Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Princess of Shoreditch

My wife and I were both running out of gas on Tuesday. We decided to stay close to home for dinner, so we went out the back of our hotel and down Willow Street to the Princess of Shoreditch, which is about a block past Yard (see my post below). I am glad we went, because we had a very nice time and a good little meal.

We got to POSD at about 5:30 PM, which meant we had to wait for an hour to order dinner. We passed the time over a nice bottle of 2009 Casajus (29 pounds, or about $47-48 dollars), which was a nice change from all the French and Italian wine we had been drinking. Like most Spanish wines, the Casajus was earthy, with a full body.

When 6:30 rolled around, we ordered a black pudding to start. Black pudding is a misnomer, because it's not really a pudding, but rather a patty of blood sausage. It was delicious as it had a nice taste (not too bitter or overpowering) and a good texture.

For dinner, my wife had the fish and chips, which was made with line caught Pollock. It was a nice dish and pretty much all you could hope for in fish and chips; i.e. the fish was hot and fresh and well fried and there was a generous portion of chips to go with it.

I had the pie of the day, which was chicken with green beans. While the crust wasn't what we'd had at St. John Bar and Restaurant, it was still pretty good and the chicken and green beans were fresh.

Because we'd killed our wine before dinner, we had some seasonal ale, which was OK, though my wife doesn't particularly like it served the Anglo/Irish way (just below room temperature).

For desert, my wife had plumb and apple crumble, while I had the tarte tartin. We both thought our deserts were good, but not great.

Total tab for the evening, including tip, was 94 pounds (say $145-50). One note about tipping, which I should have made before. Tipping in the UK is a much more set-piece affair, with a 12.5% gratuity added to most checks. While it is not considered out of bounds to add a bit to the 12.5%, it is considered over-the-top to tip beyond say 20%.

The interior of POSD is an old pub, with lots of dark wood. That said, the place is in great shape, and it's very much a hangout for professional twenty and thirty somethings who work in the area, not a hangout of for blue collar workingmen stopping by for a quick pop. The service was solid, by pub standards anyway, and the bloke (British for man or fellow) who took our order was a friendly chap (more British for man or fellow) from Liverpool with whom we chatted about the fortunes of Liverpool's football (British for soccer) team now that they are owned by the same people who bought the Red Sox and ended the Curse.

Upstairs from the pub is a much more formal dining room, which is accessed from an old metal winding staircase at the entrance to the pub. We didn't go up, but the website has a separate menu for the upstairs restaurant, which looks like a more formal version of what is served downstairs.

Anyway, we had a nice time at the POSD and it was a good way to close out the culinary aspect of our vacation.

Here's the link to the website for the Princess of Shoreditch -

Jen Cafe

Charing Cross was once the locus of London's book trade (my wife tells me Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft made a movie about a Charing Cross book dealer who struck up a correspondence with an American woman after World War II. The movie ends, sadly, when the woman final musters the courage to meet this man only to find he died a week or two before she arrived :<). Now, however, there are only a few old-fashioned book dealers and the area has become a mix of theaters (and theater-related bars and restaurants) and Chinese restaurants, shops, and stalls.

Jen Cafe is tiny little place, but in addition to selling a variety of teas, it makes its own noodles, which was enough to get me to stop in for lunch on Tuesday, while I was doing some shopping.

I knew I was in good shape when my server made clear he didn't understand what I was saying and asked me to point to the menu, so he could read the Chinese translation of what I wanted (I was even more confident when a set of chopsticks, with no accompanying western cutlery, showed up on my table).

There was nothing fancy about Jen, but I had a very nice plate of noodles that was quickly served for a very reasonable price (5 pounds). While the plate wasn't overly large (though it was a reasonable portion) the noodles were quite fresh and garnished in a wonderful spicy sauce loaded with ground duck.

