about 10,000 sit-ups to work off my newly inflated spare tyre.

The Town of Ramsgate Pub

During the three weeks they were in town, The Town of Ramsgate, our local 15th century riverside pub, quickly became my parents’ favorite hangout. I completely understand, as Maggie and I have spent many happy afternoons there with a pint, a ploughman’s, and a crossword. The Town of Ramsgate doesn’t attempt to be a cutting edge gastropub, but the food is all homemade and delicious, and the vibe couldn’t be friendlier. On the day my parents arrived from the US, I met them at Paddington Station, brought them back to our flat, and immediately went over to the Town of Ramsgate to enjoy the warm afternoon on the patio overlooking the Thames and Wapping Old Stairs.

There is certainly more to the London food scene than pubs, so we tried to hit a variety of types of restaurant during their visit. To list every place and everything we ate over the last three weeks would be a bit excessive, plus it might make me consider elective angioplasty to see it all in one list, but here are some of the highlights:

1. St. John Bread and Wine
My personal favorite amongst the meals out has to be St. John Bread and Wine, the sister restaurant to the well-known St. John Restaurant near Smithfield Market. Apart from being an excellent restaurant, St. John sells bread and some pastries, including what I think is by far the best sourdough bread in London.

St. John Bread and Wine serves mostly small plates, kind of like English tapas. They have an unusual system: From 6:00 on, you can order from a list of small plates; after 7:00, they start serving a few larger items; and after 8:00, large shared dishes, typically a long braised something-or-other, are served. Many things are only available in small quantities, so items on the specials board kept getting crossed out throughout the evening. The night we went, they were serving braised kid shoulder or braised kid neck: if the word ‘kid’ wasn’t enough, our waitress decided to tell us exactly how old (in weeks) the kids were. I was game, but one look at Maggie and I knew it was never going to happen.

Maaaaggie, don't eat me!

Even without the braised kid, we had plenty of delicious food. We stuck mostly to the small plates, all of which ranged from good to amazing and included some really unusual elements, e.g., gull’s eggs with celeriac salad, smoked eel with horseradish, braised duck gizzards and chicory, Stinking Bishop cheese with Cornish new potatoes. Perhaps the best part of the evening was the dessert - St. John will bake you madeleines to order, and they come out hot and buttery and perfect. I can’t imagine going there and not ordering madeleines; in fact I can easily imagine going and only ordering madeleines.

Mmmm, hot madeleines. Eat your heart out, Marcel.

2. Claridge’s
Afternoon tea is an absolute requirement for any extended visit to the UK, and we decided that we might as well do it properly at least once. It doesn’t get much more proper and posh than afternoon tea at Claridge’s, a hotel exclusively for people that have so much money that they don’t actually look at hotel bills. It is also for people that are comfortable with, if not entirely accustomed to, the idea of bathroom attendants that hand you towels and fill basins of water for you, not to mention people in big hats opening doors for you. Diplomats and movie stars stay here, not me. Everything is just a little too nice at Claridge's. The couch in the lobby was so cushy that I sunk into it like quicksand, and I thought I might need to call one of the guys with the big hats over to pull me out when it came time for tea.

Tasty pastries at Claridge's

Claridge's is just about the best afternoon tea you can get. They have an excellent selection of teas (including some grown in Cornwall), the room and the china are beautiful, and they have a piano and bass duo masterfully making their way through the jazz standards. The finger sandwiches and pastries are excellent, and, to my delight and surprise, they will give you more of anything you want. We got an entire second helping of sandwiches - a bit much, but why say no to more sandwiches? They have a proprietary jelly called Marco Polo that they serve with their buttery scones, which was mysterious and delicious and it left me wanting more. I couldn’t figure out what the jelly tasted like, so I kept tasting it and saying impossibly food-snobby things like “Hmm, perhaps kumquat? Or maybe quince and green tea?” One of the joys of afternoon tea is that you can say such things and not feel entirely foolish (you be the judge).

Scones, clotted cream, and Marco Polo

My only problem with Claridge’s is that I can never feel very comfortable in any place so fancy and polished. The second we walked in, I felt watched by the staff like they thought I might nick a pair of silver sugar tongs and bolt for the exit. Call me paranoid, but when I got up and took a picture of the room, I got approached a millisecond later by a posh twit in a stiff suit who sternly informed me that I was 'not allowed to take pictures of guests whilst they are eating', after which I spent a good 20 minutes happily enjoying the mental image of me kneeing him in the groin.

The picture that got me in trouble

3. New Tayyabs
For value, Tayyabs is absolutely impossible to beat in London. You can easily get a full meal for four people for £30-£40, which is dirt-cheap by London standards. The food is also really, really good. The highlights of any meal at Tayyabs are the appetizers and kebabs. The tandoori lambchops, which are served like a Fred Flintstone fantasy on a long rib bone, are incredibly delicious and not to be missed. The mango lassis at Tayyabs are more like mango milkshakes than most lassis I’ve had, but I’m not about to complain about a mango milkshake. Tayyabs is not exactly a secret - it's impossible to keep something this cheap and delicious secret for very long. The restaurant gets ridiculously crowded starting around 7:00 every night of the week, but they are skilled at moving people in and out, so you rarely have to wait very long. The proximity of Tayyabs to Maggie’s work and our flat can be slightly problematic.

A yard of pizza

Beyond these wonderful food experiences, we had a yard-long pizza at Yard, a kedgeree breakfast at the Butler’s Wharf Chop House, braised pork belly at Canteen, a variety of treats from Borough Market, giant portions of classic Italian food at Il Bordello, tapas in Kew, and a gluttonous meal at Gordon Ramsay’s Boxwood Café. Amongst all of this, Maggie and I managed to squeeze in a lunch at our favorite kebab house (and one of my top picks for all of London), Bosphorus Kebabs in South Kensington, followed by a gelato at Oddono’s.

I want a salad.


American in London said...

Madeleines to order - what a genius idea! And was that yard-long pizza tasty?

You really did fit a lot of restaurant meals into three weeks - good luck with all those sit ups!

Andy M. said...

The yard-long pizza was clever in concept - I love how you can order up to 4 toppings - but the result wasn't amazing. Everything looked nice but was underflavored and a bit soggy. :(

cabernet said...

Oh! nothing sounds better right now than a pint, a ploughman's and a crossword! I can't wait to eat, I mean visit, i mean eat, I mean visit!!! Can't wait! OOh, Fresh baked madeleines, mmmmmmm