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London calling – Enjoying a right culinary knees-up in the Big Smoke

Bread sticks at Borough Market
By jenga! Beautiful Borough bread.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” so said Samuel Johnson. This is doubly true when it comes to food and drink. When I lived in London, half a lifetime ago, I was truly bowled over by the diversity of restaurants and food shops. The streets were not paved with gold; they were lined with dim-sum, shawarma, pie and liquor, and rice and peas. Since that time my culinary enthusiasm for the city has not diminished, as a recent trip to the Big Smoke bore testament.

A couple of weeks ago JML and I ventured “darn sarf” for a concert – the fabulous Alison Moyet, at the Royal Albert Hall, no less. Sneakily, I also engineered our trip to include a few dining and quaffing highlights. Well for the most part, but more of that to come. So what follows is an overview of some of the places we visited during our sojourn in London, together with details of what we enjoyed there.

As we were stopping a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall we decided to go for somewhere local and straightforward for an early dinner to proceed the concert. So “hoorah” for the internet for pointing us in the direction of the Builder’s Arms, a smashing hostelry nestling in the heart of Kensington. The pub occupies the corner of a Victorian block, and has been nicely renovated to maintain original features, whilst being decked out in the shabby chic interior design that appears to be de rigueur amongst UK boozers at the moment. It also features a charming wee terrace for alfresco socialising. Best of all, however, the place boasts a great range of beers and a pretty decent menu of pub grub. JML’s burger with skinny chips was delicious, and my cider & tarragon battered cod with skin-on chips, crushed peas and tartare sauce was really spot on. Oh, and the place has charming staff, which contrasts markedly with…

The Gloucester Arms, which we chose for a post concert catch-up with friends, specifically because its website indicates it is open until midnight, Thursday to Saturday. Imagine our surprise then when, having literally just ordered our drinks, last orders was called at 11pm. The attitude of the pub’s staff – when we questioned this apparent licensing anomaly – ranged from that of disengaged indifference to bordering on the hostile. To be fair, our subsequent complaint to the pub’s owners – Taylor Walker – has resulted in a fulsome apology and compensation, but it will be a long time before I consider frequenting this establishment again.

Busy Borough Market
A busy Borough Market.

Now, any foodie-influenced trip to London should have high on its itinerary a visit to Southwark’s Borough Market. As a fresh-faced marine biologist in the late 80’s, I had to sample the River Thames right next to this place, when it was still one of London’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. Even then, it had a real charisma about it, nestling and bustling under the viaducts feeding London Bridge Station. Today, part of the market is still given over to wholesale operations, but this is supplemented by over 100 retail stalls that supply an amazing range of British and internationally-sourced produce. The provenance and quality, as well as the diversity, of what’s on offer is key to the success and popularity of the market. It’s a place so packed with culinary excellence that it compares with the likes of Barcelona’s world renowned Mercat de la Boqueria.

The, all too brief, Friday morning spent at Borough Market was a truly sensational experience, in every sense of the word. Bacon and sausage breakfast rolls cooked to order at Northfield Farm Kitchen, featuring superb produce from the adjacent butcher’s stall, were terrific. Likewise the deeply complex coffee we queued for with dozens of other eager punters at Monmouth. A cornucopia of Spanish ingredients that adorned Brindisa – as a lover of Iberian cuisine, I could have made off with most of the stall. The splendid fish and game beautifully displayed at, the aptly named, Furness Fish and Game. Jenga-esque stacks of olive and cheese bread sticks that adorned the Bread Ahead pitch. “Drunken” Italian cheeses, soaked in wine, as served by L’Ubriaco. I could go on, and on, and ON…

Fish stall at Borough Market.
Ferocious fish at Borough Market.

After all our salivating in Borough, lunch needed to be equally special. It was. For a catch-up with a good friend we headed to nearby Bermondsey, to a restaurant owned by José Pizarro – a Spanish-born, London-based chef whose modern take on Spanish Cuisine I really admire. Pizarro possesses the sort of hip Hispanic vibe you might expect from an eatery in Bilboa, Barcelona or Mardrid, rather than one south of the Thames. With it’s stripped wood and brick interior, ornately tiled bar, and open, la plancha kitchen, it certainly looks the part and the food and drink are equally impressive.

Starters included: chicken pate flavoured with Pedro Ximénez – smooth, rich with a hint of sweetness; and a refreshingly simple – yet tastey – salad of spinach, black olives and pine nuts. Mains truly demonstrated how successfully Pizzaro can reconstruct some Spanish classics. Suquet de Pescadores (literally Catalan fishermen’s stew) featured a beautifully cooked fillet of hake, bathed in an broth combining complex tastes of seafood and safron, all adorned with succulent clams. The lamb cutlets, with apple compote and baby potatoes were fried to perfection, with the sweetness of the fruit providing a great complement to the meatiness of the chops. Add to this a bottle (or two) of crisp Spanish white wine, the sharing of a superb chocolate fondant for afters, and parting shots of raisiny Pedro Ximénez sherry and zippy espressos, and what was experienced was a very good lunch indeed.

Lamb cutlets at Pizarro Restaurant.
Lucious lamb cutlets at Pizarro.

All too soon, it seemed our capital culinary adventure was drawing to a close. Yet not before availing ourselves of a splendid brunch prior to catching the train back to Edinburgh. Now those of you who travel regularly between Scotland and London will probably be aware that Kings Cross Station – and its surrounding environs – have experienced a significant change for the better during recent years. What used to be a somewhat seedy and rundown neighbourhood has been rejuvenated, resulting in some well-respected restaurants taking up residence. And so we trotted off to The Grain Store to break fast before travelling north.

Rolled spicy shrimp omelette at The Grain Store.
Grain Store’s spicy shrimp omelette

Housed in an converted warehouse right next to Regent’s Canal, this is a cavernous restaurant where the boundaries between kitchen, bar and dining space all seem to merge, making for some great culinary theatre. Chef Bruno Loubet’s food has received some great reviews, so we were keen to sample his very appetising weekend brunch menu. I wasn’t surprised when JML honed in on the Croque Madame – it’s a favourite of his. The Grain Store‘s take on this French café classic certainly met with his approval, consisting of two chunky slices of artisan bread packed with ham and Gruyère, and topped with creamy béchamel and a freshly fried egg. My rolled omelette with a spicy shrimp filling consisted of a fluffy tube off lightly-cooked egg which concealed a filling of delicious seafood suspended in a chilli-laden red bean sauce. A truly tasty pick-me-up. It would have been rude to have left without trying a dessert, of course, so we both went for the “tart of the day” which happened to be pear and almond. It was nice enough – being accompanied by a dollop of intensely vanilla-laden ice cream – but could maybe have done with just a bit more of frangipane hit.

So happily weary – and probably several pounds heavier – we wound our way back to Edinburgh. I adore the city I now call home, but can’t wait for another chance to sample London’s foodie delights in the autumn, when we shall return to watch a performance by the musical goddess that is Kate Bush. Any suggestions for places at which we should eat and drink during our coming visit would gratefully received!

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