travel: so flirtable….

Westminster at dusk.

~

I’ve been playing tag with London all of my adult life: always flirting, but never letting myself get caught in what would surely be a financially devastating love affair.

So, perhaps purposefully, I have always kept my visits to the city brief.

My recent trip in January was no exception.

~

José

~

The purpose of this latest layover was two-fold. Of primary importance, it was an opportunity for Christopher Haatuft – the chef of Lysverket, with whom I’ve been working on the Friends of Lysverket series – and me to visit his friend James Knappett, who will be the guest chef, along with Bradford McDonald (formerly of Governor in New York and now chef of Lockhart, a barbecue restaurant in London), at the ninth Friends of Lysverket dinner in early March. Knappett and his wife Sandia Chang have two restaurants in the city’s Fitzrovia neighborhood.

One of them, Bubbledogs, is a Champagne and hot dog bar. It’s in a narrow, shotgun space ergonomically fitted with hightops, counters, and stools. This is where Haatuft and his wife Annette, and their two Norwegian friends (who happened to be in London) met me for a late dinner one night. The menu is comprised of a short, but creative roster of hot dogs like the “Buffalo” – with hot buffalo sauce and blue cheese – and the cheeky but delicious “Horny Dog,” what us Yankees call a corn dog. I liked those two the best of the ones we ordered (disclaimer: Knappett picked up our tab.) In the back of Bubbledogs is Knappett’s Michelin-starred, 19-seat wrap-around counter restaurant aptly named Kitchen Table. Due to very poor planning on my part, I wasn’t able to eat there. It remains on my bucket list.

~

Ten Bells

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My other purpose was to flirt, of course. For someone like me, London is irresistible.

In addition to its blossoming dining scene, the city is rich with history, art, culture, couture, and the performing arts.

It had been decades since I last walked through the abbey at Westminster, that gothic grave with its mind-boggling collection of giants, many of whom could not have coexisted so peacefully in life as they do now in death. I spent hours in the church, pausing every few feet to marvel at the millennium of British history swirling around me: underfoot, Sir Winston Churchill; above, Sir Isaac Newton; and beside me, the religiously estranged Elizabeth and Mary Tudor, “partners in throne and grave” there those two sisters rest together “in hope of one resurrection,” declares their joint tomb.

Can you believe I’ve never been to the British Museum? I’ve seen the Parthenon and the Pyramids, but I have never seen the stunning creatures that once decorated and inhabited those ancient sites, now stripped and empty, mere skeletons of their former glory. Despite the moral outrage and objection to the way these artifacts were confiscated and removed from their homeland (some would say “stolen”), I, for one am glad that they landed in the hands of those who could and have preserved them. Centuries later, there they are, Lord Elgin’s marbles and Henry Salt’s mummies, for all to see.

~

And let thy feet...

~

Whereas Americans are comfortably (some might say tragically) so, the French outrageously so, and the Italians emotionally so, the British are and always have been impeccably dressed.

I stopped in John Lobb to admire the cobblers’ work (I refer to the Edwardian bootmaker at no. 9 St. James Street, and not the retail shop of ready-to-wear by the same name a few blocks away – a spinoff sold to the French luxury label Hermes in the 70s). A pair of bespoke shoes here starts at 3,600 pounds sterling (at current trading, approximately $5,500).

Around the corner is the shirt-maker Turnball & Asser, where, in the basement, I found a honeycomb of rooms lined floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, with dress shirts of every style, color, and size (and, of course, they’ll custom make yours if you like).

And I floated down Savile Row, just a little tipsy from the sartorial splendor on display at the tailors Gieves & Hawkes, Chittleborough & Morgan, Henry Poole & Co., and The Huntsman, where I admired a stunning dinner jacket on a body form, glowing in the light of the crackling fireplace. Across the street, I wandered into Gaziano & Girling, tempting myself with the company’s fine leather footwear, also bespoke (I especially liked this cobbler’s more angular Deco line).

~

Crab Toast

~

Two days I spent like this, blissfully wandering the city alone, with no reservations and no expectations.

I had lunch at Barrafina – the original location on Frith Street in Soho. It’s a Spanish-style tapas bar. And the food here is as terrific as everyone says it is. I had fried baby artichokes and a fat, golden-brown Spanish tortilla stuffed with melted onions and thinly sliced potatoes bound together with sweet gravy. Certainly not authentically Spanish, there was also terrific crab toast – a rather British thing, here done in a rather Spanish way, the crab having been mixed with a thick, tomato paste. I also had a beautiful wing of skate, as well as a big fat pear poached in wine and piped with cream. Barrafina does not take reservations. But if you’re lucky enough to find an empty seat at its counter, I highly recommend it.

I had afternoon tea at The Wolseley, a grand café and restaurant that still observes this beloved British tradition. The finger sandwiches and petite sweets arrived on a tiered tower capped with a silver dome, under which I found two, fluffy scones, still warm. When I finished the sandwiches, my server removed the plate and promptly replaced it with another set.

