Oh hey! I went to London! I actually went a lot of other places too, because it’s been, oh, 3 months since my last post. Oops. I’m not sure I want that to be the new normal here, but I’m not forcing a different schedule. It feels great!
Since that last festive check in with cake in December, I’ve been to Boston and back and to Boston again, then off on a planned trip to London for work, followed by a whirlwind vacation to Copenhagen, Berlin, and Prague. That was already going to be A LOT, and then while I was in Boston the second time, another week got added to the front of the trip when I would now be in Oxford. I basically came home for two days to get my passport and then I was off again. 2019 so far has brought a new joy into my life of stress-induced insomnia, and I am tired!
But, hello! London!
Right, so it wasn’t all bad. I was not sleeping very well, but I wasn’t sleeping well abroad, so you know, silver lining and all that. And, apart from the work stress of it all, I was actually so ready to finally be going back to London after a spring break trip there in 2006 (please don’t do that math).
And then, when I found out I was going to Oxford too? The history nerd in me was beyond thrilled. There is a castle there! And really old pubs! And really old universities! My inner supernatural romance fan was thrilled too, although, there was a moment when my coworker insisted to me that I was standing in front of the Bodleian Library and I vehemently insisted otherwise, but I definitely did not admit that my certainty came from having just binged A Discovery of Witches, both TV and book versions. I knew exactly where Matthew Goode had been standing and intensely staring, but no need to mention that. Gotta keep it professional, you know?
Not unexpectedly, I found myself completely charmed by Oxford. I can’t say the love extends to cask ales, but I really fell for the city’s beautiful streets, village atmosphere, and cozy pubs, in which I got to drink with not only my fun coworkers but also C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Queen Mother, at least in spirit. And two of the pubs claimed origins from the 12th century, which will never not be astounding to me! Nothing like a 900 year old drinking establishment to remind you that Europe is old.
The food in Oxford was, fine, if not particularly memorable, but every restaurant we went to was tasty and for the most part friendly, and as it was February, often less than crowded. My ideal, honestly, and the complete opposite of everywhere I tried to go in London.
I was sad to leave the foggy, quaint streets and my hotel that was in an actual castle jail, not to mention the company. But it was off to London for me, and almost two weeks of solo travel. Yay? Even as an experienced and sometimes purposely solo traveler, I was not looking forward to that second part. But after the drive from Oxford, London’s drunk skyline, palaces, and Ottolenghi were beckoning, so I determined to make the best of it.
I arrived in London just in time for a weekend of marathon sightseeing, walking myself a combined total of 22 miles over two days. I criss-crossed the river on my way to revisit Westminster Abbey, took myself by the familiar sights of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and the Globe, and then walked through new-to-me St. James and Hyde Parks, by Kensington Palace, and up Portobello Road. I discovered Neal’s Yard in the rabbit warren of Soho and sampled St. John Bakery’s famous donuts, took a stroll through Covent Garden and a turn on the London Eye.
I took the bus to Hackney and Violet Bakery, where I spent a happy breakfast in the sun-drenched room upstairs munching on a cinnamon bun and drinking a pot of strong, black tea. I then took all the trains on what seemed like every rail system in London out to Hampton Court. There, I marveled at Henry VIII’s kitchen(s) and William and Mary’s bedrooms, and forgot to tour the costume exhibit for The Favourite. I walked the gardens and successfully escaped the famous maze before heading back to the city, where I discovered a bar tent among food stalls on the South Bank. So, I sat and had a beer on the Thames, reveling in England’s refreshingly lax attitude towards public drinking. The curb outside may as well be a bar stool when rugby’s on at the pub, something my Boston-trained mind cannot fathom!
Once the work week started, my adventures were limited to which restaurant I was going to try to get into each evening. My success rate was not great. Turns out, in London, many restaurants actually take reservations for the bar, or not at all in many cases, which meant that I lost my usual advantage of being a solo diner. But my single status did get me quickly(ish) into Padella, where I shamelessly ordered myself two plates of pasta and a lemon tart, and it was helpful for my last breakfast at Dishoom, where the decision to put me at a four-top was perplexing, but at least I got my spicy eggs faster than the group behind me. Being alone allowed me only a 45-minute wait at The Barbary, but unfortunately was never useful in getting me a seat at The Palomar, where the quoted wait was longer every time I tried to go.
Leaving Soho seemed to be key to grabbing a seat in any restaurant, and my crowning achievement may have been waltzing into Ottolenghi in Notting Hill and snagging the last seat out of only ten(!) like it was waiting just for me. That this happened after I first tripped through the front door and nearly fell on my face in front of the tower of desserts was only a minor detriment to the experience.
I left London at the end of the week for the planned vacation part of my trip, but then returned for a quick 24 hours on my way back to SF, this time with my Mom in tow. We traced a lot of the same route as we tried to cram in as much sight seeing for her as possible, even squeezing in a couple of hours at the Tower of London before our flights home. We capped off the trip with an amazing dinner at Scully St. James, where every dish seemed more creative and delicious than the last, or maybe it was just the reintroduction of vegetables after two days in Prague eating goulash and potato dumplings?