From an HFG perspective, Jen has to be representative of an entire neighborhood and style of cuisine. That said, it was a really good ambassador.
I couldn't find a website for Jen, but here's a link to a map and some reviews:

St. John Bar and Restaurant

Traditional British cuisine is rightly maligned. Most of it is heavy, overcooked, cr#p, in a variety of bland (and equally heavy) sauces.

If your don't believe me, consider this; my father's mother (Ethel Kilburn) was a 1st generation Anglo-American who lived with her mother and maternal grandparents (Mary Kilburn, and John and Mary Nicholson), all of whom were born and raised in England. By the 1970's, however, the only articles of British cuisine that had survived in my grandmother's repetoire were mince pie, which she made once a year at Thanksgiving for my dad, and shepherd's pie, which she made only because we all liked it. Everything else she liked to make and eat was what we'd consider "American" cuisine. That should tell you something about the food she ate as a girl.

That's what makes the St. John Bar and Restaurant so special - British people, making British food, with British tecnhniques, and making it all taste absolutely wonderful.

My wife remembered SJBR from Anthony Bourdain's show, when he went there because the chef at SJBR is an expert in the art of "nose to tail" cooking. As an aside, Bourdain may not be the greatest chef on TV, but he is a total, absolute, and utter bad $ss, able to hold his own in the kitchen, at the dinner table, on a bar stool, or around a campfire with everyone from Eric Ripert (multi-Michelin star winning classic French chef) to Tanzanian bushmen who litterally live off the land, and everyone else in between.

For the uninitiated, nose to tail cooking involves making delicious food out of every part of an aninmal, including parts we'd normally chuck in the bin (British for throw in the trash). SJBR not only specializes in nose to tail cooking, however, it also has its own bakery and butcher shop, which means that pretty much everything that appears on your plate is super fresh (:> x 5).

SJBR is in an interesting space. The main entrace is down past that metal overhead door and leads into what was once a smokehouse (just a few blocks away is Smithfield Market, which was once the place where Londoners got their fresh meat and produce).

The interior is painted birght white, but is largely simple wood and brick, with a dining room that is just off the main room and which adjoins the kitchen with an open pass between them (which allowed my wife to watch the chefs cook dinner - an added plus for her). From the moment we sat down, we were pretty excited, not only becuase of everything we'd heard about SJBR, but also because of the smells that were wafting from the kitchen through the pass.

Our choice of appetizers was obvious (at least for us). My wife had the roast bone marrow & parsley salad and I had the foie gras, which was a special. The foie gras was amazing (when it's done right, which this was it spreads smoothly and doesn't have any bitterness) and amazingly fresh. While the toast points provided were insufficient, the complimentary fresh bread which we had earlier been served was an excellant stand-in. As my wife said "I don't even like fois gras and I like this."

Unlike my wife's bone marrow episode at Firebox, this bone marrow at SJBR was served properly (in roundlets, not with the bone hacked open). As my wife said (quoting Bourdain) "like butter from the gods." She also thought the bitterness of the parsley salad was a perfect contrast to the richness of the marrow.

For dinner, we had the pheasant & trotter pie (for two). The British love their pies, and a good pie, encased in a lovely shell of flakey (but not dry) pastry, is a wonder. This pie was a wonder of perfectly-cooked (and fresh) pastry filled with a wonderous concoction of pheasant and pigs feet in a hearty (but not heavy) gravy of flour, stock, and cooked pheasant and trotter. Yes, I know pigs feet is not exactly what most people like, but the art of nose-to-tail cooking (mastered by SJBR) is to take something like pigs feet and make it delicious to the pallette.

We also had a plate of greens, which were perfectly cooked and provided a nice contrast to the pie, both in terms of texture and taste.

For desert my wife have sherry-soaked pears layered with creme fresh and topped with slivered almonds (:> x 10). I had the Chocolate terrine & almond ice cream (:> x 7).

We asked our server to pick a wine for us and she selected a lovely red (a minervois) which not only complemented our dinner quite well, but which was a remarkable bargain at 25 pounds ($40 or so).

