London


London offers a ongoing and ever-updating curriculum of on how to live well in a city that is too expensive to live in. No other city I spend time in offers as many free or nearly free diversions for families as London does. Granary Square, the South Bank, the Tate Modern, Regent’s Park, the list of public spaces that make you feel like a circus is always in town goes on and on.

This trip, I learned that…

1. …bubble gum on the sidewalk can have redeeming value. Ben Wilson (whose Wikipedia page will explain his mission) looks for gum squashed on all kinds of pavements and transforms them into miniature works of art. On the corrugated metal path of the Millennium Bridge, which spans the Thames between Tate Modern and the area around St. Paul’s, Londoners have commissioned him to create memorials to dead family members; schools have sponsored little emblems; newly-engaged couples pay him to commemorate their troth. Children and adults walk across the bridge bent at the waist in search of his little gems.

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2. …the World War I memorial art installation at the Tower of London is best seen from an aerial perspective. 350,000 ceramic red poppies on stem-like stakes flood the moat around the Tower’s outer precincts to symbolize the number of lives lost in the Great War. From the parapet surrounding the walls, the poppies stand in striking contrast with the green grass growing underneath. But why does it flow from the Tower? What is the intended symbolism? And why skimp on the number of poppies flowing out the window, leaving the rickety scaffolding supporting them in plain sight? I was more impressed by images taken from above.

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3. …London’s closest beach town, Broadstairs, would be recognizable perhaps to Charles Dickens but definitely to  Graham Greene. With the original Bleak House in the background, a brass band played Elgar’s “Nimrod” under cloudy skies. I hoped in vain the crowd of mostly seniors would break into “Underneath the Arches.” A round of mini golf finished off a wonderful day spent on the sandy beach in our cardi’s.

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4. … and finally, the Anchor & Hope restaurant is as good as it was the last time I ate there seven eight years ago. This place puts the lie to the worn-out notion that British food is bad. Worth every penny. Check out their menu.

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And now, off to the airport. Next stop, New Jersey!

 

 

 

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Design Museum, Shad Thames, SE1 2YD, website here.

I’m a sucker for museum shops and cafés. They appeal to me almost as much as the art that justifies their existence. I associate a good lunch and shopping experience with looking at art, as crass as that may sound. Occasionally, as in this case, the food and merchandise outshine the collection on exhibit.

To find the museum you take the tube to the London Bridge stop and walk along the river on the concourse known as Shad Thames, past the mayor of London’s odd office building and restored brick warehouses, to a modern white building. You enter the Blue Print Cafe either through the elevator or from the Shad Thames door. A wall of glass turns the river traffic, the Tower Bridge, and the opposite bank into an endlessly interesting exhibit that competes with the museum’s collection. Each table has binoculars for examining the river on display in more detail.

The main gastronomic discovery made here were crubeens, which are rich tasting fried patties of shredded meat from pig’s trotters, served with a grebiche sauce. A plate of smoked trout with cucumber-dill in crème fraîche, a whole pan-fried sea bream with a warm potato, shallot and caper salad in mustard vinaigrette, and two timbales of risotto, pan-seared on one end and sitting upright in a bright green spinach puree completed our ambitious lunch. All of it was very good, although we wished that our skills at de-boning a plated fish were better. We should have asked the wait staff to assist, but managed on our own.

The lunch was not cheap. Then again, nothing is in Britain. In the end, I felt it was worth it.

Various locations throughout London, available on their web site.

Noodles of any kind are my weakness. And Asian noodles have been my downfall more than once. Ever since I started passing through London, I eat ramen or udon at one of these restaurants. The one I usually go to is located in Bloomsbury near the British Museum. On this most recent trip, I discovered to my great joy that the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow has a Wagamama. Whichever one you enter, you’ll find a very urban hip wait staff — unnaturally colored hair, bared-midriffs, tatoos, edgy t-shirts — who scribble your order on your paper placemats on the long, picnic-table style tables so they can deliver your bowls of steaming soup or plate of pan-fried noodles to you and not your neighbor. In whatever form you ingest them, the noodles here are always good.

in IslingtonVarious locations. Visit the website here for addresses.

An invitation to participate in conference in Poland allowed me to spend a few days in London on my way there and to explore what Polish kitchens had to offer. Once in the UK, I opted to spend the precious few days until I flew to Warsaw spending time with my little niece, Ava, and eating. Ottolenghi’s chain of restaurants is one of my favorite places.

The food — mainly salads, cooked vegetables, breads, and desserts —  is mostly vegetarian. A decade or two ago, we would have called the white walls and counters, white tables, and Saarinen-ish white plastic chairs futuristic. Now it just looks like present-day urban chic. Platters of colorful salads on counters to the right and pedestals holding pasteries on the one to the left line your path to the tables toward the rear of the restaurant after you enter. You may eat your food in the white dining room or order it to go. And I know just how how much of the operating budget went towards the high-design Scandinavian high chairs they provide for kids. Ann’s got one in her kitchen.

Simplicity characterizes everything they serve, from the hot mint tea that’s nothing more than fresh mint leaves steeped in hot water to the roasted vegetables. A regular rotation of salads keeps the menu interesting and ensures that someone like myself who visits only a few times a year never encounters the same menu.

The day I was there, the menu included:

Roasted eggplant (aubergine) with semi-dried tomatoes, cumin, tumeric and chilli walnut yoghurt.

Spicy char-grilled broccoli with chilli, garlic and toasted almond flakes.

Roasted root vegetables and fennel with pea shoot, cress and orange, star anise dressing.

Roasted zucchini (courgette), stuffed with feta, tomato, pistachio, raisins, basil and lemon.

Roasted beetroot with red onion, feta, pecans, parsley and chilli yoghurt sauce.

Roasted strip loin of beef with sweet coriander and mustard sauce.

Char-grilled salmon with avocado, chilli, coriander and red onion salsa.

Nothing fancy, but deliciously prepared. The cost is no more than most mid-range London restaurants. A selection of four salads will remove about $30 from your wallet. Two salads and a main course will cost about the same.

Why can’t we in the US support chain restaurants that offer consistently good, healthy, and sustainably-produced food?

img_9743.jpgThere is no getting around it, if the dollar is your currency, it is impossible to eat cheaply and well in London. Moving into the realm of relativity, among the best, healthiest, and least expensive food in London can be found in a new chain of small restaurants called Leon. Vaguely Mediterranean dishes like vegetable salads with or without chicken, delicious lamb meatballs in a dense tomato sauce, sweet potato falafel, and freshly squeezed fruit juices occupy center stage on the menu. Don’t expect fine dining. But if you out and about, with children, feeling peckish, Leon’s is far better than most places you have to choose from. The one pictured here is near Liberty’s, but you’ll easily find their exact locations if you google “Leon London”.

dsc01780.jpgIn a few days, I will be transferring my activities to Paris and London. Both cities are sure to be so expensive that I intend to pan for little-noticed and inexpensive nuggets of gastronomic gold in both places. After spending five days in Paris, I’ll catch the Eurostar to London, where Ann and I will carry out the cooking experiments we’ve been planning. Her daughter, Ava (seen here), will play the role of mascot and guinea pig. Christmas dinner will involve roasted goose, plum pudding, and other traditional fare. As usual, I’ll accompany Ann to her favorite stores and farmers’ markets.

In this way, I hope to avoid the typical food travel reportage. I’ll post here news of good stores, tidbits to eat on the run, great markets, and affordable eating.