food: london

Here is my definitive statement about food in London: You must seek it out. New York City is one of those places where you can just happen to be in the West Village and arbitrarily wander into a gem; you’ll have such an amazing meal you leave thinking “how have I never heard of this place!?”. This only happened once for us in London. Our culinary experience was a mishmash of barely edible to absolutely phenomenal.

Our very first meal was that one time we got lucky. Fresh off the Heathrow Express we dropped our luggage at our hotel and headed out to explore a bit and grab a bite before a tour we had scheduled. Almost totally unaware of which direction we were walking, we ended up on Haymarket Street amongst several theatres. We looked around with dread; we would never eat anywhere on Broadway in NYC and we feared we had ended up at the equivalent. Just before we gave up and moved on, we eyed the Chop Shop. a hip looking eatery that frankly looked out of place amongst it’s generic neighbors. We checked out the menu which looked delicious but a bit heavy for lunch. Luckily, although the restaurant was empty, the 2 guys setting up were so welcoming and friendly, we decided to give it a shot.

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Although they specialize in “chops” of all varieties, they also had a great prixe fixe lunch with some lighter options which allowed us to each get a starter and a main dish for £19 per person. My husband had a burger which was perfectly cooked to medium rare, juicy, and just the comfort he needed after a 7 hour overnight flight. I went with the fish of the day which was hake. I expected to be completely underwhelmed with the usually bland white fish but I chose it cause I desperately needed a good clean plate of protein. The fish was served to me with it’s perfectly crisped skin side up on a bed of peas, spring vegetables, and couscous. It was the type of dish that made me say to my husband, “man, I wish I could cook fish like this!”. It was so simple yet so flavorful. It also paired so well with the starter we both chose, the duck liver mousse. Savory. Fatty. Goodness. All on beautiful soft but crusty sourdough bread (gluten free goes out the window on vacation!).

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We left this meal thinking any utterances we had heard about bad food in London were just remnants of an under seasoned past. Then, later on, we ate dinner, and we realized what some of the fuss was really about!

We ordered room service on our first night; we’d had a full day and the time change was kicking our butts so we just wanted to relax. I’ve had a ton of great room service from nice hotels over the years so my hopes were high. However, perhaps we should have been tipped off on what we were in for just by the randomness of the in-room menu. Although the hotel had 2 beautiful restaurants downstairs–one French and one Japanese, you could not order from either. Instead, the offerings were a hodgepodge of super random “italian” and “american” offerings. When we got our dinner I told my husband it reminded me of the type of food my little brother and I used to cook for ourselves when we were little–think frozen pizzas and microwaved nachos. Quite literally, the nachos we ordered were just tortilla chips with microwave-melted cheddar cheese. They also came with this scary looking and sour tasting green “whip”, which I saw more than once in London and which people had the audacity to call guacamole. This meal along with the next morning’s breakfast which included sausage that I had to spit out (I know that is so rude but it just came out, my mouth rejected it!) left us completely uncertain of how much luck we were going to have finding good food the rest of our time there.

Unfortunately our next stop did not do much to keep our hopes up. We arrived at Poppies to get some fuel before checking out the neighborhood of Camden. I had done some pretty exhaustive research on where to get the best fish and chips in London and Poppies had shown up on several lists, so we thought we would give it a shot. We ordered one plate of cod and one plate of haddock and chips, just to try both. Admittedly, the cod was better than the haddock, but honestly, both were a bit disappointing. To me the problem was clear from the first bite–they leave the skin on! I am all for skin on fish for many other preparations, but I really didn’t find it appropriate here. They had this delicate soft white fish with a nice–if a bit under seasoned, batter. A batter that couldn’t maintain it’s crispness due to the chewiness of the skin underneath.

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The chips were mushy as well but I have come to expect that from most “authentic” servings of English fish and chips; crispness does not seem to be the goal. We plopped down £35 (55.00 USD) for the meal (no drinks!) which I thought was a little outrageous for pub food. I am sure there are great spots for this classic in London, but this was not it. I would love to gab with the locals next time to get a more solid recommendation. Not to hijack this U.K. post but I’ve got to say–here in Brooklyn, head on over to the Chip Shop on Atlantic Ave. UNBELIEVABLE, luscious, fleshy, white fish with perfectly seasoned batter that stays crisp to the last bite–even when delivered! (And at half the price of our meal in London!)

Although we weren’t thrilled with our meal at Poppies, dessert in Camden did not disappoint. We headed over to Camden Market where the food stalls are never-ending. There we were thrilled to find Cookies and Scream, an insanely delicious vegan and gluten free cookie bar. The chocolate donut here was to die for. Clearly, it was my fav–as you can see from the last pic I barely salvaged a bite for a photo-op. This is consistently my problem with food photography; when something looks and smells tasty I almost immediately dive right in!

