Aug 15, 2019
Like Paris, London is one of the great food cities of the world. On this trip, we ate at two of the city’s most iconic restaurants—St. John and Ottolenghi. We had a number of pub meals, some memorable and some easily forgettable, and fantastic pizza. We also ate mediocre noodles at Menya Ramen House (my son argued, and I agree with him, that the Sunday afternoon ramen—with homemade noodles and broth—served out of paper cups at Ebisuya in Medford is significantly better) and had some innovative dim sum at a place called BaoziInn.
My parents made reservations three months in advance so we could have dinner at the eponymous restaurant of Yotam Ottolenghi—author of numerous popular cookbooks that form a staple in our houses. The thing that surprised me most about Ottolenghi was its modest price. Unlike the two high end restaurants we ate in France, Ottolenghi is quite affordable—plenty of the items on the menu cost less than 15 pounds. In truth, it’s the wine that really costs. If you’re in London, on a budget, and want to eat there, two people could probably have a world class meal without drinks for under 60 pounds (maybe even under 50).
The menu is divided into two sections. There are a bunch of pre-made dishes—essentially tapas—that they have in the window for passersby to see. These are all cold and all delicious. The most memorable was a grilled gem lettuce salad (grilled lettuce being something that I very much like and rarely find on the menu anywhere).
The other part of the menu is the larger hot dishes that come from the kitchen. We got a whole sole to share amongst the three adults, for reasons that are unclear to me neither of my children like seafood, while my son had pork chops (which he split with my father). We had a couple of other hot dishes, the mackerel being most memorable, and finished with some great desserts (the British usually call them puddings) which were flavorful and not too sweet.
We had dinner with Marketa Luskacova our last night in London at St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields. Years ago, it was almost impossible to get into. These days it is still quite popular, but St. John Bread and Wine was able to accommodate a party of five with a few days’ notice. Like Ottolenghi, it is surprisingly affordable. The total cost of meal for five, with drinks, was about the same cost as a meal at a fairly good mid-priced place in Houston. The food, however, was in a different class.
St. John is credited with launching a Renaissance in British cooking. When it opened it did something completely different—it offered a well executed return to classic British cooking. Not pub food, or the high-end stuff that, at the time, was basically trying to imitate French or Italian, but the food that the British made for themselves from local ingredients prior to the wars.
It advocated something they called nose to tail cooking—making use of every part of the animal—which I appreciated in the 1990s and still appreciate today (I didn't partake in it then (as I was, at the time, a vegetarian) or now (currently being a pescatarian)). St. John also returned to vegetables that had been forgotten or where rarely used—samphire being one—perfected the Welsh Rarebit, and just generally celebrated local food.
I love St. John because despite all of this it is the opposite of pretentious. The tables are refurbished wood and the chairs exhibit a utilitarian happenstance like beauty rather than an intentional elegance. What’s more, it is quite possible to eat there for the same price as a meal of fish and chips. Their Welsh Rarebit is something like a seven pounds. That, a green salad to accompany it, and a glass to wash it down won’t set you back more than fifteen pounds.
We ate here our first afternoon in London. It is located right up the street from the flat we rented for the week. Overall the meal was quite nice—the best bit probably being their homemade kimchi—but the part we enjoyed most was the sticky toffee pudding. Sticky toffee pudding is a classic British dessert and sometimes can be a bit cloying. This version was just about perfect, spicy and deep with a sweet, but not overwhelming, toffee.
Over the years, I have become something of a pizza connoisseur. As a single parent, I have often had to take my son along with me on preaching and speaking gigs. Part of the deal is that whenever he accompanies, we try the local pizza place that is reputed to be the best. I have lost track of the number of pizza places we’ve eaten at together but it’s easily over fifty.
Our consensus is that the best pizza we’ve had is from Santarpio’s in Boston. It is one of the oldest pizza places in the United States. I took my son there for all of his birthdays between the ages of six and ten and we made sure to eat there when we were in Boston for my first Minns lecture.