Total tab, including wine and desert, was only 104 pounds (say $165-170). Our dinner was outstanding and at that price, it was a monumental value (:> x 25).

SJBR is not only a very clever restaurant, but also an excellent one. I can't say enough good things about it. If you come to London and you fancy (British for like) good, wholesome, and interesting food, SJBR is a must. Here is the link to St. John Bar and Restaurant website -

Daylesford Organic

On Monday we went shopping on Portobello Road, which is in the posh Notting Hill section of London. In the course of our travels we also walked by the private garden where Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant connected in Notting Hill, which for a while was one of my wife's favorite movies.

Portobello Road is littered with little antique shops, pubs, restaurants, and stalls which offer a wide variety of foods and goods. In fact, Portobello Road is exactly the sort of eclectic and funky little area that Harvard Square was the first time I went there, which was about 1972 or 1973; i.e. long before the 90210 (the original series on Fox, with Heather Locklear) generation got to Cambridge and whined until there was a Gap, an HMV, and a Pizzeria Uno.

Anyway, while the streets which run off of Portobello Road are mostly residential (beautiful townhouses and upscale apartment buildings), there are a few streets with shops, including Westbourne Grove, where Daylesford Organic is located. DO is a part of a small chain of organic grocery shops/caffes in and around London which are built around the produce and meat an organic farm in Daylesford, Gloucestershire produces.

It's hard not to like the concept of organic food, even if you aren't a tree-hugger. Who wouldn't want fresher food with less chemicals? That said, organic food (at least in the US) tends to be a lot more expensive. Also, because people have different ideas about what it means to be "organic," and because some people are just unscrupulous, you often find that one person's "organic" food is another person's chemical laden cr*p.

Anyway, for lunch I had a peach yogurt drink with turkey and lentil curry with brown rice. My lunch was marked as a "detox" special and while I don't know about that, I can tell you that the curry and rice were very good. As you would hope for from organic food, there was a lot of bold color and flavor. The yogurt drink was OK, but it was a little overly sweet and a tad too thick.

My wife had a ginger beer (which isn't beer), which should have been billed as GINGER beer, because of the powerful ginger flavor. It isn't a a flavor most people are used to in that strength and concentration, so it was different and interesting, though I don't know how many times I'd want to have it.

For lunch, my wife had salmon with sprouted broccoli pasta bake. The pasta bake was actually a deconstructed component; i.e. it had all the components of pasta, but it wasn't made. It was interesting and tasty. The salmon was also excellent.

Total tab, including tip, was just under 30 pounds, so about $45-50. Once again, this is pricey by normal HFG standards, but for an upscale market in London, not bad at all.

DO was about you'd expect from an upscale market, right down to hip, multicultural, 20-something staff, the British version of ladies who lunch, and an entire battery of pretty young housewives who go to lunch with their baby carriages ("prams" in British) in their gym clothes and pearls. It did, however, serve a darn good lunch, so I am glad we went.

Here is the link to Daylesford's website, which has information on the farm and the various shops it operates -

Monday, January 10, 2011

Curry Leaf East

Even after our dinner at Rasoi (see below), my wife was still craving authentic Indian cooking. In London, that's not too hard to come by, so on our way home from St. Paul's Cathedral on Saturday night we decided to stop at Curry Leaf East, which is a few blocks from our hotel.

You can't see it from the picture, but Curry Leaf East is very close to the barracks of the Honourable Artillery Company of London, which is the oldest standing military unit in the world, going back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. This unit was the inspiration for something called the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company of Boston, which still exists as part of the Massachusetts National Guard and which is the oldest military unit in the Americas.

The interior of CLE was very much like a dance club, with very little lighting and dark, dark purple walls (which appeared to be black in the low light) and dark furniture. The background music was house, albeit subdued house, which added to the dance club atmosphere. That said, the menu and food were pretty traditional, which was a nice change from Rasoi.

