Elise Eats Europe: 1 London
Our flight left on Monday. We were grateful that we had paid for Economy Plus in order to get 12 extra inches of legroom. A screaming child behind me kept banging on the back of my seat, so I took a couple of sleeping pills, put up the armrest and went right to sleep. Bob and the guy on the other side of me kept waking me up, poking at me. Bob said I was kicking him. I don't know what form of treachery and mischief I was commiting upon the guy on the other side. Maybe he was just the sort who likes poking people. I was pulled aside to be searched at LAX, and we were momentarily detained at Heathrow. Apparantly I am considered somewhat of a national threat.
One of the luxuries of traveling as a grown-up non-backpacker is being able to take the occasional taxi. We took advantage, and had a comfortable ride to the guest house. Everything was grey and the sky was hung with ominous, pregnant skies. The cabbie asked where we were from. "California? You brought the sunshine with you!" Bed and Breakfasts in England are not like B&Bs in the US. They are more like flophouses. Guest houses are like B&Bs without the four-poster beds and Laura Ashley frou-frou. You get a normal, middle-class guest room, a shared bath and a decent breakfast. It's kind of like staying with your Auntie Margaret.
We had a wonderful meal at the Troubadour (no, there were no hair bands there). Although it was decorated like a pub, with pew-like seats and mugs on the wall, it was light and airy thanks to large picture windows and a green patio out back. I had a rich cream of wild mushroom soup, and Bob and I split their house specialty - a Sirloin hamburger with British bacon on it. We also split the toffee pudding which was both light and rich at the same time. There is a magic moment when sugar teeters between caramalizing and burning. They caught the dessert at that perfect moment.
Everyone was really chatty and friendly. I had remembered everyone in London as being brusque and unfriendly. Maybe times have changed. Or maybe it was because I am older and better-dressed. Or maybe it was because I was still kind of high from the sleeping pills. We walked through Old Brompton Cemetary so I could photograph the cool angel statuary, then we were back at the house and asleep by 7pm.
Wednesday morning we were awakened at 9am for breakfast. We headed off to see the Universe of Dali. The tube stop was Westminster. It's weird to see such iconic buildings just kind of hanging out with the rabble. As I moved to pose in front of Big Ben, a policeman with a very large gun, shouted, "Watch your back!" I tend to listen to people carrying very large guns, so I jumped back. I didn't see any cause for alarm, so I said, "What am I watching out for?" The policeman withtheverylargegun, said, "I was warning HIM." and gestured towards a policeman without any gun at all. I said, "What is he watching out for?" The policeman withtheverylargegun said, "You. I thought you were going to rush him." I am definitely considered a national threat here for some reason. Too many unpredictable moves. I guess it might help if I stopped running around shouting, "Give Ireland back to the Irish!"
The Dali museum is next to the London Eye, a gigantic ferris wheel on a bicycle-spoke which was bult for the Y2K celebration. It would have been a great day for it, because as the cabbie had predicted, it was very sunshiney, but I couldn't see being stuck in one of those pods for 30 minutes, and we had lunch reservations across town. The Dali exhibit was far better than had been described in the guide books. They had a number of recognizable statues and illustrations, but Dali had a penchant for wordiness when naming his artworks, so I don't remember the names of any of them...there were elephants with insect legs, and naked ladies with drawers in their chest, and lots of things covered with melting clocks and ants.
We were having such a great time, we really had to rush to make lunch at St. John's. St. John's was popularized by Anthony Bourdain. Its motto is "Nose to Tail Eating" Its menu is primarily based on a double-dog dare. The main thing I noticed upon entering was that there were only two other women in the entire restaurant. It was a sea of business suits. The menu changes daily, and I had been following it on the internet. One of the specialties was "(extremely offensive anti-gay epithet) and peas". It wasn't on the menu that day, but I asked, "What is (extremely offensive anti-gay epithet) and peas?" She said, "We take the belly of a pig, and mix it with the heart, and innards, and breadcrumbs and thyme, then wrap it in caul fat". It sounded more like it should be called (offensive anti-Scottish epithet) and peas". We decided to order mostly starters so that we could try the largest assortment of weird things without commiting to an entire plate of it, and then play it safe with a main course of rabbit.
The server steered us away from the rabbit, and was really pushing the ox heart. Bob looked hesitant, but I figured that was why we were there. And she was REALLY pushing the ox heart, "It is very thinly sliced, and charred."
