A Week in London

I was in London recently for business. London is actually my home town so I end up going quite often. In the 14 years since I left London the food scene has changed quite a bit. Celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have become household names, not just in England but here too. Going back every year I get to take a snapshot on the food scene which I think gives me an interesting perspective on things. Also, my palette and tastes are evolving which adds to the adventure.

I flew in over the weekend and stayed with family where I was well and truly stuffed with good Indian and Thai food, plus way too much dessert. My family has a very sweet tooth, probably handed down from my grandfather.

In terms of restaurants, I went to a number of very different restaurants – modern British, seafood, Indian, pizza, Chinese, Italian and pubs. A nice little sampler for the week I was there.

Starting out I went to Wapping Food for lunch with a number of my American and British colleagues. What an amazing place! Wapping Food is in the old hydraulic power plant. They really haven’t updated the décor or changed the look and feel of the place. You feel like you are in a power plant – very cool. It also serves as an art gallery where they have art exhibits. The whole concept is so interesting, but at it’s core it’s reason for being is the food and if that fails then we have a problem. The food itself is innovative and tasty. It’s hard to pin down a label for the food, so I call it modern British. They use both modern and traditional ingredients like black pudding and serve it in an innovative fashion. There were 6 at lunch and the choices we made varied from steak to lamb to fish and everyone seemed to enjoy their meal. I myself had the figs wrapped in bacon and lamb. Both excellent.

If you want to try something different, good and cool I would make this a definite stop.

London and for that matter England is known for it’s Indian food. I wanted to take my American colleagues to a good, traditional Indian restaurant. London has a lot of modern, updated Indian restaurants but I wanted the original thing so we went to Veeraswamy’s, London’s oldest Indian restaurant, being in business for 82 years. Thankfully in those 82 years it has gone through a number of iterations. I have eaten here about 4 times in the last 20 years and the food has been consistently good. The food is uncomplicated Indian food that just tastes very good. It’s located just by Piccadilly Circus, in the heart of tourist London. Everything we tried was good. The spices were well blended, the food not overly greasy. I would compare it favorably to Tamarind in New York which is the highest rated Indian restaurant in Zagat’s New York guide.

The evening after Veeraswamy we decided to walk into Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill, a British seafood institution. It’s been around since 1916 and is actually located a few doors down from Veeraswamy. We ended up getting seats at the bar. The place was packed. I really enjoyed my dinner. I had smoked eel with potato pancakes and traditional fish and chips. Both excellent. The current chef, Richard Corrigan came to the restaurant in the 90’s and brought the place in 2005. After his purchase he restored the restaurant, keeping an eye to it’s history. The menu here is another great example of modern British food that blends traditional British with European and other international influences to create something unique and above all else good.

Strada is a chain of Italian restaurants in England. We went for lunch we a number of our British colleagues to the St. Katherine’s Dock location. St. Katherine’s Dock is such a beautiful part of London, with boats anchored, apartments, all near Tower Bridge.

I’m always skeptical about Italian food, particularly chain restaurants, but we were the guests so I went with the flow. This was obviously a favorite of our hosts and I can see why. The place was packed at lunch time. The Brits sure do like eating out – I guess that’s where I get it from too!

Strada describes itself a contemporary Italian restaurant serving authentic Italian food. I can’t claim to be an expert of authenticity but the food is really good. From the bread that starts off your meal to the seafood risotto I had, everything was excellent. This place reminded me why I used to like Italian food. A change from the spaghetti and tomato sauce you find in way too many restaurants here. BTW they also serve pizza’s.

Pizza Express used to be my favorite pizza chain in England. Apparently the Brits agree with me because these places are consistently packed. While I would consider the pizza good by US standards, it isn’t great. But if you are in London and craving pizza, this is definitely the place to go. There are a number dotted around the city. My pizza of choice is the Quattro formaggi with anchovies, mushrooms and olives.

I have always loved the Chinese food in England. There is a very large Chinese community in London, predominantly from Hong Kong, which isn’t surprising considering the history of Britain and Hong Kong which was leased by the British from China until 1997. The Chinese food in Toronto and London is very similar since the origins are the same. A lot of Hong Kong Chinese moved to Toronto before handover back to China.

I always make it a point to eat some quality Chinese food when I am in London. The last couple of times my friend Bishop and I end up at Royal China after a couple of drinks in the hotel bar. Both times we’ve ordered one of their dinner packages which costs 30 pounds or roughly $60 at today’s exchange rate. This is good Chinese food. This is the food I have craved and sought for years in New York and New Jersey but instead ended up with heavily sauced, high calorie food that doesn’t do much for me. Until Joe’s Shanghai (separate blog entry) I was losing faith in the quality of Chinese food here. Places like Royal China were my standard. Now all I need here is to find a place that sells crispy aromatic duck – this dish is available everywhere in England, it’s somewhat like Peking duck, but I think better. I just can’t find it anywhere here. If anyone knows where I can find, please let me know.

Restaurants in London have come a long way. They are far from the misconceived notions that still plague many Americans. You can eat very well in England and try some fabulous food. The only problem is with current exchange rates, it’s too damn expensive for those of us earning in US Dollars. Recently The Wall Street Journal had a story on London restaurants. Their restaurant critic, Raymond Sokolov was in London, pretty much the same time I was and tried a number of ethnic restaurants. I think it makes a good complement to my blog. Here’s a link to his article.

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