Our meal started with 2 papadom, which is like a crispy flat bread with seasonings. We then had a trio of appetizers. First, there was ajwani slamon, which was prepared in the tandoor over. It was outstanding. We also the kakori kabab, which was marinated lamb cubes with cinnamon. Also very delicious. Finally, we had the aloo papadi chat, which are crispy chats with a mint yogurt sauce. They were all very good, especially the chat with mint yogurt sauce.

For dinner I had the akhbari platter, which was an assortment of tandoori fish, lamb, and chicken. We both thought it was absolutely outstanding. My wife had the chicken jalfrazi, which was chicken with onion, green paper, and spices. It was also outstanding.

Aside from CLE being more traditional than Rasoi, the big difference between the two is that the food at CLE was much simpler and "cleaner" in its preparation. So, while Rasoi might have had six or eight flavors working in a dish, CLE probably had three. Obviously, CLE's food didn't have the subtlety of Rasoi's, but it also wasn't burdened with the complexities and conflicts.

I won't say that CLE is the equal of Rasoi, because it's not. That said, we had a very nice meal for a a pretty reasonable price (65 pounds, or just a bit north of $100 - as at Rasoi, we each had 2 beers, with no wine or desert). In fact, on a price to value basis, Curry Leaf East has to be the winner.

Here's the link to Curry Leaf East's website:

Friday, January 7, 2011


If you know food, you know that winning a Michelin star is a really, really big deal. It's an even bigger deal for Rasoi's proprietor, Vineet Bhatia (pictured left), as he is the first Indian chef to earn that award (actually he's won it twice). Given that Indian cooking occupies a place in British cuisine as central as Italian cooking occupies in American cuisine, that's saying something.

If Vinheet Bhatia appears to be a confident guy, it is because he is, and his cooking clearly shows it. Our dinner Thursday night was an extremely ambitious undertaking with many, many different flavors and textures within a single dish.

It was also, however, a very complicated one and only a chef of Bhatia's ability and experience could have pulled it off as well as he did. That said, our meal wasn't perfect and for a Michelin star operation it was frankly a little disappointing.

Probably the best way to think about it was that Bhatia was trying to juggle a torch, an apple, and a whirling chainsaw. He dropped the apple, but a lesser chef might have dropped the torch, or even the chainsaw - with disastrous results.

Now, you might ask why anyone would want to try to juggle a torch, and apple, and a whirling chainsaw. There really isn't a good answer to that question, other than because you think you can and want to show everyone just how talented you are, even if you are taking a monumental risk in the process.

To start, my wife started with the "street food chaats" which was a series of four chaats; achari (a flavor made from coriander, chili, fennel, cuman, and several other things), spinah tikki, warm potato and pomegranate, and dahi bhalla (yogurt, cuman, chili powder, salt, ginger, and few other things). For the uninitiated, a chaat is a savory bit of cooked dough mixed with other ingredients that comes from northeast India but which is now very popular throughout India and Pakistan).

I had the mixed Kabob selection, which was a very interesting medley of different grilled meats and fish (salmon, lamb, chicken, quail, and prawn, i.e. shrimp). We split our appetizers in half, so that we'd each have a full taste of both plates.

I thought my appetizer was outstanding, especially the tandori grilled salmon. The balance of flavors was outstanding as was the preparation. My wife also enjoyed my appetizer.

We both thought there were a couple of issues, however, with her appetizer. First, it was a bit too salty. Second, the chaats came in a sequence on the plate, which seemed to suggest that they be eaten sequentially. Either we misinterpreted the presentation or Rasoi poorly ordered them, because eating them in the sequence did not lead to a particular good balance of flavors and textures. Frankly, it was disappointing, especially for the price (see below).

For dinner, I had the charcoal roasted lamb chops, braised in a caramelized onion and lime infused sauce, served with roasted peanut khichdi and a lime lamb samosa. I thought my dinner was very, very good, both reasonably portioned and a good balance of different flavors and textures. My wife liked it, but not as much as I did.

My wife had the matka chicken, which was tandori chicken served with chili rice and black lentils. She really liked her dinner, as did I, though not as much as she.

