London - British Isles

london6.jpgIn 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,  

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piccadilly.jpgSpring break senior year, two months before I graduate from NYU is not exactly a vacation even though I went to London to visit my Dad.  It’s more like preparation for my final senior project, a focused study amalgamating EVERYTHING I’ve learned up ‘til now, split up by small breaks of art, shopping, and of course, food.  Basically, stress oozed out of every pore the entire ten days.  I tried doing yoga; I tried going for runs; I tried a few breathing exercises, and sure, all of that helped, but there’s really only one thing that hit the spot: chain restaurants.

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island-grillThis lively bar and restaurant is situated in the towering Lancaster London Hotel opposite Hyde Park and is a ideal spot to enjoy modern European cuisine served with panache by a friendly staff who have been trained well in the art of taking care of their patrons as well as being knowledgeable about the dishes they are serving and wines they are pouring.

Awarded 2 AA Rosettes for their eco friendly conservancy the restaurant is committed to using local produce when available and the chef early in the morning visits wholesale markets to buy fresh organic foods.

The menu is a mix of contemporary European cuisine and is well received by guests from the hotel and local residents of every nationality who live in the area. An open kitchen gives you the opportunity to watch the chefs at work creating mouth-watering dishes for your enjoyment. The restaurant is split-level with floor to ceiling windows looking out over Hyde Park and is only a minute's walk from Lancaster Gate Tube Station.

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rivercafe.jpg The good thing about having a sister who owns a restaurant – and The River Café is a great one in my opinion – is that when she’s cooking my son is allowed to order ‘off the menu’. In his case it’s a plate of the most wonderful creamy pasta carbonara. Made special for him with egg yolks the color of oranges, peppered pancetta and the parmesan cheese hand carried from Parma, I suppose. The bad thing is that my sister won’t let me have any. “You don’t need it”, she says looking at my waist. So it’s the regular menu for me.

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shardbuildingIt may have started with the London cabbies, but the city’s new skyscrapers all have affectionate but cheeky nicknames: Can of Ham, Cheesegrater, Gherkin, Walkie-Talkie, and the Shard to name a few… They are all easy to spot; their height and outrageous design makes them obvious. It is said that the Walkie-Talkie has created scary wind patterns with its Downdraught Effect and worse, “A Death Ray” as one report called it “channeling the sun in its concave façade to temperatures capable of melting cars!” YIKES! All in all, 230 such towers are in the planning. Wow!

It is the Shard AKA Shard of Glass, Salt Cellar or London Bridge Tower, however that took our fancy! Called the Shard as it truly does look like a large sliver of broken glass, this structure houses, according to its architect, Renzo Piano, “a tower as a vertical city, for thousands of people to work in and enjoy.” Besides offices, the Shangri La Hotel and numerous bars on the top floors, it has the sexy HUTONG – my new favorite Chinese Restaurant. If you have been in London within the last two years you may have already had the pleasure of experiencing Hutong, or if you have been to Hong Kong you will recognize this as an outpost of the renowned restaurant with the same name. If not, let me sing its praise.

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