A Guided Update on London From a Frequent Visitor

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For visitors from the U.S., London is now cheaper than at any time since 1985

Traditional Talo at Eneko.

A second visit to London this year gave me six days of dining where I found it somehow impossible to put a foot wrong. The political backdrop may have been Brexit uncertainty but the population isn’t sharing that. The place is hopping. Add to that a currency exchange rate so low that restaurant prices are lower than at any time since 1985. I found that I was paying roughly the same, for comparable items, as I pay in Dallas — a rare but welcome luxury.

Day 1, Arrival

I arrive Saturday mid-morning. The plane is on time in sunny England and I make flawless time through Heathrow, a feat never achieved before. I take the tube to Green Park where I emerge to rain and walk the half mile to my magnificent hotel, The Stafford (where I am a media guest). A classic traditional boutique hotel that even has its own mews entrance. A major take-away is that inside it is so serene, you would not believe that you are in the heart of London.

Day 1, Lunchtime

I head out for an afternoon Champagne tasting that I had found advertised online. It is $78, so I am expecting some premier houses. In a stroke of unmitigated genius, I get the time shift wrong by two hours, arriving as it is winding down and the wine is gone. So I miss it. Resolve to read the “large print” more carefully next time.

I end up at Polpo on Maiden Lane for an unplanned lunch. Polpo is a chain that doesn’t seem like a chain. Unpretentious Venetian small plates backed up by an Italian wine list chosen, as are all the best Italian wine lists, by a fascisti. He buys what he likes — and we are all the beneficiaries. Just why do they serve them in tumblers? That is too authentic. The marinated baby octopuses, artichoke, and fennel seeds are just as good as they would have been if they had been called octopi (which one is correct is Greek to me — and to you). The dish is chewy but not rubbery, and elevated by the tart artichoke. Also good is fresh pappardelle, rabbit, and pancetta ragu.

Fresh pappardelle, rabbit and pancetta ragu at Polpo

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Fresh pappardelle, rabbit and pancetta ragu at Polpo

These are finished with, of course, Amaro. In this case Montenegro. Polpo was a walk-by decision but, amazingly, a good one.

The bitter truth. Digestivo at Polpo

Photo by Andrew Chalk

The bitter truth. Digestivo at Polpo

Day 1, Late Afternoon

I am outside Whitechapel Gallery in the part of cockney London where you can see the skyscrapers of The City (the name of the financial district) and the old warehouses that predate WWII. The heavy bombing in the war served as a kind of discount urban renewal. I am waiting on Anwar and the rest of a group going on an Indian food tour that I signed up for on Eventbrite. The folks inside the famous Whitechapel Gallery (a world leader in what is wrong with Modern Art) have never heard of the tour because, I find out in due course, their gallery is just a landmark frequently used as a meeting point. It is an especially good choice for this tour as it is at one end of Brick Lane, a well-known center for cuisine from the pre-partition Indian subcontinent. Most of the restaurants are Bangladeshi-owned nowadays. First our group walks to Commercial Road and Lahore Kebab House for some genuine Pakistani food (it modestly describes itself as the most famous halal restaurant in the world). It is BYOB so I buy a bottle of King Cobra beer at the convenience store right next door. We work our way through seekh kebab (minced meat with spices, grilled on a skewer), paneer tikka (chunks of Indian cheese marinated in spices and grilled in a tandoor/clay oven), chicken tikka (small pieces of boneless chicken marinated in spices and baked using skewers in a clay oven) and garlic naan. Afterward, we tour the (impossibly hot) kitchen, watching cooks stick their hands directly in the tandoor to cook the naan bread. Not just this, I am also amazed at how accurately they time the cooking. No clock needed.

Seekh kebabs on the Indian food tour.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Seekh kebabs on the Indian food tour.

Balti, on the Indian food tour.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Balti, on the Indian food tour.

A couple more stops and our tour finishes up with a walk up Brick Lane, where we visit a food store and a dessert shop, finally finishing at Eastern Eye Balti House for dinner. The massive menu is matched only by its massive popularity as it fills up for Saturday night. Anwar picks a range of items and I dig into the balti dishes (a kind of curry) as food like this is hard to get in the U.S.

Our final stop on the Indian food tour.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Our final stop on the Indian food tour.

Everybody is out for Saturday night but I have been in an aluminum tube for nine hours before a full day of activities, so it is back to the hotel.