We also had a side order of three different nan, two of which were excellent.

One note, while Rasoi is definitely Indian cuisine, it is not classic Indian cooking, but rather Bhatia's more modern taken on classic flavors and techniques.

Rasoi is tucked away in a row house on a posh (British for "rich" or "upscale") residential side street off the King's Road (in fact, it looks like just another house and you have to knock on the door to be admitted). The picture doesn't really give you a good idea of the fit out, which is plush, in the extreme (so much so that my wife invoked Coco Chanel's warning about over-accessorizing). In some ways it was evocative of the cooking; rich, but a little too much.

One final word, Rasoi was very expensive. Our dinner (no desert or wine, but 2 beers each) came to just under 163 pounds (about $260-65); clearly a premium for those Michelin stars!

Still, I am glad we went to Rasoi. It is not every day that you get to go to a famous restaurant and eat really good food cooked by a renown chef.

Here is the link to Rasoi's website -

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Our second day in London was spent at the British Museum, which in large part is a giant collection of really amazing things my ancestors "obtained" from other parts of the world when Britania ruled the waves.

Parthenon? "You Greek blokes won't be needing them statutes will you? Right, here's three shillings. Be good fellows and load them on the boat for us."

Rosetta Stone? "You Froggies took that from the locals, did you? Well then, hand it over 'fore Lord Nelson gives you a belly full of grapeshot!"

Seriously, the British Museum is an important and wonderful place, but by the time the day was over we were pretty zonked so we decided to stay close to our hotel for dinner. There isn't much near our hotel, but between the Tube and where we are staying is a little place called "Yard" which boasts a sign (which you can sort of see in the bottom left hand corner of the picture) stating it's the best new gastro pub of 2010 ("it's just a fancy new name for casual dining," muttered my wife, in a moment of extreme Italian culinary conservatism).

I still don't know exactly what a gastro pub is, but it apparently doesn't have anything to do with beer, as Yard had exactly 4 beers on the menu (all bottles), one of which was actually hard cider. That said, we had a great little meal, and one that was a refreshing change up from standard English fare.

First of all, Yard is in a really cool space with lots of exposed brick that was once a fire station. Because of the interior lay out of the building, however, service was definitely a challenge for the staff because the kitchen is in back of the building and accessible only through the crowded dining area. The bar (a refrigerator, a station to mix drinks, and not much else) is off to one side, and the lone till was on the far wall across from the bar. That said, the staff was not only very friendly, but also extremely hardworking and they made it work just fine.
As at Mennula, R&B was the choice of music, which was just fine with us as it is one of the few types of music both my wife and I enjoy.

The centerpiece of Yard's menu is gourmet pizza which is served by the "yard." I still am not sure how they measure, because the 1/4 yard pie looked like it was bigger than 9" across, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, we had a 1/4 yard pie with caramelized onions, a reduction of balsamic vinegar, and oregano. It was absolutely delicious, though my wife would like to have seen just a bit more brown along the edge of the crust. Still, a very minor point.

I also had a delicious goat cheese salad, which was good-sized, with plenty of fresh goat cheese. delicious. My wife ordered a salad nicoise, which is tureens, Leon potatoes, tuna, hard boiled eggs and olives, dressed with a lovely vinaigrette. We both liked our salads a lot, and were grateful for a meal based around fresh vegetables, which is not exactly standard English fare (:<).

To drink, I ended up having 2 pints of Ichiban and my wife had a glass of a reasonably good (and reasonably priced) montlepuciano.

Total tab, including a generous tip for very good service, was 40 pounds (a bit north of $65), which was a bit high, but this is London and you can't get a decent cup of coffee here for less than $4.

All in all, we had a really good meal at Yard and will probably swing by once more before we come home.

I couldn't find a website for Yard, but here is a Google page with a lot of information -

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Tuesday was our first full day in London and it was a busy one. We hit Westminster Abbey, the Churchill Museum and War Rooms (the underground complex from which Churchill directed the war effort during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz), and the Tower of London.

