London - British Isles
London has become a mecca for great restaurants...contrary to the myth that has grown up probably due to ignorance and jealousy especially by the French and also by many Americans unfortunately. A few years ago I was invited to lunch with a group of writers in Los Angeles. It was given to honour the Minister of Culture from the UK. After the luncheon he asked each of us to speak a few words and when it came to my turn I told him that my mission was to dispel the myth that had grown up in the USA about British food and since that time I have been doing that.
Nowadays many of the British chefs are invited all over the world to cook and I for one also find this disturbing as their egos become inflated and they start producing cuisine that is over the top! Unfortunately because of the demand by the public to have exotic dishes many chefs bring in foods that are not seasonal and this is also is to their detriment.
However, we still have hidden away restaurants in London and many towns across the UK where you can find great food being served. Using local products mostly organic and also only seasonal vegetables and fruits, they take pride in the quality of what they serve.
So let me tell you about Angelus a fabulous eating house near the Royal Park Hotel just off Westbourne Terrace. Once it was an old pub frequented by such illuminati as Winston Churchill and other political figures. The interior has an elegant Art-Nouveau feel incorporated into the original early 19h century architecture. It is also located in one of London's few remaining working mews next door to the Hyde Park Stables.
When visiting London recently and wanting to try some of the vaunted restaurants there I was fortunate to find The Royal China Restaurant which together with its sister/brother Sun aptly called the Royal China Club hold a place of esteem on Baker Street quite close to the infamous 221B Baker Street where Sherlock Holmes dwelt in times gone by. I had been quite lucky in the weather and this day again I made my way under blue balmy skies looking forward to some good Chinese grub.
The Royal China Club has more of a genteel and rarified atmosphere almost as if overseen by a great Chinese master although this perhaps is what draws a certain element of people here to dine and wine. Great lit up tanks are home to many lobsters swimming around quite aimlessly waiting to be served in a tantalizing array of dishes. And the long bar would be a great place to sip cocktails whilst waiting to be seated.
One thing I sadly miss living on the west coast of the USA are the Atlantic sea offerings in all their glorious whiteness and taste. So when I returned to London in September I set out to eat as much fish as I could. This led me to the Wright Brother’s emporium just a hop, skip and a jump from Carnaby Street actually on Kingly Street and Kingly Court (such noble sounding places!!).
A multitude of rooms met my eyes plus a large outdoor patio and great sit around eating bar. I thirsted for a good white wine and the menu answered all my seeking. Lots of champagne and sparking prosecco, a long long list of whites from France and Italy starting with a vin de pays d’Oc and reaching into an 07 Meursault from Dom. Jean Philippe Fichet, and much to chose from in between. For lovers of rose and red there are some great choices too from the Veneto, Provence and Burgundy even a pinot noir from California circa 2009! Digestifs, armagnacs, cognacs and whiskeys add to the multiple choices for those of us who love to imbibe.
Rules is the oldest restaurant in London. Situated in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, this eaterie is simply splendid not only for the food but also its history and the pictorial passing of time adorning the walls. Open midday to midnight seven days a week, you can choose to sit where such famous beings as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace, Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells quaffed their wine and filled their bellies with rich cuts of Rib, racks of Lamb, Pies and Oysters. Rules has also appeared in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Green, John Le Carre and Dick Francis.
The walls are covered with signed cartoons, drawings and paintings for after all the entertainment world gathered at Rules, from Henry Irving to Laurence Olivier and the history of the London stage is on view. Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and other notables from the art of cinema frequented this quintessential British surround. But the piece de resistance is the King Edward V11 Room, where the Prince of Wales wined and dined the beautiful actress Lillie Langtry.
One of my favorite bites of 2009 was a bit of a trek, which is most unfortunate because if I lived nearby I would be a regular. I'd eat there so often they'd probably have to name a table after me. The last time I was there I ate the perfect meal and as simple as it sounds, it's impossible to replicate. Scenery and location are always a bonus and The Smuggler's Speciality Restaurant could qualify for a memorable meal for those reasons alone.
