Archive for November, 2014

After a brief foray into the world of Scottish politics and the uses and abuses of history, I am now back to where I am truly comfortable: writing about food! Yes, food and London in the same sweet breath.

  “When one is tired of London, one is tired of life”,  and it was well said (and oft quoted) by the brilliant and witty Samuel Johnson in the 18th century .  Well, my version, is that when one is tired of eating, bored with dining, when food just becomes mere sustenance to sustain you through your day, well that is for me, the end of days.

But how does one narrow down a selection of dining establishments for just 3 days (In case any of you are doing the math, you could note that that equates to 9 meals, but our excellent hotel had a bountiful breakfast menu and after a week in Berlin I was having trouble squeezing into my “fat pants”, so no extravagant lunches for Ben and I).  So it was down to 3 meals. Perhaps with the odd snack thrown in.

So this is how I do it when going to a new city (Berlin, Rome, and London after 20 years) or a much loved city (NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, and Paris)

Do your Research:  there will always be the famous restaurants that are famous for just cause (Tour D’argent, Paris) and then those that are famous for just ripping off tourists (Tavern on the Green, NYC).

I avoid overhyped tourist traps by trusting my community of fellow gourmets and gourmands at www.Chowhound.com .   You narrow down the search results by giving them the purpose of your trip (business, romance or family), how long you are going to be in the city, whether it’s your first trip or your fifth, and what your expectations are ie. are you on a budget or is it a “money is no object” sort of trip, are you looking to experience new restaurants or just the classics,  and other restrictions like is any one in your party a vegetarian? Having posed your question, you can expect the responses to be considered, wide ranging and mostly intelligent.  There may be some disagreements among the respondents, but for my money, this forum is the best way to begin to narrow down the search.

Having a preliminary list of restaurants you can then check it against other travel guides. “36 hours in “  which appears in the Sunday edition of the New York Times is good because it includes the opinions of the readers on the restaurants that did not make it into the article.  Or if you are feeling flush (Michelin starred restaurants are never cheap),  dining rankings like  www.worlds50bestrestaurants.com can be useful to try to zero in on one or two outstanding places.

As a general rule, avoid the reviews on Tripadvisor.    “Gaming the system” by paid shills aside, the reviewers may not be as sophisticated or as adventurous in their dining preferences as you e.g. steakhouse chain The Keg was ranked as the number 6 restaurant in Toronto!

 Book a Lunch for the Big Deal Dinner:   When my good friend Leslie and I travel to NYC as we have for most of the past 7 years, we make it a point to book a lunch for our  “blow the budget” dinner.  Over the years, we have rubbed shoulders with the monied, the beautiful and the famous at such places as Jean -Georges, Eleven Madison Park, Bouley, and Le Bernardin.  ( I can still taste those warm madelines nestled in their own little box from Bernardin.  Sigh).  Even at lunch, do not expect to walk away without dropping significant coin but if you book far enough ahead, you can be reasonably certain of not being seated in “Siberia.”

Theme your Dining:  2 years ago, Ben and I went to the gastronomical capital of the world, Paris. Ben did not want to indulge in any  multi-course tasting meals so I had to be creative, to balance his need to restrain his calories and my need to taste well, everything!  Now in the land of foie gras and macaroons, two of his favourite foods, it was a challenge.

So our compromise was to dine for our 2 week holiday at a selection of the best classic French bistros. My thinking was that if each day, we had the Prix Fixe menu, we would be able to sample a range of typical French bistro food, while keeping our waistlines (somewhat) and wallets (reasonably) intact.

Armed with Andrew Harper’s wonderful guide to the best in Paris (AH Paris is the app), we dined a range of bistros:   some offered classic dishes at a great price (Le Grand Bistro de Breteuil), some were just over hyped (Bistro Paul Bert) , and one justifiably critically acclaimed (Spring).