Within the Tower grounds very close to the White Tower (the original structure built by William the Conqueror in AD 1070) there still stands a very small section of the ancient Roman wall that once surrounded London (Londinium, to the Romans). It would have been cool if that had been our inspiration to try Mennula ("Almond" in Sicilian), but it was actually Gordon Ramsey.

Ramsey has a new show on BBC America where he picks 2 restaurants in Britain of a particular genre and puts them through a series of tests. Mennula, which is on Charlotte Street, just a few blocks from the British Museum, was one of Ramsey's chosen Italian restaurants. Watching the competition a few weeks ago, it was clear Mennula's food was amazing and, but for a service problem when Ramsey brought in something like 30 diners at the same time to really test the operation, Mennula would have won (In fact, it's hard to see how it still didn't win even with the problem because its competition was one of those pretentious places where every dish is overly complicated with gimmicks -- like foams -- to show you how clever the precocious chefs are). Even though Mennula came up short in Gordon Ramsey's eyes, my wife and I decided we had to go there once we got to London.

We had a late reservation (8 PM) and the restaurant was nearly empty, which was a shame given how good our food was. In fact, if it wasn't the best meal we ever had, it could not have been much worse than second or third.

The interior of Mennula is small, perhaps 10 tables in the front with a small back room which was closed off last PM (which might explain why it struggled when Ramsey sent in 30 diners all at once), and the interior is a crisp white with dark accents, tables & chairs, and leather bank seating. While we were there, the lighting was low and the music was a steady stream of cool R&B, which would make Mennula an outstanding spot for a romantic date.

We began with a complimentary bread and cheese plate, the centerpiece of which were 2 balls of risotto and cheese in a fried breadcrumb crust, sort of like the famous Italian rice balls known as arraciano. The cheese was amazing and the risotto added texture which contrasted very well with the fried breadcrumb crust. Not to be missed, however, was the amazing olive oil that was served with the bread and cheese. The oil was so fresh that it tasted as if it had just come off the press. Magnificient.

For my appetizer I had the searned Cornish squid in squid ink (which adds depth of flavor and richness; i.e. it's silky and adds a hint more squid flavor) with pine nuts. It was amazing. The squid was perfectly cooked, which is no easy feat, and it was prepared a bit differently than how you would likely see it. Squid is normally cut into rings, which makes it a bit more chewy, which is not always good. Mennula cuts its squid lengthwise, into ribbons. This avoided the tube issue entirely. The pine nuts added just enough flavor and a great textural contrast to the squid.

My wife started with a warm salad of wild mushrooms with garlic and sweet red chilli. It was stunningly good and perfect for a cold, raw, London night. The sweet red chilli added an incredible warmth to the earthiness of the mushrooms, which were themeslves delicious. My wife was pretty sure that that chilli was infused into the olive oil that was drizzled over the mushrooms, but the chef, who came out of the kitchen to talk with use for a good 5 minutes, insisted that it was merely mixed into the salad.

My wife had the linguine gragnano with lobster, chilli, basil and tomato. I had some and it was amazing The was more than enough lobster and the linguine was perfect. The sauce had a nod to Thai, but was still very Medaterainian and complemented perfectly the sweetness of the lobster. It was amazingly fragrant as well and it was definitely a dish you ate with your nose, as well as your mouth.

I had the seared fillet of organic salmon with swiss chard and roasted red peppers stuffed with potato and salt cod. The salmon was perfectly seared, which left a nice thin crust that contrasted well with the rest of the salmon and helped compliment the texture of the chard. The roasted peppers were sweet and chewy, which was offset well by the salt cod and potato filling. It was an extremely well-balanced meal.

Normally, we favor a bottle of red wine, but given our entrees we opted for white. At the suggestion of the maitre'd, we opted for a 2009 Falaghina Rami (about $45) which was a perfect balance between dry and sweet and complemented both dinners quite well.

