London Food Diaries (I)

Feet don’t fail me now
Take me to the finish line
Oh my heart it breaks, every step that I take
But I’m hoping at the gates,
They’ll tell me that you’re mine

Walking through the city streets
Is it by mistake or design?
I feel so alone on the Friday nights
Can you make it feel like home If I tell you you’re mine?
Born to Die, Lana Del Ray

Home. I have a strange relationship with that noun. Time and again I have failed to grasp its fluttering wings. Is it a house? Is it a city? Is it a person?  Or persons? Growing up in Dhaka, studying in Glasgow, working in London, now relocated to Southampton, I have been in transit for the best part of the past decade. Somewhere along that timeline, an ordinary noun faded into something mysterious. Something whose mention could make my heart leap.

A fair number of suitcases, cardboard boxes, and brown tape have aided and abetted my escapades over the years. One continent and three city moves transcending cultures, religions, food and weather have taught me vital rules of assimilation. I had to learn and live lives outside the one I grew up with. Being ‘wholesome’ was not possible – I was one too many persons embodied in the same soul.

How else could I mould into the various roles I had to play everyday? Ever mindful of the differences in the culture I represent and the culture I live in, two separate, beautiful, flawed entities, I had to grow multifold to do justice to both worlds. Tiptoe around their complex edges with love and care. Smile at random people in the streets. Feed loved ones to death. Throw around phrases like ‘I cant be asked’ in the day and translate it to ‘eto tel nay’ on whatsapp group chats at night. A life juggled between translations and past-present divides make you a multifaceted person. Suddenly being two faced or three faced does not seem to be a bad thing. You would think by now these faces have had the time to unite under a common interest. Many would call it ‘moving on’. But me, I am a homesick vagabond with attachment issues. Even after all these years, I find my soul slipping away in nostalgic haste to revisit cities and people that I have left behind. Or have they left me?

Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Last week my work commitments set me on a path back to London. Living in a hotel a few doors down from my office of three years, in a city that was home even in the beginning of 2016, perched opposite the bus stop I had waited upon on countless evenings on countless moods, I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of it all. I can almost see my ghost standing in an impatient wait for the elusive H98, plane watching to kill time. Three and half years were a long time after all. Heathrow, a regular haunt for personal and professional interests both in the past and the present, was located a (free) bus ride away from the hotel. Hovering on the perimeter where the Heathrow Travel Free zone began (or ended depending on which direction you are travelling), it’s a perfect location for anything to do with the airport.

Being back in London is weird, no doubt. I had returned to retrace my footsteps for professional pursuits but it felt more personal than ever.  I feel the same way when I travel to Glasgow for work. I have a tendency of attachment that is profound and lasting. Perhaps more so with cities than people. I eagerly slipped back into my old ways, making plans with friends on weeknights and returning to my favourite task of exploring the ever expanding treasure trove of London restaurants. Since starting my blog last summer, I had often wished to combine my love to eat and write to talk about my beloved city through its rich food scene. Last week, I set myself the task of making this idea a reality.

Monday: Jamon Jamon

On Monday morning I travelled to Woking from Southampton Central by train and onto Heathrow by National Express. The temperatures were scorching and as I finally arrived in Hounslow, it didn’t feel much different from a typical summer day in Dhaka. After a relatively relaxed work day, I made the long tube ride from Hounslow to Central London in search of good food and company. My friend knows I love a good paella and recommended Jamon Jamon, a lively coloured Spanish tapas bar tucked away in the boisterous neighbourhood of Soho. I was relieved that my friend had taken the trouble of both choosing and booking our dinner on this occasion. Because London dining can be complicated on many different levels. Moving away from the city gave me the chance to understand this fully. I found myself cherishing a life devoid of the stress that comes with arranging a night out with friends in the capital. Some restaurants don’t take bookings which usually mean hour long queues – if you are lucky that is. Reservations at popular restaurants like Dishoom need to be made days, sometimes weeks in advance, and only in groups of 6 or more. Many  kitchens close at ridiculous hours, starting from as early as ten.

