Bites Of London
Text Raphaella Frame-Tolmie Photographs Keiko Oikawa, Simon Rawles, Jenny Zarins, supplied Fish’n’chips, bangers and mash, cucumber sandwiches, and scones with jam – there is a preconceived idea that English food, while pleasant, is bland and boring. Having eaten my way through parts of London, to discover it’s epicurean leanings, I can boldly state that this is a misconception. With a surge of popularity in street food, and a focus on provenance and seasonality in a smart set of restaurant kitchens, standards are high and the cuisine of the city is varied and exciting. When I arrive in London autumn has bedded down and, despite post-Olympic enthusiasm warming the cheeks of locals and visitors alike, the weather has taken a dip. Hungry and having checked into the prime-positioned One Aldwych hotel, a stroll around the corner to the Covent Garden Piazza is nippy. It’s a little late for afternoon tea but it’s common knowledge that shopping (albeit for somewhere to eat) on an empty stomach can only lead to trouble. Ben’s Cookies is easily recognisable by its logo, designed by world-renowned illustrator Quentin Blake. I try to demonstrate a little modesty and choose a Triple Chocolate Chunk to eat while I browse. Made with quality ingredients, the cookies, baked on site, are hot, gooey and unctuous. Happily, I peruse the shops on the square with a chocolate- covered face (and a glazed look in my eyes). For dinner I pick the Covent Garden Union Jacks, which at first seems a reckless choice, as its location, while covered overhead, is open air and exposed to the cold. I needn’t worry, though, the booth-style seats are heated and, combined with a larger-than-expected Gwynty Ddraig Orchard Gold Welsh Cider, I’m soon quite toasty. Obvious from the menu, this restaurant celebrates the best of locally sourced ingredients. The concept of well-known British chef Jamie Oliver and award-winning US chef Chris Bianco, the menu is divided into grills, wood-fired pizzas and British tapas. A slow-roasted shoulder of pork pizza, with quince and Bramley apple sauce, Bishop Stilton, cracklings and watercress catches my fancy, as does the potted prawns, Morecambe Bay potted shrimps and Devonshire crab plate. Eventually, though, I decide on a simple heather-fed Yorkshire Dales lamb steak, with runner, waxy and green bean salad, chicory and mint. The tender meat has an herbaceous quality (with a subtler flavour than Karoo lamb) but it’s quite delicious, especially in conjunction with the bitter chicory and buttery potatoes. A proverbial chocaholic in Wonkaland, I’m conflicted by overwhelming (hedonistic) pleasure, mixed with frustration at having limited time in the city. As such, I opt out of dessert at Union Jacks and head over to Hope and Greenwood for a sweet hit. Hope and Greenwood has the allure of nostalgia. Lemon drops, gobstoppers, humbugs and chocolate frogs – it’s the stuff of Enid Blyton picnics and midnight feasts at Malory Towers. Within moments I’m reminiscing with the shop assistant about my English grandparents’ neighbour, Pam, who used to feed my cousins and me treats such as these over the garden fence when visiting. I leave laden with sherbet fountains, a few milk bottles and some sugar mice, though I realise, with flushed cheeks, that it must seem as though I’m stockpiling for the apocalypse. Despite Hope and Greenwood fare being available in a variety of high-end London stores, I don’t know where my edible voyage will lead over the next few days, so I convince myself that it’s best to create a reserve while I can. Exhausted, having come down from the sugar high, the bed back at One Aldwych is welcome and I collapse into crisp sheets. Breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with toasted brioche at the hotel’s Indigo restaurant is rich, and just the thing for a cold morning start. I head back in the direction of the piazza with a mental note to go easy on the sweets. As Murphy has it, however, I discover that the brand famous for its macaroons, Ladurée, has opened shop nearby. Unable to resist, I savour four of the most delicious specimens I have ever eaten. Blood orange and ginger, blackcurrant and violet, caramel with salted butter, and pistachio – the crisp shells crack in my teeth, revealing marshmallowy centres and perfectly flavoured fillings. Ladurée’s reputation is deserved and it’s great for locals that they’re no longer only available in Paris. There is plenty of walking to be done in London, so I’d like to think my confection overload won’t have too much of a wobbling consequence but, as the thought crosses my mind, I arrive at the Polpo in Covent Garden for lunch. Polpo, a Venetian bàcaro, which customarily refers to a small wine bar and snackery, is the design of one of London’s esteemed restaurateurs, Russell Norman. Group general manager Luke Bishop says Russell aimed to achieve a ‘back to basics’ feel with the handsome interiors. The walls are bare brick and exposed filament light bulbs hang above the bar. Seated on old-fashioned wooden school chairs, the unassuming environment belies the perfectly delicious, while also simple, food: a menu of cicheti, or small plates, features traditional Venetian recipes with a few refined touches. My hoarding synapse fires again and I tuck into plates of delicately crisp seafood fritto misto (a dish of battered and fried ingredients); goat’s cheese, roast