Saturday, October 25, 2008

Anglophile in London, Day 2

Anglophile in London, October 24th, 2008
London, Day 2

We awoke at 3am. And when I say “awoke,” I mean eyes-wide pulse poundingly alert. The air in our room made my throat so dry and scratchy that I did something I never do—braved the tap water. Surprisingly, the London tap is better than some bottled waters taste-wise. It has no public-swimming pool meets metal finish like L.A. Tap water does, the latter increasing in 'flavor' if you leave it sitting around.

London tap water is at the center of a movement—yes, a movement-- to promote tap over bottled water through restaurants, bars and hotels and to urge Londoners to take pride in their tap. The London water does rank the best in the UK, but when the BBC did a taste test in Notting Hill, virtually everyone could tell the difference instantly. The thrust of the argument, according to the Thames Water Chief Executive David Owens is: “Our water is 500 times cheaper than bottled water, and is kinder to the environment, emitting 300 times less CO2 to process than bottled alternatives. Tap water is not only good for you, it’s good for London and kinder to the planet.” Alright, anything I can do to help. Truth is I'm too lazy to hike to Sansbury's at 3am. Now, back to my story.

We obstinately refused to get up at 3am, and instead stayed awake in bed until we eventually nodded off. The second time our eyes opened, it was 10am, and too late to trek to Bermondsey Market like I had hoped. Not to worry, there's plenty to entertain us closer by. We walked around the corner to the British Museum and spent the morning traipsing around its marble halls. We saw George III's Library, the Rosetta Stone, intimidating Assyrian front doors (15ft high), winged lion-bodied men with beards spiraling down their chests, and bits and pieces of the Parthenon tacked up on the walls. My favorite carved stone reliefs are of the battling Centaurs, caught mid-blow fighting human men. The tension, energy, and sublime attention to delicate details like the slim curvature of veins in the muscled arms anticipates the Baroque period (which is noted for the same artistic intensity) by almost 2000 years.

Since we missed breakfast at our hotel, I was in need of some food. Once again I resisted the temptation to buy the jumbo sausage dog with oily sautéed onions from the stand firmly entrenched outside the gates of the British Museum, and we struck out to find anything but Starbucks (yes, it's here too). We stumbled upon the Malabar Express Indian restaurant in Great Russell Street, and went down the stairs in search of their £3.99 lunch special of curry and rice. For the price, it couldn't have been better. Hot spicy curry on a cold day is heaven.

We headed West to Charing Cross road, which is lined with specialty book stores, including antique book stores where 100 year old leatherbound, gilded books sell from £3-£70 and up. Age before beauty is my motto, and I refuse to buy anything post 1900, no matter what golden swirls they've ground into the cover. The prices have gone up since the last time I was here two years ago, but I spied three pricey temptations. The first was a brown leather book of Robert Browning's poetry for £67, the second was Princes and Princesses by Mrs. Lang, edited by Andrew Lang (1908), and Untravelled England by James John Hissey (1906). I passed up Browning – too expensive. I'm telling myself I will buy Princes and Princesses tomorrow – I love Victorian children's literature, and Andrew Lang is the first and foremost in the genre (sorry Charles Kingsley). But when I saw the unknown Untravelled England by the author I've never heard of, I couldn't resist. Here is a man who, over a hundred years ago, took it upon himself to write a travelogue on the “unfrequented spots” -- which is exactly what I myself vowed to do precisely 2 days ago. Of course I'm not going to attempt that grand feat on this trip, but hope remains that a longer stint in my beloved country will allow me to indulge this goal.

From Charing Cross road, passing by Leicester Square (home of the famous TKTS booth—the place to find tickets to all London shows for lower prices), we made our way to Trafalgar Square. I've passed by St. Martin's in the Fields church countless times, but this time I decided to venture inside, hoping to see crypts, maybe a stained glass window or two. We went in, climbed down the stairs, and found a cafe. The floor of the cafe has the names and dates of the people buried beneath carved into the paving stones, and I wonder how they would feel to have people spilling crumbs on their tombs. Well, the English are known for their sense of humor, so perhaps they don't mind. Further in, we passed through a doorway from the ancient stone crypt into a modern, almost clinical, underground area. I became so disconcerted by finding extreme modernity sharing ground space with a crypt beneath the elegant and stately St. Martins that I promptly marched up the brushed steel suspended staircase and out of that terrible place. Back on the venerable pavement of Trafalgar Square, we walked around taking pictures trying to avoid the tarps put up for the film festival taking place later that night.