She asked me which of the cities I’d been to had been my favorite. Maybe it was that the weather was the warmest out of all the cities, or that I could use my credit card as an Underground ticket, or it was all the donuts, or maybe it was the diversity of the food. In alleyways in Soho full of food vendors, I had Egyptian falafel for the first time since I went to Egypt, gnocchi in braised beef ragu (raclette optional). Add those all together, and hands down, I think it was London I enjoyed the most.
But I’ll still take my beer colder than room temp and slightly effervescent, please.
St. John (Neal’s Yard Bakery) I’d had their donuts in the back of my mind for years, since first reading about them here, and when I realized they had an outpost 10 minutes from my hotel I made a beeline for a pre-breakfast appetizer of lemon cream filled, fried pastry goodness. I went back once more for the vanilla custard version. They were incredible, just minus points to the place for not serving tea. What country is it even??
Violet Ok, so yes, they made the royal wedding cake. But I promise this place was on my radar before that! Ever since Claire Ptak’s book came out in 2015, it’s been sitting in my Amazon cart, waiting for me to decide I need yet another baking book. But every time I stop in my local book shop and flip through the pages, the gorgeous pastries remind me to put this place on my “to eat” list for London, so I took the bus to the Northeastern edge of London to try them for myself. You should too, if you get the chance.
Padella I came to this tiny pasta restaurant after a long day of sightseeing and walking, and after 20 minutes of waiting in line on tired legs, the host walked over and changed the sign to read “This is the line to put your name on the wait list.” I almost despaired and gave up. But I’m so glad I didn’t, because 20 minutes later, when I finally reached the head of the line, I got seated immediately. And yes, that seat was right by the door, which kept constantly being opened, and a freezing wind was coming through. But I didn’t care, because I ordered wine and ate a pici pasta that was like a chewy spatzle stirred in a creamy cacio e pepe sauce and followed that with a crab linguini dish, and finished that off with a bracingly tart lemon dessert that seemed tailor made to follow rich pastas. Go to there! Don’t take your friends, they won’t fit and you won’t want to share.
Ottolenghi Like I mentioned up top, I almost acted out my own take on Carrie’s “I fell in Dior!” moment, and at my own personal version of Dior no less, but I recovered and managed to snag the last open seat at the Notting Hill location. Once seated, I savagely inhaled a plate of cold beef, roasted squash and cauliflower salads, finishing with a pot of tea and pistachio rose semolina cake. Everything was excellent and I was just sad my hotel didn’t have a great storage option for all the pastries I wanted to take home with me.
The Barbary I got in to eat here on my second attempt, and it was one of the best meals I had in London. You do probably have to wait no matter what, as the seating consists only of a horseshoe shaped bar around the kitchen, but if your experience is like mine, they will bring you wine and falafel while you wait. When you are finally seated, the naan will be blanket-sized, the harissa will taste like your own homemade version (giving you massive ego) and your lamb chops will come out garnished with a blazing sage bonfire.
Gunpowder One of the other best meals I had in London, and a nice change in location from Soho. On my way there, I got off at the wrong Tube station and walked through an entire neighborhood of curry spots in Whitechapel, and the smells wafting out of them were tempting, believe me, but this elevated Indian restaurant near Tower Bridge was fantastic, and I’m glad I didn’t let myself be diverted. I squeezed into a seat at the counter where I tried an impeccable mustard-marinated fish steamed in a banana leaf and a charred broccoli dish I plan to replicate. If I ever go back I will bring friends and try the rest of the menu.
Duck & Waffle This place is known for exactly what the name suggests, a waffle topped with a confit duck leg and a fried duck egg, all drizzled with a mustard-maple syrup. That was worth trying, but so were the ox cheek stuffed donut with apricot sauce that i’m still thinking about, and the fried pig’s ears we had for a snack with drinks while waiting for a table. Oh, and this place is perched at the top of one of London’s skyscrapers, so the view is pretty okay too!
Dishoom This small chain serves dinner, but breakfast at Dishoom is special and shouldn’t be missed. They are known for their bacon naan breakfast sandwich, a creation of soft, pliable naan filled with a schmear of cream cheese, spicy tomato sauce, herbs and several strips of crispy bacon. They have other versions of naan sandwich , but I tried the bacon and I think it is famous for a reason. I don’t usually repeat dining spots when I travel, but I also went back and tried the omelet with grilled bread and masala baked beans for an Indian take on the traditional English breakfast, and was only sad not to make it back for a third time with my mom for the bun maska. Next trip!
Scully St. James I didn’t make it to Nopi on my trip, but this kitchen is run by a Nopi alum, and the focus on veggies feels similar to the Ottolenghi ethos. Every dish we tried was inventive and so fresh tasting, and light enough (or at least not so heavy) that we had room to try two desserts. The pineapple brulee tart was excellent, sure, but my dessert of ice cream, black sesame cookie, and miso caramel blew me away.