July 8, 2020

Travels abroad: London Part I

From the moment that I boarded the British Airways plane and the flight attendant greeted me with a cheery “hiya” I knew that I was in for good times. I’ve been to London before, but it has been a few years and I was very much looking forward to seeing the city from a more food-appreciative point of view, one I’ve acquired since my last visit. Thus I’ve come armed with ALL sorts of great suggestions from several different quarters, many of which I’m sure that I won’t be able to get to on this trip. I’m with family and I know that they, too, have things they want to show me (markets, pubs, oh my!) but they also like the wander-factor: Going from place in place in what might look to the casual observer like aimless wandering, coming upon something new and interesting, and stopping in for a croissant, or a pint, or a bit of cheese, whatever might look appealing at that moment. And so it began…

In what might perhaps have run contrary to the effort to keep me awake after a 9am arrival in London, the big activity for my first day there was an afternoon supper or “Sunday roast” at The Windsor Castle in Kensington, a pub dating back to 1835 and named as such because at one time from the top story it had quite a view to the actual Windsor Castle. Though mostly I like the thought of this as a pub frequented by the farmers of that era, stopping off for a pint after taking their livestock to Hyde Park on market day. It’s just as a pub should be: a beautiful garden out back and tiny, low-ceilinged rooms with the smallest doors through which one has to duck in order to get from room to room. Several great beers on tap, my favorite of which was the IPA, Jaipur, though manager/server James also enthused about Chase, the “hottest gin in England” and soon to grace their bar shelves. It wasn’t coming in for a couple of days, however, so either I’ll have to return to The Windsor Castle or track down the gin in the U.S. And as the name of the meal implied, we did indeed have a couple of roasts (beef) but also a fantastic plate of slow-cooked pig cheeks served with creamy mash and buttered leeks. As much as I liked the beef roast — and particularly the Yorkshire pudding that came alongside — I loved the very tender pig cheeks. Oh, and the velvety mushroom and chive soup. Delicious!

It must have been the brisk walk home from the pub, but somehow I managed to stay awake into the evening and thus was ready and willing to sample a reprise of the cocktail made the night before for a black tie ball pre-funk. It’s a Vodka Rosemary Lemonade Fizz, from the May 2009 issue of Gourmet, sweet and tart and delicious. Ah, the international language of Epicurious…

Monday brought torrential rain and some further investigation of Kensington high street, this time with my 70-year-old mother showing me how to navigate the bus from here to there. (She has been in London for a month now, and knows the ins and outs of the Oyster card and all of the transportation possibilities in and out of the neighborhood. I love that she’s the expert in this situation!) From there it was a VERY extended lunch at Mandaloun, a Lebanese restaurant with some of the best hummus I’ve had in my life — must have been the sesame cream noted on the menu. Among the other mezze plates were chewy halloumi cheese, a perfectly seasoned lentil soup, couscous salad, and Kebbeh Meklich, lamb meatballs mixed with crushed wheat stuffed with minced onion and pine nuts.

Though without a doubt, the highlight was the beverage that we drank throughout the meal — and for an hour after — called arak, advertised as the Lebanese national drink. It’s made from grapes distilled with anise (thus a strong licorice taste) which then matures for two years in a terracotta amphire. They pour just a bit in the glass, then fill with water and top with a couple of ice cubes to chill. Perhaps an acquired taste, but it definitely grew on me and went down quite easily after a glass or two.

It’s interesting, really, because on this visit London feels more international to me than English, the result of a fresh wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, apparently. So no surprise that I had something other than your standard English food so soon after arriving. Now I just need to have some of that fantastically traditional non-traditional London cuisine: Indian food!