London eating

Although I now live on the opposite side of the world to my home city of London, I’m fortunate to get back often enough to still feel in touch.   I don’t tend to keep up to date while I’m away, so sometimes I find a new trend has gripped the country since my previous visit, though I’m still hoping for decent coffee to be the norm rather than the exception!  During my recent, very food oriented visit to England,  I found myself thinking back to what the food scene was in 1991 when I left, and found everywhere I went to be a very different experience in 2011.


One area that’s undergone a huge transformation is Borough Market.  I’d worked in the area in the early 80s, when the railway arches were black and leased to car workshops.   There were a few decent restaurants (of the steak and chips variety) but it was hard to believe it was the same place.   The market that took on its current form about a decade ago is a mecca for food lovers – I’d heard so much about it so I was pleased to finally get there.  Every stall has something to try – and I did!  And were manned by knowledgeable people who have either made or produced their wares or know the person who did.   The proliferation of cheese and cured meat stalls was just amazing, as were the fresh fruit and veg, the patés, chocolates, fudge, cookies- after much tasting several tasty packages were purchased.  I was like a kid in a sweet shop – there was so much choice of cooked food I couldn’t decide what to have.  After all that tasting I didn’t really need anything else but finally chose a coriander pancake with chicken filling while my nieces tucked into fish and chips.  Highly recommend a visit here if you’re visiting London – they have a good website that lists opening hours, etc.   If you go, try and get there as early as possible as it gets very busy.
One of the things I’ve noticed every time I come back is the gradual disappearance of the local pub – there used to be 3 in the tiny village I grew up in, now 2 have been converted to houses and one still remains but has only survived because it’s transformed into a gourmet pub, selling great food.  Apparently there are few pubs that make their money just from selling beer and pork scratchings.  I would love to have paid a visit to the Crown at Bray as I used to live opposite and it was my local for several years. Heston Blumenthal recently took it over, adding to his other Bray establishments – The Hinds Head (another pub in the village) and the famous Fat Duck restaurant.  He told me that the locals had pleaded with him not to change it too much, so I was very keen to see if he’d kept his word – reviews I’ve seen of it suggest he has.  I would highly recommend a visit to this beautiful village for the ultimate gourmet pub – I’ll just have to make it on my next trip.


Jane and I were fortunate to eat at Heston’s latest culinary adventure, Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Having read much about it before we went, expectations were high, and we weren’t disappointed.  We had a lunch booking and chose the 3 course set lunch for £28 – one of the greatest introductions to fine dining must be the ‘set lunch’ menu.  The dining room is beautifully laid out with views over Hyde Park and a glass wall looking through into an incredibly well-oiled kitchen.  The food – there were 4 courses as they brought a 2nd dessert – was fantastic.  The Ragoo of Pig’s Ear shown here was fantastic – a first time for me – never knew pig’s ear could taste so good.  And the Chocolate Wine with Millionaire tart was one of the best chocolate desserts ever – and being complete chocoholics we’ve had quite a few to compare it with.


Another wonderful ‘set lunch’ was enjoyed at The Ledbury  in Holland Park which has just been included in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurantsat number 34 (the highest new entry).    We were spoiled!   I can’t really review the set lunch as we ended up with 10 courses, which I doubt is the standard!  Every one was a work of art – beautiful to look at and even better to eat.   It helps when your lunch companion is Bruce Palling, the food editor of the European edition of the Wall Street Journal, who seems to be something of a regular there.  Brett Graham is the very talented young Australian chef at The Ledbury and since he started the restaurant in 2005 has been seen as a rising star amongst London chefs.   Having just earned his restaurant two Michelin stars and making the Top 50, we could see why after experiencing his amazing food.    His other venture, the Harwood Arms in Fulham, has also just become the only pub in Britain to earn a Michelin one star – I think we can assume this pub earns the title ‘gourmet’.  We tried to persuade Brett that he should write a cookbook.


We’d heard about a new Leon opening in the West End, which had a cookbook library.  We’d been meaning to check out this fast growing healthy-fast-food chain so with the addition of the library it became a must.   There are now 11 around London and they are changing the face of food-on-the-go – they were started by Henry Dimbleby.  His mother is well known UK cookbook author Josceline, her first book A Taste of Dreams was a favorite of mine in the 80s.   They have released two cookbooks so far, Leon: Ingredients & Recipes and Leon: Naturally Fast Food, both of which will be indexed soon. The latest Leon location is in Old Compton Street.  When you walk in it feels like a fast food joint with the food board and queues, but there are several really attractive small areas you can take your food to – including the basement that houses the library.  Although there are several hundred books already there, with pictures on the wall of celebrities who have donated them, the collection has a way to go to match most EYB members shelves!   The ‘fast’ lunch slows down considerably when there are so many books to browse through. 

Talking of cookbook libraries – we’d heard about a place called The Food Room and Library, so thought this was definitely one for us to investigate.   We found Jane Lunzer Gifford at her own home in Eccleston Square from where she runs her business. She gives demonstrations and cookery lessons, answers culinary queries, helps plan menus, loans out her library of 1,000 or so cookbooks, and sells new ones at a 10 per cent discount. She also provides cups of coffee, cookery equipment and cards and gift wrap. We very easily wiled away a couple of hours talking to Jane about cookbooks and food.   It’s like a ‘gentleman’s club’ for women – but with a purpose!

Despite living just across the river when it first opened in 1988 I never made it to the River Café – though Jane was a frequent visitor with an expense account and an office close by.  So after a hard day at the London Book Fair we decided to treat ourselves.  Despite the restaurant being very busy we got an early table and some excellent wine advice – Emily O’Hare, the delightful sommelier, recommended La Grola – a wine similar to Amarone which was a bit outside the budget.   We had a wonderful meal – Jane felt the food was just as good as when she frequented it in the 90s.

Apart from eating lots of great food the main purpose of the trip was to launch Eat Your Books in the UK and meet cookbook publishers at the London Book Fair.   The launch was a great success – we should have several write-ups about the website in the next couple of months so expect lots of new British members and lots of British cookbooks getting indexed.

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