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I think my favorite thing about Cookies and Scream (besides being vegan and gluten free!) was that while one girl was taking orders and dealing with customers, the other was whipping up another concoction and pulling gooey warm treats out of the oven. It kind of made you want to sit around all day and see what chocolatey goodness was going to come out next.

We didn’t wait around that day but we did come back a couple days later for another visit–it was that good. On our next visit we decided to make a meal out of sampling several different food stalls. Here is where I will not allow you to make the same mistake we did! In the pic below, you see the sign to the left of the entrance to Camden Lock that reads “Street Food”? When you follow that sign you’ll quickly come to a wide ranging and unique group of food vendors offering up everything from spring rolls to paella. STOP HERE. This first group of stalls (also pictured below) is where you want to eat. If you continue on through the maze that is Camden Market there is plenty to see visually, but the food choices become repetitive and lacking in quality. I think we must have seen 5 or 6 stalls serving sweet and sour chicken; all of them peddling it as a different style of cuisine–one Malaysian, one Korean, one Szechuan, and even one Thai. Trust me on this one, stick to the front stalls!

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Another recommendation I’m happy to pass on we originally received from the guide of our Grim Reaper Tour–which you can read about here. We ended the tour in Spitalfields, an area with a market of it’s own bustling with restaurants and food shops. We decided to take our guide’s suggestion and go casual with a meal at Pizza Union. I LOVED this place. The meal was delicious, cheap, and served to us in about 10 minutes at gorgeous long wooden communal tables shared with other young, agreeable, casual diners. My husband, who almost always goes for mushrooms on his pizza stayed true and ordered the Funghi. I myself decided on the Calabria–sauce, mozzarella, mascarpone, spicy sausage, and arugula (or “rocket” as the Brits say!) all on a gluten free crust. I cracked open an ice cold bottle of Pellegrino, added a bit of crushed red pepper to each slice, and I was in heaven. It was the most chew I’d ever had in a gluten-free crust. The mellow sweetness of the soft mascarpone melded perfectly with the spicy sausage and red pepper, and the arugula added just the right combination of freshness and bitterness to pull everything together.

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Dinner at The Abingdon on the second to last night of our trip will probably go down as our best meal in London. We started out with an appetizer of tempura halibut and soft shell crab with lemongrass dip and soy. I love having something fried or with big bold flavors as an appetizer, especially when I know my entree is going to be cleaner and maybe more subtle. The light crispy tempura melted in our mouths only to be followed by the sweet tangy punch of soy and lemongrass. We both ordered the pork chop (according to our waitress, a firm staple on a seasonally changing menu) and also both opted to sub our fries for veggies–me the Vietnamese style salad and my husband the broccoli. I am not sure if I would characterize the salad as Vietnamese in the traditional sense, but it was bright, fresh, and full of different flavors and textures. I always say you know you’ve got a good salad when you look down in your bowl and get excited about the ingredients you’ve stumbled upon and feel eager to get them together into one delicious bite.

When I was growing up, if you asked me what my favorite food was you wouldn’t get the normal kid answer of pizza or hot dogs. Even then my palate was geared towards the bone-in variety; my mom’s pork chops with mashed potatoes was my absolute favorite meal. It was easy to see why the pork chop remains a staple on the menu at the Abingdon– it is everything a pork chop should be. Juicy, well seasoned, with just the perfect amount of marbling to incorporate into each bite. We were so happily satiated by the time we finished our entree that we almost didn’t have room for the dish we came to the Abingdon specifically to try: the toffee pudding! Despite our full bellies, we rallied and ordered two–sometimes the key to a happy marriage for us means not sharing dessert!

The dessert was exquisitely presented and absolutely scrumptious for the first couple bites. After that however it just got too sweet for my taste. We actually found The Abingdon when I was researching the best places to get toffee pudding in London. I am so glad my love for the English dessert pulled us in for an entire meal because it really was delicious from start to finish. I would just say that the cake and toffee sauce had a sugar content that left me worried about cavities before I was half way through. (Another shameless NYC plug–also head to the Chip Shop for toffee pudding, I am telling you, this place is the real English deal!)

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I think the best piece of advice I can offer to anyone wanting to enjoy food on their trip to London is to do your research! Specifically, check out sites such as thrillist.com and londonist.com and cross check them with other lists and articles you find. When you decide on a spot you feel like you want to check out, bookmark it on Yelp. This action is especially helpful when you wind up in a neighborhood without a plan. You can pull up the yelp app and search nearby; inevitably, a few of your well researched bookmarks will be within walking distance. Although I have found yelp helpful where I live in finding great restaurants, I wouldn’t rely on it alone for reviews abroad. We used it once in London and it steered us into a very well reviewed establishment in Marylebone that was attempting to do “southern” cuisine; attempting being the operative word. The meal was expensive. Almost every dish tasted like something you would concoct out of whatever you could find in your kitchen when you haven’t gone to the market for a week or two. We were not impressed; but apparently the rest of London was! I won’t besmirch the restaurant by giving you the name. That is of course, unless you ask. Happy eating all. x

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