grape, pine nut and honey bruschetta; and mackarel tartare with horseradish and carta di musica (a type of flatbread). The really moreish spinach, Parmesan and soft egg pizzette is a hit, as are the chickpea, spinach and ricotta ‘meatballs’. The feast is topped off with flourless orange-and-almond cake, and the ultimate tiramisu pot. I balk at the thought of clothes shopping but spend the afternoon contentedly perusing all manner of niche stores, admiring the historical architecture and sheer diversity of London’s people. The West End is particularly busy with plenty of popular theatre and music productions on the go. Consequently, many restaurants in the area offer pre- or post-show dinner specials. I, however, decide to stay in for the evening as the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, Axis at One Aldwych, recently reopened following renovations and is introducing an exciting menu by its new executive chef, Dominic Teague. Thoughtfully sourced local ingredients are prevalent on the elegantly simple menu. My starter is a thin tart of roasted Scottish scallops and fennel with an orange reduction. The plump seared molluscs are tender and tasty, served with wafer thin, flaky puff pastry and subtly tied together with the citrus and liquorice flavours of the reduction. It’s perfect. My main course of pan-fried sea bass, parsnip, marsh samphire and confit lemon is light and refined. I’ve never tried samphire before. Foraged in marshlands, it’s similar to sea asparagus. It goes perfectly with the fish, especially as it visually resembles a sort of anemone. Chef Dominic’s style is graceful and he enhances the best potential of each component in his dishes. The cheese selection that follows is superior to any I have tried, and one of the highlights of the evening, and indeed the trip, is having La Fromagerie’s proprietor, Patricia Michelson, as a dining companion. Well-known cheese supplier La Fromagerie has two shops in London, in Highbury Park and in Marylebone, and both offer an awe-inspiring selection of British and European cheese, as well as a few from further afield that are matured on site. (The stores also sell seasonal produce, baked goods and dry-store ingredients, including a selection of biscuits especially created to go with the different types of cheese.) La Fromagerie compiles the cheese offering for Axis (as well as a few other establishments around London) and we try a Colston Bassett Stilton, Lincolnshire goat’s cheese with Albion mould, Fougerus, Devon savarin, Guernsey cream, Cornish Yarg, a Montgomery’s Cheddar, Beaufort, and a Stinking Bishop, all the while listening to Patricia’s stories about her life and the cheese industry. She talks with passionate and contagious enthusiasm as I enjoy the assorted flavours and textures. Mild to strong, pungent, nutty, creamy, smooth, crumbly – the cheese is all exemplary and, despite the fact that I’m banking on nightmares after the amount I’ve eaten, it’s a once in a lifetime cheese experience. The following day I visit Notting Hill, mainly as it is home to the flagship Ottolenghi deli. Being something of groupie of the chef, I am excited to pop in and I’m pleased when it’s exactly as I pictured it. Platters stacked in abundance with bejewelled salads and mouthwatering Middle Eastern-inspired fare, meringues the size of my head and crumble-topped muffins rest on platforms all along the tiny shopfront. Ottolenghi’s popularity is far reaching and the queue snakes out the front door. Pressed for time I lick my lips of any remnants and rush along Portabello Road towards the Tube station. I can’t, however, resist one last stop at a shop with a brightly coloured window display. At first I think it’s a cosmetics store but it’s one of a popular chain of outlets called Bubbleology (bubbleology.co.uk), which sells bubble tea. Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, the drinks are tea based, mixed with fruit or milk, and have jelly-like tapioca ‘bubbles’ that you slurp up through a fat straw. The Bubbleology shop assistants are dressed in lab coats and the interior is dotted with trays of colour-filled test tubes. The vanilla and almond tea I order is refreshing and tasty, and the ‘bubbles’ make it quite a fun novelty. The flavours linger on my tongue as I depart for the airport. My digestive tract will be more than relieved to board the homeward-bound plane but I feel as though I’ve barely begun to skim the surface of what’s on offer. Getting There HL flew directly to Heathrow, London, courtesy of British Airways. Currently operating direct flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town, British Airways offers a global network of over 600 destinations. Expect excellent on- board service, including flat-bed seats in both Club World (business) and first class, and a great selection of in-flight entertainment. Where To Stay The award-winning contemporary, luxury hotel, One Aldwych, hosted HL in lavish accommodation in the heart of Covent Garden. With 105 sumptuous rooms and suites from which to choose, the popular Lobby Bar, Indigo restaurant and fine- dining Axis at One Aldwych, there is no doubt it’s set for a five-star experience. Guests receive attentive personal service and can enjoy special features, such as a discreet and plush guest lounge and a private cinema. This article was originally featured in the May 2013 issue of House and Leisure.