Day 2, Breakfast

I have breakfast at The Stafford, which is essential since I’m heading to a wine fair after. Fortunately, The Stafford is on message. Think of everything you have eaten at good hotel breakfasts and they have it. I go for The Stafford English Breakfast. Two eggs, cured English bacon, Cumberland sausage, black pudding, grilled tomato, hash browns, and field mushrooms. Add juice and coffee, and I am ready to take on the world.

Day 2, Dinner

I have dinner at The American Bar at The Stafford. The USA section of the menu has favorites like BLT, corn dogs, and mac and cheese, but I go for the traditional and underappreciated fish pie. Salmon, prawn, and whiting are cooked under a lid of au gratin potatoes. It is simply heartwarming.

Fish pie at The American Bar at The Stafford.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Fish pie at The American Bar at The Stafford.

Day 3, Lunch

Today I am eating lunch at Eneko at One Aldwych; the culinary high point of the trip. A mind-blowing demonstration of the kind of creativity that has elevated Spain to the top of the international culinary pyramid with The Basque Country arguably at the top of it (and arguably not part of Spain). Suffice it to say, this is a must-visit.

Memories of The Bay of Biscay at Eneko.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Memories of The Bay of Biscay at Eneko.

 

Day 3, Dinner

After seeing 1984 at The Playhouse Theatre just before the show closed that week, I rushed off to East London. again to get my game fix. Only available in autumn, the game menus around London bring the bounty of the hunt onto diner’s tables. My choice was The Jugged Hare, just a short walk from Barbican tube station. I base my choice of restaurant on only a single review, but it was by the doyenne of London restaurant critics, Fay Maschler, in The London Evening Standard, the best publication to read the pulse of the city. My squawker grouse is superb. I almost cry at the number of things I have to leave untried at the expertly managed and popular gastropub. A return visit is in order.

Day 4, Lunch

Lunch today calls for a quickie, squeezed between Ove Arup Engineering The World and a superb walking tour of hidden rivers with Stephen Benton of Footprints of London. I am on a Spanish kick after the experience of Eneko, so I pop in, unplanned, to Ibérica Victoria. My waiter works with me to get me out in double quick time, fed and watered. It is beef cheek carpaccio finely sliced and topped with truffle potato purée, sweet potato crisps, and tartare sauce for binding. It is ethereal, even more so with a glass of albarino.

Beef cheek carpaccio at Ibérica.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Beef cheek carpaccio at Ibérica.

That is followed by Octopus à la Gallega, a most unusual octopus dish, loosely interpreted as Galician style, meaning grilled with potatoes and pimenton de la Vera (smoked paprika). The unusual thing was the heft on the piece of leg of cephalopod that I received. Close to an inch thick, it was nonetheless soft and tasty. And this thing could fill a lot of people up.

Octopus à la Gallega at Ibérica.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Octopus à la Gallega at Ibérica.

Day 5, Lunch

Iberian export Nuno Mendes has been described as something of a pied-piper to gourmets. The Portuguese ex-pat established himself as a Michelin-starred chef at Viajante and a major draw as current executive chef at hard-to-nail-a-reservation-at Chiltern Firehouse. I first tried his food at his first London restaurant, Bacchus. His latest venture is essentially a glorified market stall in Spitalfields Market, Taberna do Mercado. Long time Mendes employee Antonio Galapita is chef, and Mendes pokes his head in several times a week. The tiny space essentially requires cooking be carried out on the outside grill. Galapita nonetheless does a sterling job and has a penchant for the esoteric that I like. I had cuttlefish, chicken gizzard, and pig ear all at one sitting; and not to mention reserve wines from Portugal to wash it all down.

Chicken gizzards pica pau at Taberna do Mercado.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Chicken gizzards pica pau at Taberna do Mercado.

Cuttlefish and pig trotter at Taberna do Mercado.

Photo by Andrew Chalk

Cuttlefish and pig trotter at Taberna do Mercado.

Day 5, Evening

After a wine tasting in Fulham at the West London Wine School, I am back at my hotel late. That old standby, the Indian takeaway, comes to my rescue. Panahar Indian in Croydon’s Lavender Hill has friendly service and familiar food does the job.

Day 6, Lunch

I’m on the way back to Dallas. British Airways coach class food: vile. These people have totally lost the plot.

Afterward

Related

I paid $1.30 for each pound sterling. At the time of writing, they only cost $1.20. My next trip is already booked.