I’ve recently returned from an amazing eight days in London (thank you, Theresa and Nick!) completely confounded by England’s reputation for bad food. Popular thought conjures images of heavy, tasteless food (mystery meat and gray gravy?), but I’d say that eating in London was an unforgettably delicious experience. Perhaps it’s where you look? Here are some of the highlights from my trip:
- If you’re a foodie who is visiting London and you skip Borough Market, you’ve completely missed the boat. Hands down, our morning there was my favorite part of the trip. Borough Market is huge, and it has just about any kind of food you could possibly want to buy: produce, meat, seafood, cheese, grains, beverages, baked goods, prepared foods… It’s dizzying. Our first stop (Bill Oglethorpe’s?) was a stand that does an amazing three-cheese, three-onion grilled cheese sandwich. (See our grilled cheese “toast” below.) After weaving our way through stall after stall of incredible offerings and enjoying samples, we left with mushroom paté from Paté Moi, raspberry jam and pear and vanilla butter from England Preserves, a variety of “flaxjack” bars from Flax Farm (we nibbled these for the next several days and they were phenomenal!), baked goods from the Cinnamon Tree Bakery (the most incredible orange shortbread cookie I’ve ever tasted, plus a fantastic brownie, “cowboy” cookie, and cinnamon elephant cookie), and perfect hot cider (pear and elderberry?) from a vendor I can’t recall. If I lived in London, I would be there every week. Word to the wise: The closer it gets to noon on Saturday, the more crowded the market gets. I’m talking pressed-like-sardines, not-exactly-sure-if-you’re-moving crowded. If you can, try going on Thursday or Friday or go early (8 or 9 a.m.) on Saturday.
- Camden Lock Market might be more about shopping for goods, but it also has stall after stall of amazing, mostly ethnic food. (Click on the link to explore a scrolling gallery of things the food vendors have to offer.) While we were there, we enjoyed fresh chocolate and caramel doughnuts from a little stand inside the covered part of the market, two kinds of pierogi (potato-cottage cheese and mushroom-sauerkraut) from the Polish Kitchen stall, and a tasty shredded beef arepa from the Cornbread House stall. (The bread is actually gluten, wheat, yeast, and dairy free, though you’d never know it.) As we did quite often during the trip, Theresa and I shared everything so we could have a little taste of it all.
- My second favorite food experience in London was having high tea. My friend and I didn’t really want to have a stuffy, dressed-up hotel tea experience, so we went to this adorable shop in Carnaby called Camellia Sinensis. It was heavenly! We each had our own pot of tea, so we started by exploring the tea canisters that line the walls to choose our flavor. Theresa went with white apricot (a favorite from a previous visit) and I chose black tea with sweet orange. After we received our tea, we were presented with a three-tiered server: tea sandwiches (salmon with cream cheese and egg salad) lined the bottom, hot scones were in the middle (served with clotted cream and jam, of course), and two slices of cake (one lemon and one carrot) topped it off. I thought I was going to have to be rolled out of the shop once we were finished, but I have no regrets. Everything was absolutely delicious!
- Sunday roast is a British tradition; Theresa and I enjoyed ours at a place called the Porcupine near Leicester Square. For just £8, we had plates full of beef, gravy, roasted potatoes, parsnips, cabbage, carrots, and mini Yorkshire puddings. Very tasty!
- I had to make French macarons for a Daring Bakers’ challenge several months ago, but I had never actually tasted them before. When I spotted them in the window of Ladurée at Harrod’s, I couldn’t resist. Theresa and I tried several flavors: vanilla, coffee, pistachio, cherry, and salted caramel. Each one was as incredible as the next, though I think the traditional vanilla had a slight edge over the group. Texturally, the cookies were ever so slightly crisp on the outside but fairly soft on the inside; I got a nice “snap” with the first bite but then everything held together nicely. Needless to say, they beat the pants off my attempt. I’m totally inspired to try again now, though!
