Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Flashback: Highlights from London (originally published between 12/29/06 and 1/6/07)

As the London 2012 Olympics wind down, I fondly remember my one trip to the British Isles at the end of 2006 - start of 2007.  I was in London for New Year's, staying with some friends who were working there at the time.  I had some incredible food.  I also met one or two folks whom I had hoped to keep in touch with, y'know, to have a place to crash during these Olympic Games. 5 1/2 years later: I am watching stateside.  Oh well.  Some of my favorite places to eat and drink while I was there were the pubs, London's Chinatown and the country's oldest Indian restaurant.

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London Post 1: Postcard from London / Marlborough Head Pub (originally posted 12/29/06)

Haven't posted in a while. I have been so damn busy! It is now Friday, the day after my plane landed. And oh my, British Airways is amazing, simply for the stuff they provide on the flight that American airplanes used to provide. For example, a meal. I had a braised beef which, considering it was airplane food, pretty decent. Also had a salad, a Cadbury crunchie candy (kind of like a butterfinger, only it didn't fall apart as soon as I bit into it), and I think a mini mince pie - those are popular for Christmas over here, as they bring good luck if you eat one. By the way, it is the fifth day of Christmas over here. On the contrary, back home in Bawlmer it is, simply, Friday.

In the airport I ran into this gay couple from San Francisco. It was such a coincidence because one of them was originally from Cockeysville! Both had been to London before, and let me in on a few sights to see and things to do. Small world after all, I guess.

After my small encounter with the London tube (subway)* yesterday, which puts Baltimore's to shame (but any subway system puts Baltimore's to shame, so what am I talking about), I walked to my friend's flat (apartment). He lives very close to London's central mosque and we are very close to a big and bustling Muslim section of town. My first thought: mmm, Middle Eastern food. But there is also Turkish, Pakistani, and I've hardly scratched the surface. A lot of cheap takeaway (take-out) places selling shawerma and kebabs, lots of halal (and one kosher) store. And we are near the popular Tesco food market.

Because I prefer to get a look at what the locals do, I avoided the touristy things on Thursday and walked around with my friend to see the local things. We went into two popular department stores that both sell food (and may be the basis of lunch soon), Selfridge's (like a more expensive Nieman Marcus), where I bought one small container of Turkish delight (I wouldn've bought a shirt for only £20 - but it shouwed everything underneath, so, uh, no) and the much more reasonable Marks & Spencer (like Macy's), where I bought a damn fine looking shirt for £15 (most shirts were at least £25, but they had jeans on sale for £9.50 (that's 9 pounds, 50 p - said like "50 pee," for pence)

For lunch we ate at the Marlborough Head Pub. My friend and his partner call it the "Scary Pub" because it has all this morbid stuff around it - coffin-shaped boards on the outside advertizing nightly specials and whatnot. He opted for the chicken Caesar salad. I went more local and got fish (haddock, in this case) and chips. It came with peas (different from the mushy peas of Café Anglais in Frederick), which I hardly ate, and vinegar and tartare (tartar) sauce. All in all, very tasty. Though I have been warned: that's as good as indigenous English food gets.

Today, I hope to try some Chinese, or maybe M&S. or perhaps even the UK's national cuisine: Indian food!

* Whenever there is a word that is popularly used in the UK but not in the US, I'll give the US version of that word in parentheses - for example, flat (apartment).

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Veeraswamy (originally published 1/3/07)

As I hinted at in an earlier post, there was so little time and so much to do in London that I simply gave up on blogging about each place I visited whilst there. Instead, I am going to post about a few of the notable places at which I ate. And as y'all can see, yes, I did take photos! And possibly annoyed my friend during his lunch.

Veeraswamy was founded in 1926. Legend has it the proprietor was the descendant of an English general and a Mughal princess (if I remember it correctly). Today, its interior is posh and colorful, yet very elegant. We went to the Picadilly Circus tube (subway) stop and walked around for a while, just looking at all the sites (well, my one friend, who had off from work that day, had seen it all by now). We hit a long semicircular row of beautiful buildings. Okay, it was just one looooong building occupied by many businesses, like a long rowhouse (here's a Google map image of it).

We went into the lobby and saw this stainless steel wall tile (very neat), then went up an elevator to get to the dining room. And a lovely dining room it is, all covered in lush tones with rainbow light fixtures above. The luxurious feel continued in the seats themselves, with purple pillows festooning the benches that served as much of the seating, and rose petals strewn all over each table.

For lunch, we went for the fixed price meal for £16 (about $32, but that is disturbingly cheap for a nice restaurant such as Veeraswamy). This gave me three courses of things I would never have thought to order by themselves. For starters, we got a concoction the size of a large muffin, but certainly more interesting! Served on a neatly cut banana leaf, this appetizer featured wheat biscuit, yogurt, pomegranate and other good stuff. I actually can't remember it all, and the photo didn't turn out, sadly.