"Smuggler's" as the locals call it, is in Waterville, Ireland at the end of the Ring of Kerry. It's not fancy, inside or out, but it doesn't need to be. It sits on Balliskelligs Bay where the mountains meet the sea and every table has a view. I had been there many years ago and when my best friend Missy and I decided to drive the countryside of western Ireland for a week in September, Smuggler's immediately came to mind. I love their logo "The fish is only fresher if it's in the sea." And I love the directions they give on their website, "One mile from Waterville on a sandy beach."
With St. Patrick's Day around the corner, I'm reminded of a spontaneous weekend trip to Ireland last December, where I discovered the warm
comfort of authentic Irish cooking.
I'm always watching for weekend getaways to new and interesting places, partly because it's hard for me to be away from home for much longer than that, but more likely due to my slightly obsessive need to accrue airline miles. (I'm saving up for that big free trip around the world). After hours of scouring travel websites and, with a little luck of the Irish, I happened upon a great fare to Dublin on American Airlines and quickly booked the trip.
I arrived on a bitterly cold yet unusually sunny Friday, and headed off to the Merrion Hotel, which had been recommended, indirectly, by ale heir Sebastian Guinness. Although tired after the 14 hour journey from Los Angeles, I resisted the impulse to nap, and instead responded to my pangs of hunger, which were exacerbated by the enticing aroma of freshly baked soda bread wafting throughout the hotel.
I don’t get it, I really don’t. Some people still think that London has lousy food. London has fabulous food. The city has seen an intense food revolution in the last 15 years or so, and cooks like Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are stars here because of what they’ve accomplished there.
You can now find superb food of every tradition, nationality, and ethnicity in London; food that reflects every new trend, political movement, and neurotic eccentricity; food at any and every price…for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So I was stunned the other day when I said to my friend Craig that I was going write a column on the best sandwiches in London, and he said, “There are no good sandwiches in London.” This from a man who grew up there and has only lived here for 12 years!!!
So here is the first part of my rebuttal to Craig, a man who’s clearly eaten one too many meals from a movie catering truck. And yet he might feel at home…given that you must order all of these standing outside on a line.
It's no secret that my best friend, Missy and I love to travel. We met 25 years ago in the parking lot of a Winn Dixie grocery store in Valdosta, Georgia. I was in college there and she was home on Spring Break from Pepperdine in Malibu, CA. I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen and never imagined that we'd grow up together and travel the world.
She put a damper on that for a few years when she got married and had 3 boys back to back. But I think we've pretty much made up for that in the last 6 months as we have been to Italy, Tuscany, Rome, the island of Capri, Spain, the South of France, Nice and Monaco. Tunisia is in Northern Africa. I hated it, she loved it. We spent a week in Paris in December, with 5 of our best girlfriends in a rented apartment on the Seine.
In our effort to downsize but continue to have fun, we scrambled
together all our frequent flyer miles and managed to put together two
return flights to London and Italy. Then, by making a small investment
on a home exchange site, we found a young woman in Prato (twenty
minutes from Florence), willing to do a non-simultaneous exchange with
our desert house in Joshua Tree.
Our first stop was London, where a kind friend loaned us her house. Although I grew up in London I have not lived there in over 30 years. The minute I walked off the plane, I was surprised by the intense 80-degree heat, a byproduct of global warming, and something I had never encountered in my childhood, where you were lucky if it reached the mid 70’s in the summer. After struggling with the new monetary denominations and a new subway system, I began to feel like a stranger in my hometown,
What is it with all the Queen’s men? In an earlier piece on great sandwiches in London, I mentioned my British friend Craig, who now lives in LA and told me “there are no great sandwiches in London.” At a recent TV Academy event, I met Steve, a young English director, who said the exact same thing. Even though he admitted that he loved the Brick Lane shop I trumpet below, he later emailed and said: “[I would] argue that 5 or 6 places out of 1000 still means we have a long way to go before we catch up with the US of A.” Then today, adding insult to injury, my friend Colin, who is here visiting from his home in Shepherd’s Bush, said that eating at certain places in Los Angeles is like a religious experience to him! Is he in the same LA I am? London is clearly having a difficult time shedding its age-old reputation as a town where baked beans on toast is a gourmet meal. But listen to me, Craig, Steve, Colin and assorted infidels – you’re out of date and worshipping at the wrong temples! Herewith, more great London sandwiches to try to convert you: