SANDRA RETURNS TO LONDON
I’m back from a family vacation to London and Paris. What an exhilarating week! I’ve been to London and Paris before, but it’s always great to return to places you love and places where you found love.
My parents have been to neither London nor Paris, though, so I was in charge of planning “Quintessential London” and “Quintessential Paris” tours. Obviously, food played a major role in our experience of the local culture, so here is a recap of all the goodies we had! I present to you: a multi-part series, my ode to London and Paris food. (I actually originally wrote one enormous entry but I figured no one would read it, so here is "London".)
From the first meal we had on this vacation, I was already excited and impressed. On our British Airways flight, they served chicken curry. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to have curry, and I was not disappointed. The chicken was somewhere between a plain garam masala curry and a chicken tikka masala curry, oddly. I loved it, obviously, but my mom – not a fan of ethnic foods, sadly – was turned off so I ate half her dinner. Yay for me, but boo to my mom for being a bad sport.
Our first proper meal, sort of, in London was at Eat (similar to Pret A Manger or Au Bon Pain). We were greeted by beautiful cloud-free blue-skies, so we sat outside the Southbank Centre and enjoyed boxed take-away chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches and free WiFi. Turns out we needed extra fuel because we planned to climb to the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a whopping 528 steps.
After catching our breath at the top and losing it again by taking in the breathtaking views of London, we hustled down for a birthday dinner for my sister. Dinner was at Pizza Express on Euston Road. Pizza Express is, contrary to its name, not a fast food joint that slings slices of pizza (duh, that’s only in New York!). It’s more of a sit-down restaurant that serves gourmet personal pizza and pasta. Its close proximity to our London dorms when I studied abroad means I have eaten here a couple of times (and even more times at other Pizza Express restaurants). We ordered a pizza with ham, olives, and mushrooms; pesto chicken pasta; eggplant parmesan; and lasagna. Pesto chicken was my dish of choice and just as delicious as I remembered, although not as pesto-y as I remember: spiral pasta lightly dressed in pesto, with succulent chicken chunks and slivers of red onion to provide a little kick. The pizza and lasagna were decent, but the eggplant (aubergine) parmesan was great. The eggplant was juicy, savory, cheesy, and tomato-saucy. I found myself leaning over my sister’s plate to sneak bites of her eggplant.
The next morning, we met up with my mom’s friend in South Kensington for brunch. We ate at Comptoir Libanais, a Lebanese café. I will be eternally grateful for this meal because I have never had Lebanese food and it was particularly nice to experience something off the beaten path as tourists. I had the full Lebanese breakfast which consisted of a hearty plate of: labneh (tangy yogurt topped with olive oil and zaatar, or thyme), fool mdamas (pureed chickpeas and beans, similar to hummus), halloumi cheese, a fried egg, a spinach samboussek (similar to an empanada), and a load of pita bread. I adored everything, not even exaggerating. The labneh was my favorite. It reminded me of a good plain Greek yogurt, so tangy and tart, but the addition of olive oil was a completely new and eye-opening experience. I do love olive oil, particularly in exotic forms like gelato and cookies….
That rainy afternoon, we wandered through the Victoria & Albert Museum and then made our way over to Harrods, the famous department store. I didn’t go for the shopping though…no, I went for the food hall. Harrods has an enormous food hall that sells everything from produce to meats to cheeses to chocolate. My friends and I used to come here for the baked goods like fruit danish and cheese foccaccia, which were reasonably priced at around £1 each. I brought my family to Harrods so we could drool at the beautiful displays of chocolate and savory bites under shiny glass cases. You too:
If that wasn't enough, we visited Fortnum & Mason down the road as well. Also a ginormous department store, they seem to specialize more in teas, coffees, and sweets. They also have a basement cellar for groceries, but you definitely get hit by a wave of luxuriousness and sugar when you enter. One of the things that endeared F&M to me is their penchant for organizing things in beautiful, neat rows. Seriously.
For dinner, we visited Chinatown because my parents always like a taste of Chinese food no matter where they are. We ate at a restaurant where we celebrated a friend’s birthday two years ago, Wong Kei. Earlier in the day, my mom’s friend said the place was infamous for its horrible service and loud/aggressive wait staff, but perhaps my parents were feeling brave and jonesing for a fight. Turns out the waiters weren’t that mean, but the food wasn’t that good either. We ate family style with plates of: cha siew (roast pork), beef and vegetables, chicken curry, boiled chicken, and plain vegetables with hoisin sauce. The food was alright…some ingredients tasted a little off; the beef had a strange chemically aftertaste and the vegetables weren’t very fresh.
The next day, we had full English breakfast at The Other Side, a restaurant just down the block from our old residence. We always found the food to be dirt-cheap but pretty good, so I planned a traditional English meal for my family here. The Other Side’s version of the full English breakfast consists of: baked beans, loads of buttered toast, two sunny-side-up eggs, mushrooms, hash browns, a slab of ham, and a grilled tomato. I say their “version” because some other places go more hardcore with black pudding or sausage and other types of offal…. In another example of “my eyes are bigger than my stomach,” I was pretty full halfway through my plate. The food was great and exactly the same as I remembered, but it was just way too much.