To the left of Horatio Nelson's towering statue is the Strand—a road long associated with fashion and wealth that runs East from Trafalgar Square to Fleet Street on the other end of the City of London. It used to border the Thames closely and around 9 palaces ran along its edge from the Tudor period on. Later, it was where the literary elite resided, from Charles Dickens to John Stuart Mill. Now the Strand is lined with higher end clothing stores, postcard shops and some of the best hotels in the city, like the Savoy. We took the Strand to Covent Garden where we explored the famous covered market and gawked at the street performers, and where my boyfriend was surprised by a lingerie model in a window who would spontaneously 'come to life' to wave at passersby. Poor guy; he doesn't like lingerie stores even when the models aren't waving at him.

We found Neal's Yard Dairy, a lovely little cheese shop near Seven Dials in Covent Garden, one of my goals for the trip. Last time I was in London, I always passed this shop without ever taking down the name, but the memory of giant cheese wheels laying out in the open stuck with me. I entered the shop to take some pictures, and maybe to try a few cheeses, but one of the counter staff was coughing all over the exposed cheese, and I quickly left.

Our 6pm dinner reservation was at Rules restaurant, the oldest restaurant in London (35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, The restaurant dates back 200 years, and was opened the year Napoleon began his campaign in Egypt. Since then, Rules has become the go to place for the greats of literature, theater, and film such as Dickens, HG Wells, Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore. Rules specializes in traditional English food with a focus on game, which they shoot on their own estate in the High Pennines. For my Starter, I tried the Potted Wiltshire Rabbit with spiced apple chutney with Melba toast, which looked exactly like canned cat food, but tasted absolutely delicious (£10.95). My boyfriend tried the Terrine of Smoked Cumbrian Ham with English apple and cobnut salad for his starter for £9.50. A cobnut, for those like me who have no idea, is a type of cultivated hazelnut developed in 1830. Dinner for me was an English Grey Leg partridge with chestnut and apricot stuffing for £26.50, which I spent the better part of an hour carefully carving up. Normally, in cases such as these where utensils should be used to separate meat from carcass, I give up in about 3 minutes and use my hands like it's a Monday night at Kentucky Fried Chicken. But this is a nice place where they take your coat at the door (apparently it's impolite to wear one's coat at the table). So I struggled through scraping, pulling, prying and pushing the meat around until it was off the damned bones. If that bird had tasted any less good, I would say it wasn't worth the effort. But with the three accompanying sauces (one savory, one creamy, and one fruity), that partridge was worth returning for.

Friday, October 24, 2008

London, Getting There

Happy is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances bent.

LAX to London, Day 1 Oct. 23, 2008
Between yesterday at 8:30am and today at 12:30pm (LA time -aka 8:30pm in London) I have gotten a little less than 1 hour of sleep. I was so looking forward to a nice long plane ride too; a rare chance to relax, read, watch movies I haven't had time to see, listen to my audiobooks, and after days of being too excited to rest, it was supposed to be a chance to sleep. The plane stayed aloft, but my opinion of my flying experience lost altitude quickly.

The seats appeared to be rearranged to be packed more densely than my carry-on luggage. The back of the seat in front of me was three inches from my knee when the passenger occupying it was seated upright, but when she reclined, my knees were either jammed into the back or spread to avoid the intrusion. My boyfriend and I carefully chose seats in the very back of the plane, believing that if we got seats in the back with lots of space behind them, we would be able to take full advantage of reclining without jamming anyone's knees. Even with many feet of space behind us, our seats reclined less than the ones in front of us (much to the discomfort of my knees). To end the unhappy part of my tale, my tray was broken, and during our descent into Heathrow, the plane started leaking on me (or, rather, on a picture of Anne Hathaway's ample bosom on the back of the in-flight magazine).

On the bright side I was able to realize my goal of watching “Hancock” with Will Smith (it was much better than the critics said), and got to watch “The Edge of Love” with Kyra Knightly and Sienna Miller, which is about two of the women in Dylan Thomas' life, which I enjoyed. The highlight of the trip, however, were the free alcoholic beverages-- yes, even with the financial crunch, the airlines still booze up their international passengers gratis.

