Thursday, May 28, 2009

Massive London Post

London was cool (or massive in the current vernacular). The more I reflect on our trip, the better it seems. I have to admit that London was not a pretty city. Too much of the old and new juxtaposed without any real plan. Impressive and quite large buildings, such as St. Paul’s, swallowed up by more modern structures. The Thames fascinated and confirmed the meaning of mud larker. I appreciated the Underground, the boat service along the Thames, and the trains out of Waterloo. While not exactly cheap, the frequency and ease of use was well worth the price for any visitor. The parks were very dog friendly (dogs can be unleashed to run and play) and a joy to wander about. We, of course, visited most of the major must-see tourist attractions and enjoyed each one. And while we visited for 8 days, we could have easily stayed for another 8 days.

Here is a brief slide show of some of our trip pictures:

And now a day-by-day synopsis with food and wine commentary. We had no time before our trip to really research restaurant options, thus, we stumbled upon our places (some good, some less desirable).

Day 1 – arrival. We have booked the smallest studio apartment (flat) ever. On the 4th floor with no lift. It was clean, the shower had lots of hot water, and it was relatively cheap and located a block from the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens and half a block from two major Tube lines. We walked over the gardens and immediately saw happy, happy free range dogs with their masters strolling nearby. We needed lunch and chanced upon The Orangery at Kensington Palace. As soon as we walked in we hoped for a spare table (the center sweets table looked divine with cakes and meringues and all sorts of other delectables). We were nicely accommodated and ordered pots of tea and Lavender and Orange-scented Chicken with cashews and a side salad. We discovered that most salads contained rocket (arugula) and everywhere we had it, the leaves were fresh and very tasty. We, unfortunately, did not have room for dessert and we did not get another chance to go back.

Orangery on Urbanspoon

The rest of the afternoon we strolled in the extensive gardens and park checking out the Prince Albert Memorial, Victoria and Albert Hall, Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and Hyde Park. We then walked about Bayswater (this area is very crowded with tourist shops and people – beware of pick pockets, but otherwise safe) looking at restaurants. We espied a large variety from pubs to Chinese Halal. We decided on The Gold Mine which was a Chinese restaurant sporting lovely lacquered ducks and ribs in the window. The Peking duck was heavenly! Tender meat and crispy skin. Mmmmmm!

Gold Mine on Urbanspoon

Day 2 – Rain and wind. We broke out our rain coats and umbrellas. Patisserie Valerie was located a couple of blocks away and displayed lovely looking pastries. We ordered hazelnut cream croissants and Illy coffee for take away. For the rest of the week if we had anything for breakfast it was from this fabulous shop – the pear puff and nata (or custard tart) were just as delicious and decadent. If travelling in the area any time soon you will be pleased to know that Patisserie Valerie maintains locations across London.

PâTisserie Valerie on Urbanspoon

We walked through Kensington Gardens and along the southern part of Hyde Park over to Wellington Plaza and the intriguing New Zealand War Memorial, then headed to Buckingham Palace and the requisite nod to the Queen (or at least her red-garbed guard). And onward to Westminster Abbey (to visit later in the week) and Parliament. Protesters who later staged a sit in on the street were currently on the lawn protesting the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka. After hearing the tolling of noon from Big Ben and marveling at the sun that popped out (called a bright spell across the pond), we hopped on the London Eye for the 30 minute breath taking view of London. After the ride we walked up to Trafalgar Square and looked for lunch. We popped into Brasserie Roux and had a lovely traditional French lunch of duck confit. If you go here make sure you check out the enormous painting of Rooster Wellington located in an alcove of the restaurant. A true to style British uniformed big wig with the head of a rooster. Very cheeky, indeed! This was the last good French restaurant we ate at while in London.

Brasserie Roux on Urbanspoon

After lunch we wound our way to Piccadilly Circus and the tourist chaos. Way too many people. As we threaded through the streets we happened upon Chinatown and a local pop band performing a sound check for a concert later in the evening. We wondered onto Oxford Street and ended up at Carnaby Street. At Regent Street we popped into Liberty of London for giggles and made our way to their Champagne and Oyster bar. Veuve Clicquot was the featured bubbly, but they also offered a Kent English Rose sparkling. We decided to try one of each. The Kent sparkler surprised us – very decent and fruit forward. We were at least happy to have tried it. The Clicquot, of course, was delightful in its yeasty headiness.

Back up Oxford Street and a long hike amongst shoppers towards our temporary abode. Shops both massive and tiny line both sides of the street. Most of the major department stores boosted a champagne bar. Back in our neighborhood we stopped at a pub called The Swan for traditional English fare – fish and chips, bangers and mash, cider, and Fuller’s London Pride (a real ale). The grub probably qualified as comfort food for natives. For us, it was decent, but no wow factor. This pub apparently way back when was the last stop of prisoners to get “one for the road” before being trotted off toward Tyburn gallows (near present day Marble Arch) to be hung.

A couple of other pub notes - The menus at every pub were the same. Little to no variation. Everyone came to drink. And if one could not find a space inside to sit (or even stand), one simply took the libation to the sidewalk or spilled out onto the street to refresh oneself.

Day 3 – It’s Saturday and we were staying not too far from Notting Hill and Portobello Road. We headed over to the street market. The street was closed and the market stretched for at least a mile and a half and offered all manner of items – antiques (with lots of antique shops as well), produce, new wares, street food, and retro/vintage/flea finds. Lots of people – both local and tourist. We could not resist the churros and chocolate.

In the afternoon we headed over to the Victoria and Albert Museum to have tea in the cafeteria. What a place! I had never seen a cafeteria so over the top! (Yes, the tea was good, too.) We quickly made the rounds of the museum proper after tea. The silver, stained glass, and iron galleries were quite nice. I also liked the large sculpture hall with several Rodins that he had actually donated while he was still alive. If you go be sure not to miss the casting galleries where life-size replicas of Trajan’s Column, David, and medieval tombs are displayed.

Museum browsing was thirsty work and as we exited Victoria and Albert upon closing, we wandered into the Knightsbridge area and found Bunch of Grapes just begging us to come in, order an inexpensive bottle of bubbly (Lindauer Rose), sit a while, and watch the bartenders and imbibers.

After our respite we saluted the Prince Albert Memorial again and headed back to Bayswater. Tonight we decided to try Neo-Indian (my term) and dined at Urban Turban. This place had a great vibe and featured tapas-style Indian-influenced dishes. We tried a variety of items - ‘Gun powder’ prawns with spring onion, herb chutney; Half tandoori chicken with makhani sauce; Chicken tikka with a green sauce; Red onion & coriander naan; and Cumin Pulao rice. I had not experienced any of these dishes before and I was thrilled with the variety of tastes. I particularly liked the chicken tikka. My hubby thought the tandoori chicken was the best.

Urban Turban on Urbanspoon

After dinner we dropped by a small organic grocer and purchased one-scoop cups of Roskilly’s Clotted Cream Vanilla ice cream from Cornwall.

Day 4 – Needed to buy Tube passes (not cheap, but very convenient) and ventured to the Tower of London – a must see tourist destination with the Crown Jewels, the ravens, Traitor’s Gate, and all of the Towers. While we were there we spotted signs in the restrooms proclaiming that the site had won the “Loo of the Year Award,” and we saw a special exhibit of the armor of Henry VIII from athletic youth to portly head of church and state. The cafeteria at the Tower of London was the best we experienced. We both have hot-out-of-the-oven carved turkey breast sandwiches and fries (they called them fries here – must be the tourists!). The sandwiches came with your choice of condiments from spicy brown mustard to cranberry sauce.