I whiled away part of one afternoon in the cavernous Waterstones bookstore at Piccadilly. Afterwards, I strolled down the street with my new book to the Rivoli Bar at The Ritz, where I settled in for a quiet read over a cup of coffee and a fantastic banana soufflé served with a scoop of boozy ice cream.

~

Spiced Pigeon (c.1780)

~

I met a friend for drinks at Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge. It’s nothing like the Bar Boulud in New York City. This one is far less a bar and more a restaurant.

After my friend hurried off to catch her train, I walked upstairs on a whim and asked for a table at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. The hostess informed me that I was in luck: they had just one table left. And to her word, the place was completely packed otherwise.

The Salamagundy, a warm salad of chicken oysters and bitter greens, was delicious. And so was the famous “meat fruit” – a trompe l’oeil mandarin orange made of silky chicken liver. But, honestly, I could have simply ordered the spiced pigeon (served with artichokes) and finished with the buttery “Tipsy Cake” (served with a beautifully burnished tranche of spit-roasted pineapple) and left just as happy.

Four courses and a side, plus a half-pour of wine cost me nearly $200 here. Given its location and namesake, Dinner is priced par for its course (despite the dip the British Pound took that week against the American Dollar). But it is no steal.  Yet, I cannot dispute the quality of the products or the cooking here, which were solid and sure. I’d go back.

~

Prufrock Coffee

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I stumbled into Prufrock Coffee on Leather Lane and liked it enough to return with my friends the next day. The baristas here seem to know what they’re doing. And they serve a pretty great avocado toast for breakfast (yeah, it’s one of those kinds of coffee shops).

The Haatufts and I had brunch at Barnyard, chef Ollie Dabbous’s restaurant on Charlotte Street. It’s a curious mash-up of checkered flannel, rough plank siding, corrugated metal, and oil barrel chairs. From the look of it, I couldn’t decide if I was in my neighbor’s barn, or the Aussie Outback. Either way, judging by the scene, it seems to have captured the attention of the young, attractive British crowd, which had been lured out of bed on a Saturday morning to flood this small restaurant. What little we ordered was good. There were some rosy slices of cold roast beef on a bed of young greens and a crusty raft of bread. This open-face sandwich came with a sidecar of warm, horseradish buttermilk. We shared potted shrimp on pikelet – a dense pancake – with lots of lovage. And, there was hearty bowl of chorizo hash beneath a glistening duck egg, with its sunny-side up.

~

Teal & Beets   2nd Course: Mussels & Brussels Tops

~

On our last night together, my Norwegian friends and I closed out our visit to London at Lyle’s in Shoreditch.

I first encountered James Lowe when he was chef at St. John Bread & Wine, a restaurant I’ve always liked for its simple but steady cooking. Subsequently, I missed him at Ten Bells, a pop-up partnership he had with Isaac McHale (who I met recently at the Twelve Days of Christmas; he’s the chef of The Clove Club) and Ben Greeno (who left to open Momofuku Seiōbo in Sydney). [Speaking of Ten Bells, the Haatufts and I dropped by this multi-storied craft cocktail bar – its interior is positively Dickensian – earlier in the afternoon for a drink. The “pork scratchings” they sell there are extraordinarily good – the rinds were crisp and light, and yet coated generously with waxy fat.]

Lowe’s sensible style of cooking at St. John Bread & Wine was evident in his food at Lyle’s. Although the plating style here seemed slightly more complicated, his focus remained simple. The ingredients were clean and fresh, and his flavors true. This natural approach to cooking, as well as with the wine list, reminded me of Contra in New York. And, not unlike Contra, Lyle’s also offered an affordable set menu with a few supplements, all of which we took.

There was a plate of beautiful house-cured meats that we shared, in addition to a pair of roasted teal (a small type of duck) served with inky red beets that had been slightly shriveled to concentrate their sweetness. Those two dishes were highlights. I also loved our second course – a bowl of plump mussels in a warm, milky broth threaded with shredded Brussels sprout tops.

I thought the dessert fussiest of all, a shapeless jumble of pumpkin ice cream in a whey caramel with meringue shattered all over it. Though I loved the flavors – especially the bitterness of the dark, whey caramel – all the commotion muddied its effect. I rather preferred the incredibly delicious brown butter cakes at the end. They were fantastic.

It was pouring when I left Lyle’s, happy and full. And by the next morning, as I sat on the tarmac at Gatwick waiting for the de-icing hose, it was snowing.

There is so much of London I have yet to explore and eat – whole neighborhoods I have neglected and have yet to discover. Despite being wary of its pricey allure, I just can’t stay away.  I look forward to returning soon and often.

~

Photos: Westminster across the Thames; the “José” hot dog at Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia; Ten Bells, a craft cocktail bar at Spitalfields; the grand foyer at the British Museum; crab toast at Barrafina on Frith Street; spiced pigeon with artichokes at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Knightsbridge; a cortado at Prufrock Coffee on Leather Lane; teal with beets at Lyle’s in Shoreditch; and mussels with Brussels sprout greens at Lyle’s in Shoreditch.

~ by ulterior epicure on February 18, 2016.

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