Going to the Olympics will be a huge amount of fun, especially if you know where to eat. Before I left on the trip, I used Facebook and Twitter to ask for restaurant recommendations.
My wife's cousin who lives in Switzerland insisted that when we were in London, we had to go to Yotam Ottolenghi's food shops selling ready-made or, as the English call it, "take-away" salads, mains and desserts.
I visited the Belgravia Ottolenghi at 13 Motcomb Street (there are others in Notting Hill, Islington and Kensington and a small sit down restaurant called Nopi near Oxford Circus).
Ottolenghi is a showman who puts his flashiest products in the front window. The tarts, cup cakes, muffins and cookies are drop dead gorgeous.
Just inside the shop, farmers market fresh salads are displayed in large oval bowls on elevated platforms, the better to grab your attention. Almost as an afterthought, the few mains like cold chicken and baked salmon are tucked out of sight in a refrigerated section.
After walking happily around London for hours, I was hungry, so I bought the large plate with a choice of three salads and one main. Everything looked so good and the lavish descriptions so scrumptious ("Heritage carrots with cumin seeds, garlic, lemon, coriander, rocket and pomegranate seeds"), I struggled to narrow my choices.
Ultimately I selected the roasted baby potatoes, mixed green beans with asparagus and peas, the red rice and quinoa with mixed nuts and herbs and the roasted chicken. For dessert I chose a piece of plum tart.
Overall, the quality of the dishes was good although the chicken would have been improved by being heated and the potatoes were soggy. The red rice and quinoa salad and the mixed green bean salads were very good.
The plum tart was excellent, as well as beautiful. What I didn't eat, I brought back to the hotel so we would have late night snacks. Given the exchange rate, the lunch cost about $40.00, so it wasn't cheap.
Riding House Cafe
Located under the London Tower Bridge at the London Tower tube stop on the Jubilee subway line, the Market is open Thursday (11:00AM-5:00PM), Friday (Noon-6:00PM) and Saturday (8:00AM-5:00PM). Part street fair and farmers market, the Market has outdoor restaurants, indoor cafes and ready-to-eat food in a funky, casual setting.
I came back to the Market every day, determined to soak up the delightfully chaotic ambience and to eat as much of the food as I could, accepting samples of Turkish sweets, French pastries and cheeses, English cheese, Spanish cheese, freshly made yogurt and samples of freshly baked bread.
Since the Tate Modern is only a ten minute walk from the Market, I spent one morning exploring the permanent collection and then had lunch at the Market. Another day I had lunch at the Market first and then walked to the Tate to see the Damien Hirst exhibition (until September 9, 2012). An exceptionally well-currated, comprehensive and large exhibit of Hirst's art, tickets are required and should be booked on line well in advance.
I ate grilled scallops on the half-shell topped with crumbly bacon bits and bean sprout-slaw from Shell Seekers, Catalan stew with meatballs, chorizo butter, peppers with seafood paella from Cafe Brod and Thai green curry from Furness Fish & Game. For my breakfast I bought a French baguette from Oliver's Bakery and a piece of Beilleuaire's cow's milk cheese (Machecoulais Cremeux Boîte).
At the entrance to the Market, I had freshly brewed coffee and a late afternoon apple pastry at Monmouth Coffee Company. Also just outside the Market is a Neal's Yard Dairy shop with giant wheels of cheese stacked floor to ceiling. For any cheese aficionado, the Market is a must-stop.
Coming on Thursday, the least busy day, I watched a cooking lesson at the popular and free Demonstration Kitchen (Noon-2:00PM) where resident chef, Hayley Edwards, cooks up fresh dishes made with the market's products. She gives away the recipes and samples. The food is as delicious as any you would have in a fine dining restaurant.
Speaking of fine dining, we splurged and had two meals that were really good and worth recommending.
A few years ago, I interviewed chef Albert Roux when he opened his first American restaurant outside Houston. He talked excitedly about the advantages of cooking in America, with our bounty of produce, seafood and meat.
In the 1960s, he and his brother Michel revolutionized English cooking when they opened Le Gavroche, the first world class French restaurant in London. Since then, he, his brother and son have opened a score of restaurants. One of the most recent is Roux at the Landau (1C Portland Place, W1B 1JA, 020-7965-0165) in the elegantly comfortable Langham Hotel in London's West End.
Working under Michel Roux (Albert Roux's son), Chris King, the young chef who runs the kitchen, lived in the United States so, like chef Roux, he appreciates locally sourced products. His cooking draws inspiration from French cooking (of course!), as well as from English, Spanish and Mediterranean cuisines.
The highlights of the meal were the Cornish squid with squid emulsion on top of shaved cauliflower, English asparagus with a soft-coddled egg (the yolk ran bright yellow when the egg was cut open), a beef fillet with a magical anchovy tarte--the crusty top, caramelized and sweetened--falafel made with broad beans instead of chickpeas that evaporated in the mouth after a sweet outer crunch, a creamy ricotta with cavatelli pasta and pickled cippolini onions and a long rectangle of eggplant that was roasted with the Middle Eastern spice, za'atar and served with a cracked wheat pilaf and peeled cherry tomatoes.
And then there were delicious French and English cheeses and desserts that balanced sweetness and texture using chocolate, ice cream and crispy, warm cinnamon doughnuts.
At Heathrow Airport and St. Pancras train station, I had coffee at Costa Coffee, a clean and well-appointed shop with good coffee and tea, freshly baked goods, snacks and sandwiches. You'll see Costa Coffee shops all around greater London. I was tired and hungry and a cup of coffee and Costa's biscuits hit the spot.