Tag Archives: Dr Johnson

London – five ways

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.”

Dr Johnson drew one of these conclusions, Alan Partridge the other.

London’s usually been more Johnson than Partridge for me, mainly because I visit and don’t live there, thereby avoiding the huge rents and long commutes of a life spent living in or near the British capital.

Having seen most of the sights over the years my visits nowadays are weekend breaks with my other half, or to visit friends. Over time I’ve found a number of tried-and-tested spots in the city, tried and tested. Here, in the spirit of a recent post about New York, are five ways into London.

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Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Waking up in Soho

With my dignity intact, hopefully. We usually stay near Portland Place, an office-tastic enclave that’s just five minutes’ walk from Soho Square. A year or so ago, walking along a side street off the Square we came across Milkbar, a small brew room serving coffee hailing from the unlikely bean hotspot of Stockholm. A flat white order necessitates a hipsterish 10-minute wait in a mostly-empty room, but it’s worth it.

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Bookshopping, Edwardian style

If I’d a Ulysses first edition for every time I’ve heard a store labelled ‘a temple of books’ I’d be, well, probably buying armfuls in Daunt Books. Less a temple and more a neatly-kept church of reading, the bookshop – on Marylebone High Street – boasts an impressive gallery-style main room, lined with travel and history books. Daunt Books is known for the two genres, but elsewhere there’s plenty of the usual fiction, literary tea towels, pricey Moleskine-type notebooks and posters too. The main room’s the gem, though.

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A pint, a paper and a pooch

Away from the crammed dens of Soho the gentlemanly Masons Arms in Fitzrovia is the type of London pub you read about but usually find full of tourists or stressed office drinkers. Come here on a weekend and you might meet Hector (ab0ve), a French bulldog and regular. Aside from his company the bar offers four cask ales, four storeys of floral displays to the building and oddly (or perhaps not so oddly, all told) also does a sideline in Thai food. And the counter tops are perfectly-sized for newspaper reading – a vintage pub all round, then.

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Nose-to-tail nibbling

It’s not big and it’s not clever – which is why I try make it to St John Bar and Restaurant whenever I’m in London. Fergus Henderson’s ethos and reputation is well documented, as is his roast bone marrow and parsley salad. This time we skipped the restaurant, opting for a table in front of the bakery and a nibble through the bar menu. What to order after smoked mackerel, black pudding under fried egg and Welsh rarebit? How about the plate of Beenleigh Blue, Innes log, Federia and Riseley, washed down by the house’s own label cabernet-syrah? Which left just enough room for the burned cream at the end.

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Sweating it off in the royal circle

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, said one of the city’s famous sons. In my case the palace of excess on St John Street led to a road of martyrdom around Regent’s Park the following morning. The Outer Circle run clocks in at 4.5k, but any dawn excursion should go straight through the park itself, taking in the lake and gardens. You could walk, of course – this being a city known for its genteelity – but where’s the excess in that?

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On a polenta pilgrimage

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Over the years I’ve made a few pilgrimages to London.

A decade ago I spent a long afternoon chasing the spirit of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the famous Troubadour folk club in Earls Court.

A couple of years later I visited St Bride’s, the tiny journalists’ church on Fleet Street, where the ghosts of my trade lingered on, both in the pews of the church and in those of the nearby bars.

Another trip saw me sample the bitters in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, following in the gloomy footsteps of Dr Johnson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the past my visits have been marked by music, history, London ales and, well, more history.

While I’ve eaten well in the city at times over the years I’d never, until last weekend, undertaken what I’d regard as a food pilgrimage.

And yet that’s what my wife and I found ourselves embarking as we walked through Soho last Saturday evening, to arrive at 21 Warwick Street.

This is the location of a restaurant called Nopi.

Plenty (sorry) has been written about Yotam Ottolenghi, Nopi’s co-owner, in recent years. A journalist turned pastry chef turned food icon, his London delis have attracted consistently good reviews since the first one opened in Notting Hill more than a decade ago.

He didn’t appear on my radar until I came across his 2011 TV series Jerusalem On A Plate and subsequently picked up the accompanying book, as well his earlier volume, Plenty.

There it was - the dish I'd craved a year ago. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

There it was – the dish I’d craved.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After salivating over the books for a while my wife and I road tested some of the dishes, devised by Ottolenghi with his culinary partner Sami Tamimi.

Two in particular stood out: their puréed beet root with yoghurt and za’atar, and a mushroom and herb polenta.

Both were unlike anything I’d tasted before, in flavour (the za’atar) and texture (the polenta, served with Parmesan).

We immediately swore we’d visit one of their London establishments (a pledge I inscribed on our copy of Jerusalem); not least because, in the back of my mind (flipped past in their book or maybe from the series) I’d an image of a polenta chip dish there which looked incredible.

But then time passed and Ottolenghi slipped off our radar. We visited LA and Japan and the Ottolenghi’s salads were lost, smothered beneath a smorgasbord of Mexican, Californian and Japanese cuisine.

This was until a weekend trip to London came up and, with it, a reservation for dinner at the bar at Nopi.

And so we arrived last weekend to dine at the hub of the Ottolenghi phenomenon.

We took our seats and picked up the menu. There it was –  the dish I’d craved a year ago but hadn’t thought of since. Not just polenta chips but truffled polenta chips, by way of truffled aioli.

Cut a size up from the ubiquitous gastropub jenga chips, Nopi’s polenta variety combined a chip lighter than potato with a semolina-like exterior. The truffle sauce was served on the side.

It was all the glory of the Piedmont in one mouthful. Or four – as I proceeded to bogart the bowl.

The rest of the meal passed flavourfully – as we expected – but nothing hit the heights of the chips.

If Nopi was my first London food pilgrimage this was the grail. Get there, and get them.

All the glory of the Piedmont - polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

All the glory of the Piedmont – polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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