Then came our main course, a chicken tikka in a not-so-spicy coriander sauce. This came with okra in a ginger sauce that my friend said was the first okra he has ever liked (me too, for the most part, as it's so often slimy when I do eat it). I really loved this, despite the small amount of food. Normally, this paltry amount would not be worth 33% of $32 - and, okay, it isn't. But if anything comes close to being worth that amount, it was this.  Very yummy and tender, this chicken tikka was more tender than most chicken tikka I have eaten. And yeah, the okra was pretty good, again with a lovely presentation.

Our final course came in the form of a blood orange sherbet. Both of us were thrown for a loop by this one, as this pinkish sherbet was served with rose petals and a raspberry in a martini glass. It didn't taste like an orange, but it was tasty nonetheless. And again, there's that ubiquitous banana leaf. Not for eating, mind you, but decoration.

Altogether, our bill came to about £44. This includes two meals for £16 each and two bottles of water, plus tax and tip. This water, by the way, is made by the Belu company, whose profits all go to water conservation and clean water projects, both in the UK and in other countries. One project involves the digging of wells in Mali. We got served with classy glass bottles, though Belu touts its biodegradable corn bottles. It is very proud of only using local sources of water, instead of imported water from other countries.

I am trying to think of the closest Bawlmer-area match to Veeraswamy. Although I haven't been in yet, my best guess would be the Brass Elephant. Although I have never eaten there (and after this trip, probably won't for a while), the atmosphere certainly is of the same caliber as Veeraswamy. quotes the restaurant's description of itself, the restaurant telling us to step back in time, dine in "an opulent Victorian mansion of hand carved teak, tiffany skylights and lavishly appointed dining rooms."

The menu shows not a drop of Indian cuisine, but for its atmosphere alone it may offer a similar dining experience.

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Aroma (originally published 1/6/07)

To further play catch-up on my trip to London, I will write a little bit about a very good Chinese restaurant that we dined at. Charles and Kevin knew that I wanted to eat in London's miniscule Chinatown at least once, so they took me to this great place called Aroma. It's squooshed inside, like many of the Chinatown establishments, but we got a cozy table in the middle of the jam-packed, brightly-lit dining area.

Like several of the restaurants I ate at in London, Aroma was several tightly-squeezed stories, with bathrooms downstairs and a cooking area on the bottom floor. Apparently there was some dish-washing room on the top floor because I saw a few used plates going up in that direction. Apparently, Aroma is a "mini-chain," with two buildings throughout the city. Many are overpriced, and though I wouldn't call this cheap (what is cheap to an American in London, what with the value of the dollar being what it is?), it is cheap compared to many of the places you could eat at. True, there are some truly rock-bottom places - all you can eat buffets for a mere £4.50, but these are, um, probably not the best places to eat. But the guys liked Aroma, and I was happy to go on their recommendation.

We started with a starter (appetizer), a duck with rice pancakes. The waitress brought half a whole roasted duck, some cuke sticks and thin strips of spring onion, and a plate of covered-up thin rice pancakes. It was like a Chinese fajita of sorts. Before we could do anything, she took fork and knife and quickly made work of that duck! She pulled that meat apart like wrapping paper through a shredder! It was so cool to see her rip the meat from the bone the way she did, and she made short work of it, too - a mere one or two minutes after she started, we were eating shredded duck fajitas and tacos (sorry, the best analogy I know). This appetizer was about £13, but my friends said it was on them, so who was I to object?

It was all so good, and so filling that we hardly had room for our main course. Kevin and Charles ordered chicken dishes with chicken fried rice, which looked and smelled wonderful. I got an amazing duck in plum sauce (yes, more duck, I know), with plain old egg fried rice. The sauce was so rich and delicious, and the duck came in a dessert-bowl-sized mound of meat and plum sauce. I ate this alternately with the rice, and it was quite satisfying. But I labored to finish this dish, of all about £6.40 for the duck plus £2.50 for the rice, because of all the duck I had already eaten before!

Oh, I just found out a co-worker of mine is going this August to visit a Jamaican friend who lives there, so I have a use for my travel guides now! Maybe I will have to follow her there when she goes. If I do, I may reserve my restaurant visits for other places I haven't tried yet. But if I can, I think I will find a path back to here, or at least recommend it to my coworker. And you, if you find yourself in London at some point! Otherwise, I will just head to the Jasmine Asian Bistro in Towson, which is not exclusively Chinese, and doesn't please everybody, but is tasty nonetheless. Try their Thai bento box!

I have no idea who these people are, but I thought it would make for a good photo.