After the Tower we walked to Tower Bridge crossed the Thames. We then double-backed to pay homage to The Monument commemorating the Great Fire of London of 1666. As we made our way over to the Covent Garden area to find a spot for dinner, we continued to marvel at the pubs where patrons would spill out onto the streets with drink in hand.

We also passed by Twinings

And then we stopped by Le Café du Jardin for dinner. We had had a glass of Alsatian Pinot Blanc. Ordered a lovely Gigondas and enjoyed starters of Vichyssoise and Warm salad of ham hock with a soft poached free range egg. All very good. Unfortunately, the main courses featured extremely cheap cuts of meat (Sautéed entrecote steak with green peppercorn and cognac sauce) or days old fish (Rare grilled tuna on tomato and cucumber salad with spinach pesto). How utterly disappointing! We did manage to end on an up note, however. We did not order dessert, but we did see a 1972 Armagnac on the after dinner menu and ordered it. How utterly lovely! The vanilla aroma abounded and the liquid was smooth on the tongue and down the throat. We had tasted a 1972 Armagnac in Paris a while back and we spent the last of our evening in a bit of a reverie.

Day 5 – We traversed back to Westminster Abbey for a proper tour. Alas, no picture-taking allowed inside, but the audio tour narrated by Jeremy Irons kept me enthralled. After the tour we trudged onwards to St Paul’s Cathedral and stopped by Balls Brother Carey Lane for refreshments (Pim’s Cup and Champagne) and a light lunch (Plowman’s meal of cold roasted beef and ham, cheese, and brown bread).

And then a whirlwind tour of St Paul’s with a mad dash up to the dome and onto the roof. Please note that there is no way to choose St. Paul’s over Westminster Abbey or vice versa. Both are extraordinary and amaze the senses in different ways. We also stopped by Temple Church since we were in the neighborhood.

We had tickets to the comedic version of The 39 Steps at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus this night. And unfortunately, we decided to eat at another French place, Chez Gerard before the show. And tonight we discovered that a lot of places in the area charge a “cover charge” which includes bread or nibbles or water. Not a big deal, but very different than the States. Gerard offered olives, anchovy butter, and mixed nuts as well as bread. And we ordered a very nice Mercurey. I passed on ordering beef (based on the previous evening’s experience) and had the roast chicken with pomme frites. Edible, but Can Can has much better frites. These were just fries. My hubby ordered the baked haddock. Once again, this fish was not fresh. We did not go to another French restaurant while in London.

Chez Gerard on Urbanspoon

The play was very funny and put us in a much better mood at the end of the evening.

Day 6 – We took the train out of Waterloo and headed down to Hampton Court to see where Henry VIII etc. lived. What a lovely place. Lots of rooms from Henry VIII’s time period and William and Mary’s era. Lots of gardens. Wonderful kitchens. And an honest-to-god hedge maze. The cafeteria offered neon green mushy peas which my spouse liked. I stuck to the chicken pie and mash.

Back in London we relaxed in at the Knight’s Bar at Simpson’s with champagne cocktails.

And then on to Soho to find somewhere not French for dinner. We ended up at Bertorelli’s. Italian with a very modern, chic feel. We ordered a Vino Nobile Montepulciano and then buffalo mozzarella, peeled plum tomato and basil salad. The mozzarella did not disappoint with the firm outside and creamy curds inside. I then went with pasta with classic Bolognese sauce and hubby a chicken and tagliatelle dish. Very good. We ended the evening with espressos accompanied with sambuca and amaretto. We discovered later that this restaurant was part of the Chez Gerard group. This part of the business served much better food.

Bertorelli on Urbanspoon

Day 7 – Greenwich. We took the Thames River Boat Service to the Royal Observatory. Grey, cloudy day. Not a bright spell on the horizon. But somehow fitting for a river outing in England. The Observatory sat atop a hill and was free to the public. After touring we wandered about town looking at nautical shops and touristy things. We stopped by Green Village for lunch; a Turkish restaurant featuring Turkish/English cuisine (reminded us of Greek restaurants here). Old, outdated décor with edible food, but nothing fancy – except for the Turkish coffee. Strong and sweet with the requisite sludge at the bottom.