- I’m normally a one-cup-in-the-morning kind of girl when it comes to coffee, but my friend Theresa and I were on quite a latte kick during my stay. (This might have had something to do with the fact that we did quite a bit of walking in brisk and/or wet weather!) We tried coffee from so many different sources, from the national chains down to the refreshment stalls in Hyde Park. Surprisingly, our favorite latte was from a national chain called Marks & Spencer, which isn’t even a coffee shop. (It kind of feels like a cross between a Walgreens and a Target.) It was only £1 and it had very rich coffee flavor combined with a creamy texture (even with skim) and lots of foam. I’m craving one now, actually.
Since I stayed with Theresa and Nick in their apartment, we had the advantage of being able to cook in when we felt like it. We had a number of meals out, though… I was on vacation, after all. (I decided that Theresa was on vacation as well.) Here’s a rundown of the places we visited:
- Wagamama – This chain seems to be everywhere in London. Thankfully, all those locations are backed up by tasty food. My judgment might be a bit shaky on this one, I’ll admit, because this was the day Theresa and I staggered in for lunch at 4 p.m.(!), starving, after we discovered that the kitchen at the Grenadier was closed. We took a seat at a long communal table and ordered our noodle dishes: chicken ramen with whole wheat noodles for me and ginger chicken udon (I think) for Theresa. Mine had delicious broth, perfectly cooked noodles, juicy chicken breast, and fresh greens. Since Theresa is a ginger fiend and we’re both addicted to dessert, we also had a piece of white chocolate-ginger cheesecake. It was soft, creamy, and absolutely delicious, with a hint of heat and spice from the ginger. Mmmm. The only U.S. locations are in the Boston area; if you’re there, give it a try!
- The Grenadier – After our original mistimed visit, we went back so we could experience the legendary fish and chips. The Grenadier is this tiny place tucked back on Wilton Row; you’d never know it was there unless someone told you. While we thoroughly enjoyed our fish (super fresh), chips, and mushy peas, perhaps the coolest thing about the Grenadier is its history: The Duke of Wellington’s Grenadier Guards used it as their mess hall. Plus, it’s apparently haunted!
- Ottolenghi – This restaurant has their sales tactic down; stacks and stacks of amazing desserts call from the front windows. Ottolenghi is a “small plates” restaurant with a menu split into prepared salad-type foods and hot foods from the kitchen. Theresa and I shared spicy pumpkin salad, fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with sheep’s milk cheese, beef meatballs on puff pastry, and baby eggplants with chickpea salad. For dessert, we had a rich chocolate cake with Bailey’s sauce and lattes. (Their coffee had been written up in Time Out London, so we had to try it.) We took one of their giant meringues to go. The food was terrific (if a bit lemon heavy), but the desserts are most definitely the stars. The restaurant has a cookbook coming out soon and I definitely plan to pick it up when it’s available.
- The Dovetail – We had a really fun night at this Belgian bar and restaurant with a group of Theresa and Nick’s friends. The food was solid if not showstopping (I had chicken and tarragon sausages over spring onion mashed potatoes); Theresa and I did finish our dessert waffle with ice cream and chocolate sauce like we were running a race, though. The bar had an incredible selection of Belgian beers – 101, I believe – and you could pick a number out of a bowl if you couldn’t decide. I went with the pear cider and the Fruli; both were light, sweet, and yummy.
- We went for Indian food twice during my trip. Our first destination was Masala Zone in Islington, which is my friend’s old chain standby. We had the thali platter with butter chicken, chicken korma, and a variety of other delicious things I couldn’t name. As good as our first visit was, though, I ate the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten at the Clipper on Brick Lane. It was a-maaaa-zing. Theresa’s friend Jen ordered expertly; we ended up feasting on multiple types of naan, coconut rice, lemongrass chicken, lamb korma, butter chicken, vegetable biryani, a tandoori dish, a cauliflower dish, a chickpea dish… I’m certain there are still things I’m forgetting. We finished off the meal with a hazelnut ice cream dessert and a mango ice cream dessert; both were surprisingly good. (I guess I don’t think of ice cream when I think of Indian food.) All in all, it was an outstanding experience.
So as you can see, I ate my way through London and enjoyed every minute of it. Thanks so much to Theresa and Nick for their kind hospitality and company!