For desert my wife had the amadei chocolate and almond torta caprese ("Oh, you like the chocolate cake?" teased the very Sicilian maitre'd, who'd caught on early in the evening that we were Americans). It also came with mascarpone (similar to cream cheese, but sweeter) ice cream, which was really semi freddo (i..e half frozen) and more the consistency of custard rather than ice cream. My wife loved her desert. It was very rich and full of flavor.

I had the sfinci (pronounced sif-inch-ee), whch are little Sicilian balls of fried dough stuffed with cinamen cream, honey, and toasted sesame seeds. (:> x 10 - do I really need to say anything about this desert?). It also came with what they called almond ice cream, but which was also really semi freddo. It was amazing and a perfect offset to the very, very sweet and rich sfinci.

After we were done, some complementary miniature biscotti and cookies with fresh homemade whipped cream and chocolate piped on to the plate appeared on our table, along with two very generous shots of limonciello. It was a perfect ending to a simply amazing meal.

Finally, whatever Ramsey's issues, we found the service to be prompt, attentive, and very responsive.

Dinner was not cheap; 124 pounds, 31 pence (just under $200) but it was a pretty small price to pay for what may be the best meal we ever had. Indeed, while you'd be foolish to make a seven hour trip across the pond just to go to Mennula, you'd be equally foolish not to go to Mennula if you've already made the trip! Here is the link to Mennula's website -

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pommelers Rest

Somewhere on this blog I posted about my mother's family having come from the Azores. My father's family, on the other hand, are all of English decent, most of them having come to the United States in the 1870's and 1880's from Manchester to work in the cotton mills that once operated where I grew up.

That said, my fascination with London has nothing to do with any of that. London is one of the greatest and most important cities in the world and my wife and I have been planning a trip for a couple of years. The big snowstorm last week managed to delay, but not cancel, our plans and right now I am sitting in our hotel room watching the BBC morning news report on the world darts championship. Being half English, I can say this - only a Brit would find a darts' match newsworthy.

We got to England yesterday and after a nap, we took a long walk around and over London Bridge and then down to the Tower of London and back across the Tower Bridge (which is the bridge with two turrets you see in all those pictures of London). London is just amazing; the history, the architecture, the people, blah, blah, blah. Seriously, it should tell you something when a city erects a 228 foot monument to the architect (Christopher Wren) who designed a lot of the city after the great fire of 1666 burned much of London to the ground and then puts that monument on a side street, because it is just one of a thousand monuments to important people and events in its long, long, history.

After our walk, we were hungry and thirsty and I insisted that we find a traditional English pub for fish and chips. One of the few decent pieces of English cuisine (if it can be called that) is hot fried fish with equally hot french fries (called "chips" by the English). When I was growing up, there were still enough immigrants from England and their children (by then all my grandparents' age) living in my hometown to support 2 or 3 little places that were open 4 days a week (Wednesday through Saturday) and served up hot fried fish wrapped in either newspaper, wax paper, or the like and stuffed into brown paper bags; a legacy, I am told, from places here in England that catered to workingmen who needed a fast meal they could take with them.

London is studded with neighborhood pubs (there are at least 2 within a couple of blocks of our hotel) and we settled on a place called the Pommelers Rest, which is on the Tower Bridge Road just a block or so south of the Thames River. The word pommeler dates back to the 15th century and refers to men who worked in the leather trade, which apparently was once strong in the area just south of the Tower Bridge.

This was a straight-up neighborhood pub, with old-fashioned dark wood (non-matching) furniture and paneling, and dark green carpets and walls; think a Cockney Cheers. The taps were so old-fashioned that they literally had to be repeatedly pulled to generate the pressure needed to pour the beer.

The crowd was mixed, with tourists from England, eastern Europe, and the US, as well as many locals who spoke with thick, but friendly, accents. My wife and I each ordered a plate of fish and chips (which also came with a serving of peas) and we each had a pint of locally-brewed ale; a dark "Bishop's Finger" for my wife and a slightly lighter "London Pride" for me, both of which were served the Anglo/Irish way, i.e. just slightly below room temperature.