After disembarking from the boat we headed for the National Gallery to visit the “must-see” art (Rembrandt, Van Gogh, etc.) and to indulge in a spot of tea with scones, clotted cream, and the best strawberry jam (Peyton and Byrne brand) I have ever tasted.

After our bit of culture and tea, we headed to Harrod’s to gawk at the bustling shoppers and drool at the various food halls. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside the vast department store. We talked about eating at one of the various bars (deli, meat, seafood, etc.), but none of the stools had backs and we wanted a quieter, more serene experience. We trudged back out to the street and began walking. Lo and behold Harvey Nicols was right next door. Now, the only think I knew about Harvey Nick’s was that Patsy and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous talked about eating lunch there. A separate elevator went up to the 5th floor restaurant. We looked at the menu, liked what we saw, stopped worrying about what we were wearing, ignored the better dressed folks getting into the elevator to be seen at the bar, and entered the sleek white restaurant and the welcoming staff. Kir Royals helped us shake off the city and settle into a delightful evening. We then chose two half bottles of wine to enjoy for the remainder of the evening – a Saint-Emilion and a Crozes Hermitage. As appetizers we had Wild garlic soup, warm potato salad and Greek salad with barrel aged feta cheese, cucumber sorbet and sesame toast. Fantastic! I was so overwhelmed, I forgot to take more pictures! For entrees I ordered Roasted chicken breast, fricassée of confit leg, sweetcorn and spring onions. Hubby went for a special Welsh beef filet. Oh my god, the filet was huge and extremely lean and definitely medium-rare. So good. The taste had an ever so slight gamey or field taste – in between a beef filet that one would find stateside and a very tender Bison steak. Lovely and enormous. We ended the evening by sharing a 64% Manjari chocolate fondant, pecan and maple syrup ice cream.

Clicquot Display Before Entering 5th Floor Restaurant

Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor Restaurant, Cafe & Bar on Urbanspoon

Day 8The British Museum. Definitely a must-see destination. We spent most of our last day here exploring all of the ancient treasures. For lunch we dined at the sky-lit restaurant. We ordered a Cotes du Rhone, Watercress and Nettle Cream Soup, Lemon Butter Linguini with Radicchio and Parmesan, and Venison Curry (special) with Rice. All good, but the Venison Curry was phenomenal!

Venison Curry

Late in the afternoon we left the museum and wandered Oxford Street. We had decided to try Spanish tapas near our temporary neighborhood for our last night at a place called El Pirata Detapas. We arrived and all of the tables were full. The host apologized and offered us a table in the basement. We had made no reservations and readily said yes. He was so apologetic we thought saying yes might have been a mistake. But no, it was quiet before other reservationless diners arrived and it gave us a wonderful view of Pata Negra – the real stuff not available in the States. Alas, it cost a pretty pence, thus, we did not partake. We ordered a bottle of Spanish red - altun reserva 2003, tempranillo, Rioja. And then we tackled the menu - bread & aioli, mixed leaf; manchego cheese, pine nut & beetroot; selection of iberian cured meats; prawns in olive oil, garlic & chilli; six hours roasted pork belly, red wine pear & parsnip puree; fried new potatoes with mojo picon sauce. We loved all of it except the potatoes. And we just did not like the sauce for the potatoes. Others would find it wonderful. Great flavors and a great waiter from Spain. We did not want the evening to end and ordered Courvoisier and coffee as well as vanilla ice cream & PX (Pedro Ximénez) sherry. A wonderful dining experience to cap off our brilliantly massive experience.

Pata Negra

El Pirata Detapas on Urbanspoon

Day 9 – Before heading to Heathrow, we grabbed pastries and coffees at Patisserie Valerie and plopped down on a bench in Kensington Gardens to admire the free range dogs one last time.