Ramen @Bone Daddies, Soho

I have been to Soho more number of times than I can count but I still get lost in its maze like alleys, often frustrated, always spoilt for choice. Despite being bountiful in its offerings, dining in Soho can be a headache. For the uninitiated, Soho is a gold mine of eateries, cuisines hailing from all corners of the world in some of their quirkiest and best renditions. Think Diagon Alley with its funky shops and colourful people. Both tourists and natives haunt this melting pot for magical food. Its convenient location close to Oxford Circus makes it a perfect spot for the much needed tummy top up following a hard-core shopping spree.

A Spanish restaurant staffed with an all Spanish staff, Jamon Jamon seemed like an apt choice for small groups of people. While indoors would have been perfect for holing up on winter evenings, the alfresco setting was the obvious choice for a dry July day. Sat under clear blue skies without the burden of scarves and jackets, my friend and I both revelled in the rare freedom of life without cold and rain.

For starters, we enjoyed delicias de salmon, rolls of smoked fish with a guacamole centre. Along with palitos vegetables rebozados, light fingers of battered vegetables. I quite liked the salmon – I mean how can salmon and avocado go wrong, right? But the vegetables were unimaginative and meh, its only saving grace being the tasty dip. For mains we shared a plate of seafood and chicken paella. The rice was a little creamy but the flavour was spot on. I am always unabashedly biased when eating this beautiful dish – the sight of it makes my heart swoon. The mussels in the paella were deep fried and tasted absolutely fantastic. The calamari was chewy and so tasty that my friend was obliged to check whether they were some form of meat! Overall the dinner was amazing.

The only other Spanish restaurants I have tried in London are Andalucia in Leicester Square and Toro Gordo in Hammersmith. Andalucía was my first adventure in the world of tapas and I was in the luck of being navigated through the menu by a Spanish colleague. That night, I tore my pre patatas bravas life apart and embraced the nascent paella lover in me with tears of joy and ecstasy. I was a convert, through and through. There was no turning back!

London gets its odd week or so of stupendously hot temperatures every year and we were right in the middle of a heat wave. Even with the AC on in my hotel room later that night, the heat and the sweaty despair, were hard to ignore. Tuesday’s agenda was quite a busy one and tossing and turning with my many thoughts, I struggled to fall sleep.

Tuesday: The Ice Kitchen and Talli Joe

My alarm went off at 5:45 am but I was already wide awake. I was in charge of escorting and working with an American supplier who had flown into Heathrow on Monday night. The trainer was a friendly guy and the day turned out to be better than I had anticipated. To recover from the plentiful heat and lack of sleep, I took a power nap back at the hotel. Time was of the essence – the nap couldn’t be too long lest it ate into my precious evening but had to be enough so as to restore my energy for the hour long commute to Central.

Before dinner I went browsing in one of my most visited places in London – Topshop @Oxford Circus. I was craving bubble tea in a way only 33 degrees of London summer can evoke. I stumbled upon what I later discovered was Ice Kitchen’s flagship store. They claim to be London’s first ever Ice Lolly Bar. I skirted around the perimeter, torn between bubble tea vs lolly. Lolly won the battle. I opted for a strawberry and cream flavour dipped in milk chocolate and sprinkled with oreo, strawberry and blueberry dustings, drizzled with an intricate mesh of more chocolate. It looked so achingly perfect; I was almost hesitant to disturb this divine work of art. The first bite washed my mouth away in a stream of pure pleasure. I remember slipping into a momentary food coma right in the middle of the busy Oxford Street, my bearings taking a good while to unfreeze and return to normal functionality.

My friend and I had decided to meet at Barrafina, one of the most talked about Spanish  restaurants in town (you can see a trend here). My friend was not in the mood for hour long waits so we slipped out, making the people queuing behind us quite happy. Walking down the road, we quickly found ourselves drowning in the familiar feeling of getting lost in the sea of Soho choices. We walked on till we reached Shaftesbury Avenue, finally choosing Talli Joe, very close to Jamon Jamon. Neither of us had heard about it before but a unanimous decision was made on the spot. I suspect it had something to do with our forever biased, curry-loving tummies.