Our fish plates were, OK, but not great. The portion was generous and of decent quality, but it could have been fried a bit longer. The peas were dreadfully overcooked, but the chips were perfectly fried, nice and hot, and plentiful. Our pints were both good. The service was prompt and friendly ("cheers!" when the pints had been pulled and the fish quickly brought out to our table with a smile). For just over 13 Pounds (about $20), not too shabby.

An interesting note about the menu is in order. Although it was studded with traditional English pub food (kidney pie, chicken pot pie, fish and chips, etc.), there were other items that speak of the maturation of the British pallet and the diversification of British cuisine; a couple of different curry dishes, several kabobs, and chicken fingers and a few other "American" pub specialties.

I suspect there are probably at least 200 or so places like the Pommelers Rest in London, and any of them would have served up a similar experience. Still, it was a great respite from a long walk and an important taste of local flavor and cuisine and I am glad we stopped in

Here's the link to the Pommelers Rest -

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cafe Luigi

Going to a restaurant in a strip mall is almost never a very good idea. The food is likely going to be sh$t and the atmosphere is likely going to be about as charming as a T.J. Max. Cafe Luigi in Bedford, Massachusetts, however, is a big exception to that rule.

Even though it is is a leafy suburb about 30 minutes outside Boston, Luigi's is exactly the type of non-nonsense place ("open for lunch and dinner every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas") you'd have found 30 or 40 years ago in the North End (i.e. before all the Yuppies moved in), or in nearby former Italian-American strongholds of East Boston or Revere (birthplace of Mrs. HFG and her mother).

We were supposed to leave for London the day after Christmas but our flight out of Logan was canceled by the big storm last week. Thanks to American Express Platinum Travel Services we were able to re-book the entire trip for a week later. So, on Sunday, we flew out of Boston, but before we left we went for lunch with my mother-in-law at Cafe Luigi. My wife had taken me to Luigi's a couple of times before when we were visiting her family and we had good meals both times.

In fact, my mother-in-law and wife swear by Luigi's (my mother-in-law lives about 15 minutes away and my wife used to work just up the road) and it is easy to see why; the food is very good, the prices are great, and the service is quite respectable. The times I have been there there has always been a very good crowd and Sunday was no exception, with the place 2/3 full at 1 PM. In fact, my mother-in-law said that that was the least crowded she'd ever seen Luigi's, which should tell you something.

We started with an OK small antipasti ($5.99). The salad itself wasn't much to write home about, but the peppers, cheese, and smoked meat were pretty good.

For lunch, I had the cheese ravioli in Bolognese sauce ($8.49). Although it was pretty good, it was not worth the grief I took from my mother-in-law for ordering something I'd had at her house on Christmas Day a week earlier (a sin compounded by the fact that we did not bring any leftovers home). Still, I was satisfied.

My wife had the black pasta Aglio Oglio ($8.49) (black pasta is just regular pasta blackened with squid ink). The Aglio Oglio is made with pasta, garlic, olive oil, and calamari. I had some, and it was very, very good. The pasta was excellent and the calamari was very well-prepared, being neither too soft nor too rubbery. Frankly, I wished I had ordered it for myself.

My mother-in-law ordered the shrimp Verdicchio ($12.49), which consisted of a saute of gulf shrimp with white wine, mushrooms, black olives, sun dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. It was also excellent. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and the flavors extremely well-balanced. It was every bit as good as my wife's lunch, which is saying something.

For desert, we shared a tiramisu, which was perfect. The consistency was excellent and the flavor great, without being too overpowering.

As you can see, the interior of Luigi's borders on the tacky (that said, they make it work) and the exterior is certainly nothing to look at. But, if you are in that part of Massachusetts Cafe Luigi is a great little spot and you won't be disappointed. If you won't take it from me, take it from my Italian wife and her even more Italian mother!

Here's the link to Luigi's website -