British Invasion

me simon andrew 2014 portobello road

I’m an Anglophile. The names of my sons say it all. Oliver and Barnaby.   It wasn’t on purpose, but I accidentally copied Tom Stoppard, who happens to have two kids with the same names.

I was, however, copying my friend Robin and her husband Gene, who, last year, had gone to London, then chunneled it to Paris. Sounded great. Had to try it too.   Anyway, I needed a London fix. It had been too long since I’d seen my old friends.

From Robin, I wanted the names of restaurants as well as her hotel in London. She raved about the hotel, but I nixed it because of the location. I like to be in the thick of things — to be able to walk straight out into the action.

Robin warned me to book Ledbury restaurant immediately. I’m tech-challenged, and although the website listed an open reservation, I couldn’t make it work. Then, in the weeks before our trip, Ledbury was awarded a Michelin star and it was suddenly booked many months in advance. I’d been hearing a lot about the great new dining explosion in London. Figuring Ledbury wasn’t meant to be this time, I moved on to book a few other highly recommended restaurants.

Fish wrapped in cabbage leaves at Wright Bros Soho Oyster House

Fish wrapped in cabbage leaves at Wright Bros Soho Oyster House

First night we arrived, we headed just a few blocks from our perfect location — the Soho Hotel — to Wright Brothers Soho Oyster House. I found it online in a Travel and Leisure article about best new London restaurants. We had Black Head Sea Bream with a Nam Jim sauce, wrapped in cabbage leaves with ginger, spring onions, chili, parsley, dill and julienned bell peppers. But first, we shared Grilled Cornish sardines served on grilled bread. We were off to a good start. Did delayed jet leg just prevent me from remembering the fries, I mean, chips?    The whole meal was superb. Make that a British brilliant!

The following day, we had plans with Andrew and Simon. I adopted them as friends years ago, when they were young lads and mates with one of my best friends, Lisa. I figured her mates were mine — and each year, I took a trip and hung out with them. Sometimes I felt like a spectacle – like they were observing me the way you might an animal in a zoo. I was a REAL Californian with tons of who-was-sleeping-with-whom gossip, and plenty of inside Hollywood stories to tell.

Simon picked us up at our hotel because he first wanted to introduce us to one of his favorite spots. Directly across the street from the Soho Hotel is Princi, a Milanese pastry shop. The counter is filled with divine looking croissants, cakes, pastries and breads. We sat at the long black marble countertop and shared a wonderful, very fresh strawberry tart and a couple of strong espressos, before our quick drive to meet Andrew on Portobello Market Road.

We had planned to try this really interesting Moroccan fish truck – all right, lorry — that Andrew raves about – a truck, mind you, with seating, so I was excited. Until the weather changed our minds for us — it began to rain, and we just grabbed something random to eat, pizza. Afterwards, we walked by the truck and saw all those happy diners and now all I do is long to try the place. If you’re searching for the Moroccan fish stall, it’s on Golbourne Road at the top of Portobello. Hope that helps. Before we left the neighborhood, we ducked into a Portuguese coffee shop called Oporto for another spot of coffee. (spot! — in LA, I just have coffee.) I didn’t order a thing – but when I noticed Simon scarfing down these pastries, I must have looked jealous, because he bought one for me. Later that night, I was dying as I took my first bite of this Portuguese delight. Flaky outside, with a custard filling. Those delicious small custard tarts are called Nata.

Then it was off to Arbutus, recommended by Andrew and written up a lot. I ordered a salad of Scottish crab, pink grapefruit, avocado, young gems and crackers. This is a perfect place for a pre-theater dinner.

We were really keen on seeing what was going on in the East End of London because I keep reading about it. So Andrew fetched us at our hotel to check out the scene, which looked a little like Brooklyn to me. If I didn’t hear cockney and other British accents everywhere, the people and the style could have been Silver Lake or Williamsburg. That’s the tricky thing about what the Internet has brought to our world and culture. There was a time when I’d visit London and come home sporting a new fashion trend that wouldn’t be hitting the States for another year. It always gave you a jumpstart. Now, everyone everywhere is up on fashion at exactly the same time because it’s at our fingertips. Furthermore, I noticed cupcake shops all over London, and I know that’s a trend we started with Magnolia Bakery in the Village years ago. I was disappointed that they hit England because I’m not there to see more American gimmicks. I like authenticity in British food – you know, like porridge or bangers & mash. By the way, isn’t there some cute British word for cupcake?

We had booked a lunch at St. John, highly recommended by several friends and friends of friends. I ate delicious eggs on toast with mushrooms. Vegans might not like the place because it’s heavy on meat dishes, and I mean parts of the animal you’d never think of as food. I mean it’s just this side of Sweeney Todd. But there are fresh seasonal salads too. I love the room. White, airy and sparse — industrial. (White, Airy & Sparse – sounds like a British law firm.)

Everyone told us to go to high tea at The Wolseley. This is an exquisite building, formerly a showroom for the Wolseley car in the 1920’s and 30’s, hence the ornate and stately architecture. My friend said, “Celebrity sighting to your right.” He saw the famous artist Tracey Emin. Good one! She’s the artist who once had an installation titled, “My Bed,” in which she displayed her unmade bed and trash like cigarette butts strewn about. Who knew that was art? That was my bedroom in the 70’s. It recently sold for millions of dollars. Out of nowhere, we all started revealing our parents’ indiscretions when we were growing up. I felt I was in a Harold Pinter play.

I think my favorite meal of the trip was lunch at 202. I love the space in trendy Notting Hill, and that this is not only a restaurant but also a fashion boutique. We only ordered breakfast dishes, but my eggs were cooked to perfection, and they use the freshest of ingredients. There is a certain vibe to 202 that only people in the know, posh people, are regulars, and I kind of like it.

On the last night, we went to Bocca di Lupo and sat at the counter. Everything we ordered was great, but what really blew me away was the little gelato place across the street, owned by the restaurant. Gelupo. I am not even a fan of ice cream or gelato really, but this was the best I’ve ever tasted.

My favorite experience was the cab rides. Starting with our very first ride from the airport when the driver announced, “Food’s improved a lot over here. Do you like, Chinese, Peking Duck? Hutong is 33 floors up in The Shard and it’s my favorite.”   All the drivers seem so up on food. I wasn’t wearing a sign that read, I dig food, please talk to me about restaurants—although that’s not a bad idea next time I travel. The most enthusiastic of our drivers told us he was saving up for an Alain Ducasse three-course meal, so we slipped him an extra-big tip for that event.   And then he gave us a tip in return. He highly recommended eating gourmet Indian at the Cinnamon Club in the majestic old Westminster Library. From a cab driver! I really think the famous Brit chefs like Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and others helped make London a foodie destination.

London has come a long way since the days when my friend, Lisa, came to the States and ordered enough salads to last her through that city’s decades-long fresh produce famine. Her description to me, “Salads there came with slabs of some kind of processed meat, a slab of cheddar, or a piece of chicken, and a couple of wilted, tasteless pieces of lettuce, and tasteless tomato and cucumber covered in something that Heinz made called Salad Dressing, which was essentially diluted mayonnaise.” That is why she spent her first 10- 15 years of living in the States ordering a Chef Salad at every single meal.

I was really happy with all our food this trip, but not a day goes by where I don’t regret not picking up my cell phone voicemail. To save money, I had the data roaming turned off. Never turned it on again till my plane touched down on the runway in the U.S. A message. Ledbury called. They had an opening. Brilliant, Fredde! Next time.




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