Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Alright, it’s been long enough. I guess I owe you something now. Let’s start with part of the reason it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I went on a little trip to Europe (ok, 2 ½ weeks over the sea doesn’t explain months of no word, but it might help) and I went to London.

London is a big city, and there’s lots to see and lots to eat, so I’m not sure how much I covered in three days, but probably not much. I’m going to give you mere suggestions of where I ate rather than elaborate recounts of each meal. For one, I can’t recall that well, and like I said before, there are thousands of places to eat in London. If something is absolutely necessary, I will stress it.

First lunch in London was a little Chinese place called Ba Shan. I love how in the city a restaurant can look like a pub and yet still have characteristics unique to its cuisine. Somehow, Ba Shan looked like a Chinese-British mixture, or maybe I was just not used to being in the UK yet. The food was pretty good, there were some little green bread-like dumplings that were nice to look at, and some other dumplings that were just delicious. Good dipping sauces too.

That night we went to a place that D liked and insisted on at some point, Tom Ilic, south of the river. Each dish was comprised of many bits and pieces, one standout was a single pea and ricotta tortellino. It was served with pea puree, pork belly, and a scallop wrapped in pancetta. And no, I didn’t take notes, but I do have a cheat sheet. The menu is up on the website, so you’ll get a more detailed description of each picture. So that was my starter, and I was very happy I had selected it. We also had some sort of study in tomato and goat cheese, the menu reads “hazelnut crusted goat cheese, tomato and pesto terrine, toasted brioche, and roasted red onion.” Mouths mine drop in shock that I didn’t immediately go for this, but who knows, maybe my taste is evolving past goat cheese, hazelnut, and pesto. The third starter was sautéed veal sweetbreads, boudin blanc, and truffled baby artichoke salad. We’ll get to my thoughts on sweetbreads at a later restaurant, but for now, on with Tom Ilic. Oh, and I must interject, I had my first bottle of Carmenere here, which my two dining companions absolutely love and went on and on about, so thanks for introducing me to it. For my main, I had filet of Kettyle beef and braised oxtail raviolo, horseradish soufflé, roast bone marrow, and spring onion vegetables. I think mine was best again, the beef and raviolo were great, but the soufflé was a bit too done on top (you might be able to see from the picture), and my palette has not yet reached the heights of bone marrow…my companions gladly accepted my donation, though. There was trio of lamb to be had: saddle, cutlet, and slow cooked shoulder, gratin dauphinoise, broad beans, and minted pesto. I know the lamb’s the main part, but I loved the beans. You always hear about English peas and beans, don’t you?

The last main isn’t on the menu anymore, so I’m having a little more trouble remembering, but the photo suggests lots of pig. There was even pig trotter, which rather than being served full foot, was made into a type of cake, almost like a crab cake, that you can see in the top left corner. There was some delicious mash in this combo. To ring in dessert, I think I got a glass of Port, which is not my usual, but I enjoyed it. Dessert is the one thing I regret about Tom Ilic. They had a chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream, which is a match made in heaven, but you had to wait 15 minutes, so we decided against it. But we ended up staying longer than that anyway, closing down the restaurant and making friends with the maitre d'. Instead of chocolate, we went with white chocolate and mascarpone cheesecake, strawberries, and black pepper ice cream. Loved the ice cream, don’t really remember the other two. We also had poached rhubarb (I always hear about English rhubarb, also), ginger crème brulee, and a madeleine. This is where Tom Ilic lets me down. Grainy crème brulee. And I know it’s not too hard to do; I can make crème brulee. I would expect smooth, creamy perfection, but it was not. I was not left with a sour taste in my mouth because of this, I would still go back, it was great, but I wish I’d gone with the chocolate and pistachio.

The next day, we went to a place by where we were staying at London Bridge. Magdalen was a cute little lunch spot, pretty fancy filled with lots of men in suits. But I had some amazing fish there that I’d go back for. D had smoked haddock with potatoes and leeks, but I don’t think I love the taste of smoked fish. I had Dover sole with samphire and brown shrimp. The sole was great, tender and not over-cooked, great flavor (I’ll try and ignore the fact that there were two roe sacks in her). The brown shrimp, which I just liken to popcorn shrimp, but not battered or fried, were also great. Apparently brown shrimp is a kind of shrimp, not just like tiny popcorn shrimp that we have here. And the samphire is one of my new favorite things, had never even heard of it until I was there, and since I’ve been back, I’ve seen it two different places here in Austin, one of them being a local farm. But we call it sea beans or something crazy like that. Anyways, it’s slightly salty and got a nice crunch to it. I loved it.

A trip had to made to Neal’s Yard, because, well, cheese. That’s all I need to say. If you like cheese, or cheddar, or Stilton, or Stichelton, or just wanna try them, Neal’s Yard. Now, one of my requests (actually, demands) for London was Indian food. D had a place out in Whitechapel, whatever that means. All I know is that it’s where the biggest mosque in London is, and we were the minority on the street. Good signs if you’re heading for ethnic food. I was warned before that this is strictly Punjab, meaning it’s north and like a mix of Indian and Pakistani, oh, and no rice (they have it, but someone wouldn’t let us order it). Fine by me, as long as it’s good. We walked in and there was a line, the restaurant had expanded the last time D was there, and every table was full. There was also a dessert counter, full of stuff I had seen in the Raval, and some stuff I hadn’t seen, like pistachio barfi (which sadly, I never got to try as the Barça v. Manchester game pressed on). After not too long a wait, we squeezed into a table in the corner and popped open our wine (byob is never a bad thing). There were four of us, and we had a feast, so forgive me if I can’t remember everything, or if my list seems a little excessive. There was Dry Meat (can’t forget a name like that, but ironically it’s not dry and is quite delicious), Mughal Korma, Karahi Dhal Tarka, perhaps?, and maybe some sort of Gosht, tandoori, as well as tons of roti and naan. I’m not an expert on Indian food (if you give a Mexican menu, that’s a different story. Mexican is to Texans as Indian is to Brits, so I didn’t do much of the ordering). One thing I do know is that I love korma. A creamy, coconut milky, almondy, rich korma over rice or chapati or what have you. This korma was like nothing I’d had before. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a pale, sandy colored korma. It was dark meat with little sauce. Still good, but a new taste for me. I did like Tayyab’s though, and the line was a testament to the faithful crowds that line up for loads of Punjab cuisine.