London Day 1 Contd.
Our first day in London began at 12:00pm when our plane landed. We lugged our wheeley-bags to The Imperial hotel on Russel Square, just around the corner from the British Museum, cleaned ourselves up, and collapsed on the twin beds in our closet-sized room. It's clean, it doesn't smell funny, its a quick walk from anything in Central London, and it was thrown in with the plane tickets for 2 nights-- good enough for us.

When we were somewhat recovered, we ventured out to attempt to find a raincoat for my boyfriend. So off we went to the shopping mecca that is Oxford Circus, with me pulling him in to almost every store along the way and him dragging me out by the hand with my eyes still locked on the store window displays. The one-stop-shop for youthful London fashion is TopShop: multiple floors of mens' and womens' shoes, coats, dresses, sweaters, and accessories. Come to TopShop if you want to watch the young and beautiful from every corner of the world converge and push each other back and forth for time in front of the mirrors. The boyfriend didn't find the coat he wanted, but I tried out every single one in the ladies' section, doing my share of pushing for mirror time, and came out with a knee-length blue wool coat with subtle orange stitching and burnt orange satin lining and a matching scarf (£111 total).

On the way back, I saw the green coat I've been dreaming about for the past two years in a shop window. Everything about it is perfect: the shape is more like a dress than a jacket, and there are velvet rosettes sewn into the right lapel. It fits like it was tailored just for me. I couldn't resist: £129.

By this time, my boyfriend was exhausted, both from shopping and from holding my coat and purse while I tried on clothes, so we found one of the many hole-in-the wall restaurants and sat down. The restaurant is called Ooze Risotteria (62 Goodge Street, London, W1T 4NE), and while it has many other items on the menu besides Risotto, I don't recommend them. The house wine had no body, the bruschetta appetizer lacked taste and the tomatoes appeared to have come out of a can—but the Zucca e Salvia risotto (butternut squash with sage and walnuts) was exceptionally good. A good risotto requires patience and unwavering meditative attention, which might explain why the other food was lacklustre. Dinner was around £20 for two, plus wine and appetizer.

With our wine to fortify us against the chilly night wind, we trudged home along cobbled streets still twinkling under the lamplights from the gentle rain.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Take a second to click into Spice Monkey

Allow me to take a moment to plug my new favorite blog: Spice Monkey.

Spice Monkey is hosted by my friend in India, who while taking a break from plotting counter-attacks against the shifty-eyed house lizards, has decided to share her growing culinary expertise in exotic cookery. And since her friends are fairly accomplished chefs as well (including me), she has graciously accepted our contributions to her blog.

So if you're looking for health-conscious recipes with flavors from the East, far East, Middle East, and eventually the Western hemisphere as well, Click into Spice Monkey, where the motto is: Khao, piyo, aur jiyo (Eat, Drink, and Live).

Keep an eye out for my recipes too: Saffron Chicken with Couscous, Rose-water Fruit Salad, Baked Mini-Pumpkins, and Turban Squash Soup.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Engine Co. No. 28

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you to treat a ketchup bottle like a woman?”

I looked up at my boyfriend, looked down at the bottle, and slammed my fist onto its bottom repeatedly.

“Now you’ll never get any” he said, without a hint of irony. “You’ve clogged it now.”

Unfortunately, my ketchup bottle playing hard-to-get was the most entertaining aspect of my lunch at Engine Co. No. 28. The pile of Spicy Garlic Fries (does every restaurant in Downtown LA have garlic fries?) was pretty good, and I enjoyed the slow build of heat from the red pepper flakes coating them. I had the grilled chicken and watercress sandwich and vegetarian chili, which comes with guacamole, pico de gallo and cheddar shreds, and my boyfriend had angel hair pasta coated with olive oil with a few chunks of tomato thrown in, for a total of around $40. For a restaurant built in a 1912 fire station, Engine Co. 28 lacks excitement.

The architecture, more than the food, is worth the price of a meal. What is now the restaurant was once the apparatus room where the station’s two motor-driven fire trucks were kept, but in the early 1900s, even garages were elegant. The 18-foot pressed tin ceilings and the giant metal door through which patrons enter are impressive, and the enlarged black and white pictures of Los Angeles’ horse-drawn fire engines pay respects to L.A.’s history, much of which has been torn down since the turn of the century.

644 S. Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90017
Phone: (213) 624-6996
Reservations are recommended.