Bob said, " It wasn't really what I was planning to eat today."
"But it is very thinly sliced and charred. It is just lovely."
I asked her if she could do a smaller portion as a starter.
She said "No. We wouldn't be able to sell the other half."
I said, "Wait. You mean it is an ENTIRE ox heart?"
"Yes, but it is very thinly sliced."
We were convinced, and I confessed to Bob, "I did kind of feel like a wuss just having rabbit."
Bob said, "I have a feeling that desire to not be a wuss is what keeps the roof on this place."
We started with the gull's egg, eel, langoustines, asparagus, and a marrow salad. The gull's egg was exactly like a hen's egg, but the yolk as bright orange. The eel was quite large, not a wimpy little sushi eel. I had a hard time eating it because it made me think of my brother's pet moray eel. The langostines were more delicate and sweeter than shrimp or crawfish. They had really hardy shells. I cut myself on one of them and actually started bleeding.
The oxheart tastes exactly like tender carne asada at first, but as you continue chewing, you are hit with a sinister gaminess, a flavor that lets you know that you are now traveling the dark back alleys of gastronomy...sexy, forbidden, and slightly ominous.
Bob ordered a lemon posset, kind of a cross between lemon curd and custard. It was so intense it made you gleak and screw your face up into a grimace. But like a bruise you can't stop poking, we couldn't stop eating it. Who knew that the most adventurous thing we would eat there would be the dessert?
As I took a picture of their bakery, a passing waiter commented, "The bakery. It's lovely, isn't it? I mean, she's lovely. I guess it's a she." I said, "Well, in French it's le boulangerie, so maybe it's a he." he retorted quickly and offhandedly, "F*ck the French. What the f*ck do they know?"
After lunch Wednesday, we had the misfortune of riding the tube during rush hour. Here was the cold, unfriendly London I had remembered. Londoners propel themselves through tube stations with the ferocity and total disregard for personal safety of third world taxi drivers. At one point a woman actually climbed over me as if I were an inanimate object. I wanted to scream, I am not an auditoreum seat!" As we exited the tube to Camden market, I felt someone shove me. I turned around and it was a five-year-old child!
I was disappointed to discover that Camden market was not longer a giant flea market, but had basically become something akin to a series of Hot Topic stores. We headed straight for Soho. We took a quick look at Picadilly Circus, just because I love that scene in "American Werewolf in London".
As we walked along Wardour Street, we passed many chic Japanese restaurants full of attractive people with expensive haircuts. We were headed to the least hip restaurant possible - Swiss. I had been to St. Moritz Swiss Restaurant on my last trip to London and fell in love with their raclette. We had planned on having raclette and a ragout of wild mushrooms to start, split a main dish to kind of have a break from cheese, then have a fondue. The waitress advised us against that quantity of food, and somehow we ended up with the raclette, mushrooms, and fondue. Raclette is Swiss cheese cooked on a hot plate until it is bubbling and crispy. It is like just the top off of macaroni and cheese. The wild mushroom ragout was generous with morels, so we were happy. As I feasted on the raclette and walnut bread, Bob warned ironically, "Don't fill up on bread and cheese."
Insane Swiss polka music blared from the speakers while the two waitresses just stood there staring at us in the now-deserted restaurant. Then the fondue arrived - a huge, bubbling cauldron of Gruyere and Emmenthaler, heavy on the Kirsch. It was fantastic. After about four bites, I looked over at the waitresses, just staring, unimpressed with our cheese-eating prowess. I made Bob an offer, "I will pay for this and another meal if I can please stop eating cheese now." He happily accepted and we headed to the nearest chic Japanese place (Satsuma) for a light meal of noodles and sushi. Wardour Street in Soho is a little like Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It is a circus of drinking to excess, gambling, and peep shows. We hailed a taxi and headed home, our only vice being an orgy of melted cheese.
Thursday we decided it would be too much to try and visit the Tate Modern. We returned to the Troubadour for a leisurely breakfast. It's such a friendly place, with a real neighborhood feel. It is also a folk venue where many live albums have been recorded and its facade graces a number of folk rock albums. Bert Jansch, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix have all played there. We had a fantastic traditional English breakfast, and were ready to board the train for Rye.
The Troubadour 263-267 Old Brompton Road London SW5 9JA 020 7370 1434
St. Johns 26 St. John Street London EC1M 4AY 020 7251 0848
St. Moritz 161 Wardour Street London W1V 3TA 020 7734 3324 161