Our dining theme for London was the “Name Chef”.  In case you haven’t heard, London is home to a plethora of wonderful chefs:  even that obnoxious git Gordon Ramsey has a three-Michelin-star restaurant which is considered outstanding.  So I did my research, got a couple in the “cross hairs” and made reservations.

My first reservation was at NOPI, (www.ottolenhgi.co.uk.com) the buzzy and busy restaurant by Yotam Ottolenghi.  Ottolengi believes that you should serve most of the meal at either warm or room temperature.  Chilling food does it a disservice:  the icebox robs almost everything of flavour and texture, and if you think about it, it makes sense.  And it is known as the place that made Londoners love their veggies.  Platters of visually arresting salads such as Grilled Broccoli with Chile and Garlic, Roasted Eggplant with Saffron Yogurt and Mixed Mushrooms with Cinnamon and Lemon covered the buffet from which the servers prepared individual plates.

I have one of his cookbooks, and knew that his food was marked by unfussiness and simplicity in preparation.  But it was supposed to have big bold flavours, with an emphasis on Middle Eastern spices (Ottolengi is from Tel Aviv), and frankly, it fell short.  Ben was unimpressed and so I was I.  Perhaps because Ben’s first wife was Lebanese and my mother was a very adventurous cook but it felt like we had been to this rodeo before.  It was good, but it felt like good home cooking. And certainly not worth 110 pounds sterling, with only 4 drinks.

By far our favourite meal in London was Heston Blumenthal’s The Dinner, ranked number #5 on that list of world’s best restaurants.   www.dinnerbyheston.com.   Famous for his  Fatted Duck in Bray, Berkshire, he was in the vanguard of the talented new chef’s to come out of England.

“He took his fascination with English culinary history and turned it into something unexpectedly interesting for the rest of us”. Lisa Abend, Time, 2011.

The Dinner combines two of my passions:   history and food.  His brilliant menu of reworked culinary dishes like Pressed Octopus Salad (c.1730) or Tomato Salamagundy (c. 1720) or Meat Fruit (c1500) which is his most famous creation:  in the colour and shape of a mandarin, was a chicken liver & foie gras parfait.  We took my own advice and went for the three course set lunch menu paired with wine:  it was the most interesting meal I have had in a long time, and most importantly, it was delicious.  The kitchen was visible through large windows and you could see the concentration of the “commis” as they executed flawlessly their repetitive tasks. (Reminded me of why I never wanted to cook professionally:  at this level of cooking, one chef’s vision is ten “commis” nightmares!)

For our last dinner out, I had made a reservation at Clos Maggiore, a famously romantic venue which had received excellent reviews on the booking site, www.opentable.com. (Also an excellent source of restaurant suggestions in a new city since it ranks by need eg. Fit for Foodies, Fit for Families, Good for Business, and of course, Romantic)

But you know, I did not think that anything could top that lunch and so we turned to the concierge at our hotel www.onealdwych.com.  This West End boutique hotel is outstanding.    In addition to the attentive service and luxury amenities which you should expect, there were unexpected surprises like a large infiniti pool with an underwater coral scene playing on one wall that made it seem like you were swimming with gigantic clownfish!

After a few questions about where we had already dined, he recommended  Terroirs, www.terroirswinebar.com,  a small crowded bistro with stressed out Londoners looking to unwind after work with a few glasses of wine and some “tapas-like” small plates and charcuterie to share.  It was a perfect choice for our last night in London, and with a bill, with a bottle of wine, that came to only 70 pounds sterling, a bargain.

For our next journey, I am already exploring the culinary possibilities of Barcelona and San Sebastian.  Now the later city has more Michelin stars restaurants than any place in the world, but this trip might just be our “Tapas Tour”.  After all, with 6 other food obsessed friends and family, we will have a hard time getting agreement on where to go, but a crawl through the tapas bars of the old town in San Sebastian should give everyone enough variety (and at significantly less expense) to satisfy the most adventurous of palates!

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