“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
When you start to live your life according to the Bible of Bueller, it’s probably time to stop living in a ski resort. But, my god, it’s been fun. What’s not to love about the heady cocktail of unlimited skiing, fresh air, sunshine, snow-covered mountains, après-ski and dancing until dawn? However, the inevitable change of season has heralded a new era and my migration from the mountains to the sea. Cornwall beckons, but before I head back, I’ve been taking in a landscape of a very different kind…
London, my home town for almost a decade until 2009, is the kind of city of which I dream when faced with another cheese-tastic, formulaic, heavy, overly rich Alpine stodge-fest (hence the lack of blogging over the winter – I couldn’t bear to write about fondues and raclette, and I felt that banging on about skiing might be stretching the point of this blog, so I’ve kept quiet). I’ve been reading up and salivating at the prospect of some fantastic-sounding restaurants that have opened up over the four years since I last lived in London, vicariously experiencing them via blogs, newspapers, magazines and cookery books, whilst patiently waiting to get stuck in at the earliest opportunity.
So, first stop: The Modern Pantry. I’ve had my heart set on trying the restaurant out since a friend gave me Anna Hansen’s cookery book, full of incredible flavours and unexpected combinations (it made sense when I discovered that Anna founded The Providores with the wonderful Peter Gordon, who kindly let me loose in his magical and tiny kitchen during my training at Leiths). Sadly, Verbier is still in the dark ages when it comes to international ingredients, so I was stumped when it came to actually trying out her recipes myself, but I read the book from cover to cover like a food porn novel, mentally savouring every last mouthful of her gorgeous food. The restaurant is open all day from breakfast to dinner, with everything in between, and has the more formal restaurant as well as the more informal café, which is where we ate. The setting, in Clerkenwell, is perfect – fresh, modern, light-filled and buzzy. The menu reads so well that the major issue is deciding what to eat. So we cheated and ordered a total mish-mash, complete with matching wines, in order to create our own tasting menu: Wild garlic, roast celeriac & pecorino fritters, pear & tonka bean purée; Sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette, green chilli, spring onion, coriander, smoked chilli sambal; Grilled tamarind & miso marinated onglet steak, carrot, ginger & preserved lemon gratin, tahini lemon cream; Pan-fried south coast cod, parsnip purée, chamomile braised fennel, tomatillo & yuzu tobiko salsa; Pomegranate ‘cheesecake’, oat & pistachio crumb, mandarin & jasmine sorbet. This miscellany was like manna from heaven to my inspiration-starved palate and the wild combinations really did work. I’d go into more details, but we went on for cocktails afterwards, at which point my memory gets hazy.
Next stop was my birthday dinner with some of my favourite girls at The Almeida, opposite the theatre of the same name just off Upper Street in Islington. Run by my always-elegant friend Claire, a vision of French chic and a professional yet warm manner, we were spoilt rotten with Champagne and fabulous canapés, followed by a lovely meal about which I honestly can’t remember many details as we were all in full-on filthy story mode and I spent most of the night laughing so hard that I actually stopped breathing at one point. Thankfully we were stashed away in their private sunken room, for which the other diners were probably extremely grateful.
I escaped London for a day of relative tranquility with my gorgeous London hosts, Johnnie and Gus, to take my smallest godson to Clivedon House and then lunch at Bel & the Dragon in Cookham, a small chain of stylish restaurants in the south of England with some beautifully renovated rooms upstairs. The head chef is an old London friend, Ronnie, whose deceptively insouciant manner and charm give the restaurant a lovely, relaxed feel, all the while turning out great food, including a kiddie-friendly Sunday lunch menu. I suppose that all those years working under Gordon Ramsay is bound to either burn you out or make you super-chilled and highly talented, and it’s definitely the latter for Ronnie. For someone generally so unflustered, though, I did enjoy the look of utter shock and a few choice swear words when I unexpectedly stuck my head through the pass to say hello… always good to keep ’em on their toes.
Back in London and the eat-a-thon continued… lunch at Polpo was an utter treat in many ways. First off, my companions: the afore-mentioned Claire, this time off duty, and my dear friend and super-talented writer/director, Amit, who – as luck would have it – was in town and free for lunch. We walked in without a reservation, yet still they managed to find us a little spot near the bar at the back, giving us a great view of all the little dishes coming from the kitchen. The Venetian, tapas-style food is meant for sharing so we ordered Grilled fennel & white anchovy, Broad bean, ricotta & mint bruschetta, Spicy pork & fennel meatballs, Fritto misto, Zucchini, rocket & Parmesan salad and Rabbit & chicory tonnata salad, rounded off beautifully with a Flourless orange & almond cake and espressos that really hit the spot. I was pleasantly amazed that, including a half-litre of wine and the tip, the bill for three of us came to less than £75 (but then I have spent the past five months in Switzerland and my sense of “good value” may be a little skewed).
Not one to shirk a challenge, dinner that night was at Bar Shu with lovely friends Joe and Tom. I’ve known Joe for many years and he’s always great company, but I have to admit that there’s also another reason why I absolutely adore going to Asian restaurants with him. As a native of Singapore, now living in London, he knows his way around the menu so well that I can just close mine and let him order, which is a very exciting thing to happen to a chef, trust me. I would not usually get excited over a dish named “Boiled beef slices in an extremely spicy sauce”, but it was meltingly tender and fabulously fiery (bless Joe, he did pick out the most lethal-looking chillis before we got stuck in). The Minced chicken with preserved mustard greens were irresistible little parcels and the Spicy, whole sea bass was fresh, tangy and punchy. Even our side dish of Stir-fried water spinach with chilli was ridiculously moreish… let’s just say I didn’t end that particular day hungry.
Bear with me, there’s only so long even I can bang on about food, but I have to end with a special shout-out to my old stomping ground, Brixton Market, which has transformed from being a scruffy, sometimes ugly little duckling into a rather hip, food-tabulous swan (am I getting a bit fusion with my metaphors?) It’s a real joy, in particular, to spend a couple of hours wondering around Brixton Village, sampling different cuisines in the little cafés that line its avenues. There’s something about Federation Coffee that is instantly appealing – the way that certain spaces just feel right, with quirky touches and a cool but friendly vibe. Along the avenues, cuisines from across the world happily sit side by side, from Japan to Mexico, via Spain, Italy and Beijing. Gaby, Snow and I had set our sights on the excellent sourdough pizzas at Franco Manca and had more than our fill with two of their veggie options between the three of us. We left full and happy, with a couple of bottles of Prosecco from Market Row Wines for later. I can’t help wishing that the market had been this way when I lived on Acre Lane for all those years, but I am really happy to see such a welcome development in my old neighbourhood. Brixton has always had amazing spirit, heart and soul, as well as a great music scene, but now the food scene has evolved and it truly is worth shouting about.
I left London with my tummy full and my head packed to the brim with ideas, which I can’t wait to try out using the wonderful and fresh produce in Cornwall. But I barely even scratched the surface of what the city’s food scene has to offer and, now I’ve had my fix, resistance is futile… see you soon, London.