I spent last weekend in London, as a birthday celebration/romantic getaway with my husband Israel.
We stayed at a small hotel in Notting Hill and pretty much didn't leave the neighborhood for the entire weekend. Saturday morning was spent strolling down Portobello Road with its the market (the food stalls my favorite part, although I did admire the English porcelain teacups at the antiques market. The British know their tea, and I always say a nice cup is vital to the tea-drinking experience). We attended a midafternoon film session at the classic Electric Cinema. How can theaters not be like this anymore? It's hard for me to imagine any happier combination than a movie, a comfy leather sofa complete with footrest, and a café inside the movie theater selling hot drinks, alcohol and snacks (real ones like the guacamole with toast we had, not just your regular butter-drenched popcorn). It was truly a pleasure and a sight for sore eyes (and sore feet, after all the morning's walking).
But what surprised and delighted me most was what a gourmet city London has become. British food has a lousy reputation worldwide with their omnipresent fish & chips, but I've always found it easy to eat in London due to the great amount of vegetarian possibilities (at least, compared to Argentina or even Spain). On previous visits, though, I had never seen as many gourmet boutiques, cafés and restaurants.
Here go a few hotspots from the weekend:
On the long trek from Gatwick airport to the hotel, we made a quick stop for pizza at Arancina. The orange Fiat 600 in the window was what drew us in (plus the fact that we were starving after the trip). An arancina (which translates as "small orange") is a typical Sicilian ball of breaded rice, filled with meat or vegetables, and fried. The veggie pizza hit the spot: warm, crunchy, filling.
Friday's dinner was at Leon, a restaurant chain that is an entire new concept (their cookbook is precious too): healthy fast food for the masses. I had one of their trademark superfood salads (smoked mackerel, peas, beans, greens) and Israel had a gobi, a sweet potato and cauliflower curry with rice and spice. If everyone in a rush ate like this, we'd be living in a better world.
One of the best discoveries (for me at least, as it's been around a while) was the bookstore Books for Cooks, and entire shop of what has of late become my passion: the literature of food (I'm currently devouring Bill Buford's exciting Heat). Not only do they sell the books, they also try out the recipes hands-on. As I spent at least an hour leafing through the reads, Israel sat down at the back and dunked into a moist and citrusy Greek coffee cake. The testing kitchen in the back serves three or four small round tables, and offers tea and coffee, cakes, or soup and wine for lunch. They also organize cooking workshops. Too bad I was only in the city 48 hours, and didn't have time to sign up for one of them.
Just off of Potobello Road on Blenheim Crescent, Books for Cooks is on the same block as two other treasures: The Travel Bookshop (which became famous in the film Notting Hill) and The Spice Shop, where I picked up a cute yellow tin full of spice mix for making Harissa.
I was blown away by a deli/shop/café/restaurant on the posh Westbourne Grove called Daylesford Organic. We sat down for a light lunch (I had a parsnip and curry soup with homemade multigrain bread, and Israel had pappardelle Bolognese) at a counter overlooking the busy Saturday crowd filling up the shop. I'm not sure which emotion was stronger: my awe and excitement, or the suffering for not having such a dream of a place anywhere near us at home. Daylseford sells everything organic, fresh, seasonal, and local, from cheeses and meats to produce to bread and pastries to preserved foods. The place is impeccably decorated all in white, and they also have an adjoining shop that sells objects for the kitchen and home. I could've gone on a wild shopping spree there.
We also ooed and awed at 202 right next door, though we unfortunately couldn't get to try it and only admired from afar (there are only so many places you can go in 48 hours).
But the cherry on top of the weekend (and, in fact, one of the main reasons why I chose London for the birthday celebration) was, without a doubt, Saturday night's dinner at Ottolenghi in Islington, one of the best meals I can remember in a very long time.
I had been hearing the buzz about these two Jerusalem-born chefs for a while, their cookbook was a hit last year ,and I regularly read their blog as well as Yotam Ottolenghi's New Vegetarian column for the Guardian online. So you could say there was some bias in favor of my liking it beforehand.
Ottolenghi is restaurant, café, deli, and bakery. As an appetizer we were brought a platter of four different types of bread (two of them were actually more like savory sponge cakes) with a tiny bowl of olive oil (green, intense, my favorite kind) for dipping.
Ottolenghi serves tapas-sized dishes that are perfect for sharing. On the menu (which changes daily) they recommended ordering three dishes per person for a full meal, but we weren't extremely hungry (I eat like a bird, and we basically had been eating all day long, slowly but surely) so we ordered three for the two of us. Israel let me do the choosing, which was not easy, but I think I did a good job.
We started with char-grilled zucchini (or courgettes, as the British call them) with pecorino, chervil, tarragon, red basil, toasted pistachios and truffle oil. The courgettes were cut quite thick, and grilled to perfection with a crunchy texture, accentuated by the pistachios. I find that they really know how to handle their herbs (which is at present what I would like to learn more about) in order to make the most out of flavor and create combinations that play off of each other as pleasure to the taste buds.
Then came pan-fried jumbo shrimp with purple sprouting broccoli and lime aioli. Four shrimps conformed the serving, and since you can never get enough shrimp (at least I can't) Israel let me have 75% of it. I instinctively shut my eyes to close of the senses and increase my sense of taste, they were that good. I had wanted to taste purple sprouting broccoli for a while (it's not easy to come by at home). Its crunchy greenness contrasted with the intensity of the lime aioli and browned garlic. The only thing wrong with this dish was that there wasn't enough of it.
The tempura battered baby fennel, leek, carrots and courgette flower with saffron aioli was mainly for Israel. I am not a big fan of tempura, as I always find it tastes more of fried batter than anything else. But the selection of baby vegetables won me over, especially the fennel, as it has its own distinctive taste which was able to shine through even the fried batter.
When our server brought over the dessert menu, I immediately declined; there was no way I was washing away the explosion of flavor still going on in my mouth with any sugary concoction. But Israel couldn't resist and ordered a cheesecake with caramel and macadamia nuts which I admit to having tried (who asked for two spoons?) and found rich, buttery, and sinful. Personally, I am more interested in the Ottolenghi as chefs than as pastry makers.
Who would've known you have to travel all the way from Barcelona to London to get such an amazing take on Mediterranean food?
I recongnized Yotam Ottolenghi himself (from his photo in the cookbook) having dinner at a nearby table and my sweet Israel went over and asked him to sign the menu for his shy wife who is a fan. I am planning on framing the menu and hanging it on the kitchen wall for inspiration.
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