Now comes the fun part: Lounge Bohemia. Let me tell you about an underground (literally) bar that has three very specific rules. 1. Call ahead/make reservations. 2. No standing. 3. No suits. You might think reservations, at a bar? And you’d probably also think ‘no standing, at a bar?’ Well these two go hand in hand. The owner, a quiet Czech guy, explained to us that he doesn’t want this to be some place you stumble into. This should be a ‘destination bar’, if you will. For us, it was a destination. We knew where we were going. It doesn’t have flashing signs outside, but it also isn’t a completely inconspicuous door in a dark alley. You go down a few stairs and enter a room that has a complete retro feel, with old couches and menus stuck in the middle of vintage-looking Czech books (mine was in one of the Lassie series). He doesn’t want it to be some rowdy place for drunks, so you gotta be seated to get served. There’s limited seating, and on our second trip there, we sat with some other people and made friends, which this arrangement lends to. I don’t have any thoughts on the ‘no suits’ rule, because it doesn’t affect me. If he said no dresses, I might be turned off, because sometimes I like to dress up (although it made me feel much more comfortable knowing this when I was wearing my sneakers there). We even heard that one time he turned away some alcohol distributors wearing suits, not realizing who they were. But he sticks by his rules. Enough background info, drink time. This was Dan’s pick, obviously. You can tell straight away by the menu of drinks, including some molecular ones, that this is right up his alley. They started us off with a little trio of snacks (the mushroom was really a bite of caprese sans basil). I went for a rum drink because I’m picky about my liquor. I do pretty much do rum and tequila and rarely stray. D went straight for a molecular Manhattan, which came out with a jello shot of bourbon in the middle. Enjoyable enough, but not my thing. After this, we got talking to the owner about drinks, turns out he doesn’t drink. This is still something I find absolutely amazing, to be mixing drinks like this, making up new ones, and to not drink them. After the first round, we told him what we liked or what we had in mind, and he came back with some off the menu items. This was where the best drink of the night came in. Ready for breakfast? You bet. Prepared tableside, bacon infused bourbon was poured into a glass and then lit on fire, and then an egg was cracked, and poured in, and all stirred together. Really wonderful. We were told later it was some sort of egg liqueur, but weren’t given the secrets of the bacon bourbon. Next came a drink that was created for some artist whose only request was a ‘crying tree.’ Out came a giant hunk of tree branch with a glass attached, and a curled piece of bark sticking out of the drink. I remember gin and honey, which I think sounds like tears from wood in the form of alcohol, no? Although an interesting presentation, it was too sweet (for D. I don’t do gin). The last in the series ended up being a lot better than I thought. It was lavender crème brulee. Now, I love the sound of that, and I had looked at it on the menu, but it was made with lavender vodka, which I thought I did not love. I thought wrong. It was a creamy mixture, probably involving that same egg cream liqueur, lavender vodka, and a big crispy chunk of burnt sugar, topping off the drink as if it were a dessert. Great way to end the evening.

Next day for lunch we went to the famous St. John Bread & Wine. Even if it doesn’t ring a bell for you, it was famous to me, I’d heard repeatedly about it and been shown the menu multiple times. St. John also marked one of my firsts, as many places in London did. It’s known for its offal. I am not. There are other things on the menu, like spring onions with leek vinaigrette (we had that), but my company insisted on tongue (I did not try) and sweetbreads. Behold, my first sweetbread (oh, and this is the one thing I didn't get a picture of). My sister goes on about them. D and his whole family go on about them, so I figured, I must be missing out. And if I’m gonna do offal, St. John is the place to do it. I can say with all honesty, I am not missing out. I’m not sure what everyone tastes that I don’t, but I didn’t think they were great. I passed on the tongue. I had my fill of odd body parts for one lunch. One of the standouts for me was the dark horse, a skate salad with tomatoes. Can’t explain why, but it was just plain delicious. We also got some John Dory with sea purslane (I’m told it was somewhat similar to samphire, but I prefer samphire). Then there was squab and finally dessert. As far as I’m concerned, we could’ve done without dessert…not trying to offend anyone. But Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese is more like a snack than a rich, sugar-packed cap to a meal. We also got something that was called ‘buttermilk pudding’ which I equated to a buttermilk pie I’ve made, but ended up being more like panna cotta, which I do love. After lunch, I was led into a dark, dimly-lit cave and forced to drink giant glassfuls of Madeira. I was told this place was called Gordon’s, and that I enjoyed it, but I’ll have to take someone else’s word for it… The final foodie stop in London before we left the next morning was Borough Market. Much like peas, rhubarb, Neal’s Yard, and St. John, this is another thing I’ve heard so much about. They even do an exchange once a year with the Boqueria in Barcelona, so I’d seen a few of the meat pies they had to offer. While we walked around, we got a mixed meat butty, complete with sausage, bacon, and English mustard. And butty is so much more fun to say than sandwich.

Making a giant pot of curry