Santore is second on the list (I would actually put it first, but I doubt my son would forgive me). Located in the Exmouth Market, they make pizza by the meter. The sauce is amazing (fined ground tomato without too much garlic), the cheese excellent, and the presentation, well the presentation is something else.
We had dim sum for lunch our last day in London before going to go see Hamilton. We wanted someplace near Hamleys, where my son and I spent the morning, from which we could to travel the theater easily afterwards. BaoziInn specializes in colorful dim sum, basically dumplings cooked in dough that’s been naturally colored with beet or spinach juice. Overall, it was among the better dim sum I have had (the salt and pepper squid was exceptional). My son really liked their soup dumplings and there was a cloud ear fungus dish that was something else.
Of the five restaurants I have mentioned, I would definitely go back to Ottolenghi, St. John and Santore. BaoziInn and Smokehouse were both good, but I would only go to them again if they happened to be convenient. The dim sum at BaoziInn is a fun experience but in truth its not as good as Windsor Dim Sum Cafe in Boston, where my family went regularly when we lived there. And Smokehouse is basically a less interesting, and less well executed, version of St. John.
Aug 5, 2019
My parents and I had dinner in the Exmouth Market with R and S, two of their oldest friends in London—people that they’ve known for forty years. There was quite a bit of storytelling, including one episode that involved R almost being thrown into a canal in Belgium. When they told the story, I thought it was from thirty years ago. Turns out it was from about five years ago—which surprised me since my parents and their friends would have been in their late sixties or early seventies then. The basic gist is that they went out for a meal in Belgium that turned out to be quite mediocre. After the meal, there was some dispute over check. During the course of it, R unwisely told the proprietor, “Your beer is shite.” I was a little unclear on exactly why he felt this was appropriate. The proprietor apparently didn’t think it was and began backing R towards the canal they were all standing near while threatening to deposit R in it. Catastrophe was averted when my Mom and S hustled R off and my father settled up with the proprietor. It is a little hard to imagine the four of them—grizzled and opinionated—getting into a significant enough dispute that someone—presumably a good thirty or forty years younger—would threaten to deposit one of them in the nearby canal.
That story was far from the most interesting one told over the course of the evening. That honor goes to one that R and S recounted about their mutual friend, the journalist and academic Henry Clother. Henry died almost twenty years ago, earning obituaries in the Guardian and elsewhere.
I have vague memories of Henry from my youth. He loved to sail, and I remember going to see the tall ships with him. I hadn’t thought of him in more than twenty years and if it wasn’t for our dinner with R and S I probably wouldn’t have thought of him ever again. He was a notable eccentric. He never married nor had kids. His closest friend was the well known BBC commentator Margaret Howard. The two of them served as each other’s journalist review companions—one accompanying the other to the theater or a restaurant or whatever when one of them had been assigned to write a review.
Henry’s greatest eccentricity might have been connected to the flat in which he lived in London (he also owned a home in Gillingham). Apparently, it was owned by a cat.
S took great relish in describing the flat, the sight of many, I can only presume, somewhat wild parties from her and my parents not quite youth (early middle age?). It was an old Victorian flat which she repeatedly labelled “grotty.” It hadn’t been remodeled since sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. The kitchen doubled as the bathroom (in Britain the toilet is where you go do your business while the bathroom is where you bathe). There was an old claw bathtub in the middle of it. When Henry had parties, or presumably when he cooked, he put some boards on top of the tub as a makeshift counter and chopped vegetables, sliced bread, and prepared the meat.
Anyway, Henry wasn’t the owner of the flat. It belonged to a cat. Some years prior one of Henry’s equally eccentric friends had died. She had been a cat lover and organized a Society for the Protection of Cat, not cats in general, cat in particular. Specifically, the purpose of the society was to protect her cat. On the occasion of her death, the Society for the Protection of Cat became the owner of her flat. Henry was allowed to live there—rent free as I understand it—provided he saw to it that the cat was fed and received its daily injection (in addition to being, the owner of a flat, the cat was also diabetic).
It is unclear to me exactly how long Henry lived in that flat as a tenant of the cat. But it sounds like a long time—quite probably much longer than the cat itself lived.