We tried to walk off breakfast by meandering around the British Museum in the late morning, but my schedule put us in the path of another huge meal for lunch: afternoon tea at the Harlequin Restaurant in Holborn. The restaurant, part of Kingsway Hotel, was beautiful and I felt kind of messy and disrespectful walking in there with my sopping wet sneakers (London rain, obviously) and jeans. The waiters were very nice, though, and made us feel comfortable and welcome. The menu for afternoon tea (FOR WHICH I SCORED A 25% OFF COUPON – HUZZAH) was: a pot of tea each; tea sandwiches of egg salad, cucumber on basil bread, ham and mayo on walnut bread, and salmon; a plain scone and a raisin-current scone; and an assortment of petit fours, plus macarons. Anything with macarons = good. The most astounding thing from this whole meal, however, was the cucumber sandwich. Basil, baked into bread. Cucumber, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt. Absolutely delicious! The bread was just like plain white bread, but it was pale green and speckled with basil. The cucumbers were fresh and crisp, but the sea salt hit you after a few chews and further emphasized the basil bread. I ate my own cucumber sandwich and then ventured to my family’s dishes to see if anyone didn’t want theirs. Sadly, I was still full from breakfast so I didn’t make it all the way to the petit fours…we had to take home our leftovers (*shame*).
The weather cleared up in the afternoon and after wandering around the lovely, quaint Covent Garden neighborhood, we dined at Belgo Centraal, a Belgian restaurant with a unique “beat the clock” menu: pay the time you order. Dinner at 5pm? Dinner costs £5. We ordered: moules frites (mussels in broth with fries), roasted chicken with sweet chili sauce, pork sausage with mashed potatoes, and linguini with salmon and cream sauce. I was really interested in trying some authentic fruity Belgian beer, so I sprang for a strawberry beer and a mango beer. I was even more impressed with Belgo this time around. The food was stunning, especially for the cost (we arrived at 6pm). My plump, succulent mussels, shell-on, were swimming in a light cream broth. I dipped the fries (French fries? Belgian fries?) into the broth as well. I loved the mashed potatoes that came with the pork sausage as well: they were buttery and pureed to a velvety creamy texture. I was also extremely impressed with the pasta dish: the cream sauce was so heavy and salty, but it simply hit the spot for that fatty-salty-creamy craving. The mango beer smelled delightful and tasted great, but the strawberry beer was fantastic. It was fragrant and light, tasting more like strawberry soda than beer, but definitely brought on my Asian flush. Belgo certainly served us a delicious, memorable dinner.
One of the important landmarks for our sightseeing was the Twinings tea shop on the Strand. Opened in 1703 and still standing on the same spot and operated by the same family, Twinings sells fabulous loose tea, tea bags, coffee, and tea accessories. I happen to be madly in love with all products Twinings. The store reminds me of The Leaky Cauldron: it’s a tiny storefront that you might not even notice unless you were looking for it. Though the store is just about the width of the front door, the long aisle is lined on both sides with boxes upon boxes of beautiful classic teas. Although you can purchase many Twinings teas in the States, I went to get some specialty limited edition teas…only to find that they were sold out!! Heartbreaking! I really wanted the rose garden tea (amazing, aromatic, rosy), but they only sold a heavy tea caddy that wouldn’t have fit in my suitcase. I settled on a vanilla black tea (super fragrant, wonderfully indulgent with milk and sugar) and a peach cherry blossom green tea (also super fragrant, and which I am eager to taste). If I had a penny for every time I said the words “I love Twinings”….
For dinner, we went for a curry in Paddington. I was sorely disappointed that my go-to Indian restaurant, Humaira Tandoori, no longer did £6 all-you-can-eat Indian buffet, so we settled for a place near the hotel, Mughal. The waiters were pretty inattentive and unintelligible. We ordered a couple of papadum and a few basic curry dishes for my less-adventurous parents. The meal was okay, not great. The curries were very sweet, and the weirdly cloying sweetness masked the otherwise deep, rich flavors of the curry spices. It was kind of satisfying as far as Indian flavors go, but there was an oomph factor that was definitely missing. On top of that, they charged us for the usually complimentary chutneys so I wasn’t too thrilled.
The next day, we had a day trip out to Oxford to send my sister to uni(versity). After exploring the Covered Market for a bit, we had a fast lunch at Pieminister, a small booth in the market that has meat pies. The names of their pies are really cute, and they deliver what is promised. I had a chicken mushroom pie. The filling was piping hot and creamy, but lacked a strong mushroom taste. I liked the flaky, buttery crust. My mom was raving about Pieminister, and my mom raving about anything is a good thing.
...to be continued!