Talli means tipsy in Hindi. ‘Too fly to drunk…roared the lion’ said the writings on the wall. The waiters were friendly and made us feel welcome. Their slogan – half plates and full drinks – gave way to a menu filled with tapas like dishes, geared towards sharing. We started off with cups of Masala Chai, grinning in silent approval as the familiar cardamom kick hit home. We shared plates of kochi beef fry, raghogarhi fish and nihari nalli. The kochi beef fry was full packed flavourful meat while the nihari nalli arrived as dual boats of molten veal bone marrow with a side of roti. The veal bone presentation took me back to my Bengali roots. All my memories of eating nihari or paya come with the hammering noise of juicy bones on dinner plates until the succulent lobes of fat stuck within its marrows finally plopped out of their caves. Kudos to Talli Joe for taking care of the hard work for us! In retrospect, the nihari nalli was probably the least filling dish. And yet I am struggling to complain. The cardiologist would NOT approve of such a decadent indulgence, even as a half plate, but we did! Last but not the least was a banana leaf wrapped fish and rice bake, wonderfully rich and smoky in flavor and a treat for any bhaate-maache-Bengali.

I walked out of Talli Joe re-realizing how much I love the modernized take on South-East Asian food in London restaurants. Many of the dishes have Bengali and Pakistani origins but are marketed as ‘Indian’ cuisine to appeal to the wider crowd. I have had the good fortune of trying some of the best ‘Indian’ in town – Dishoom, Roti Chai, Chai Ki and Delhi Grill to name a few. While many restaurants like Tayyabs in East London brings you the familiar delights of glorious tikka, daal and mango lassi, these avante garde restaurants ups the excitement by bringing you the same fare under different names, combinations and appearances. That added x factor of rediscovering old food in new avatar is especially thrilling for Asians born and bred in Curryland.

I have not travelled widely enough to determine whether the trend of quirky, fusion Indian food experimentation is unique to London. But I can confirm that this trend dominates and defines the food culture in this city. And it’s absolutely fantastic. You need to try it to believe it.

Wednesday: Hare and Tortoise

By Wednesday, I was starting to get to know the American trainer at work better, sharing titbits of each other’s lives in the wee hours of the morning before training commenced and between cookie bites on tea breaks. He has a sweet tooth like me and that in itself is a conversation starter. I could see the disappointment on his face when he tried a milkshake from Caffé Nero. ‘But where’s the ice-cream?’ he asked, puzzled.

In the evening, I met up with some family friends in – you guessed it – Central London. Where else would I be? It was lovely catching up over childhood stories and awkward teenage photos. I seldom pass up the opportunity to meet people flying in from Dhaka. I feel closer to the city through their anecdotes.  Luckily there is always someone or the other transiting through or visiting London.

For dinner, my friend chose Hare and Tortoise in Russell Square, one of her favourite Japanese restaurant chains in the city. I had visited the Ealing branch with some friends early in 2015 and remembered enjoying the food. I tried the Laksa this time, as recommended by the sisters. It was filling and hearty but hard to finish solo. The watermelon juice was bland. The soft shell crab was exquisite, reminded me of fresh kakras I once feasted on in Bangladesh while visiting the rural areas in my childhood. Dinner stories spilled into my curfew time and bedtime crept closer to my wake up call than I should have allowed myself!

Thursday: Leon and Barrafina

After four meager hours of sleep, waking up on Thursday morning  was tough. My body bore symptoms not unlike those after a feverish pre exam prep night. I had a negative reserve of energy to do my hair and/or iron my shirt so neither was going to happen. I was only concerned with making it though the day at that point of the week. Hair undone, I rushed to work in haste. I managed ten odd minutes for breakfast and boy, was I grateful! Food is the only thing apart from sleep that can bring me back to human form from zombie mode.

Breakfast consisted of porridge and a savoury muffin from Leon outside Terminal 3 security. I had lunched on Monday and Tuesday from the same place and was quite smitten. Their lunch menu balances the health and taste factor in a way other contemporary chains miserably fail to achieve, despite many a tall marketing claims. In the era of clean eating fanaticism, chains like Leon are a force to reckon with.

The concept  of ‘clean eating’ has a tendency to evoke quite a lot of hotly held opinions – from vehement approvals by gym junkies to utter vilifying by burger-biting addicts. It’s often seen as a ‘posh’ concept, words like ‘organic’ and ‘superfood’ are still a mystery to most, even though the  fad is more progressive  and omnipresent in London than ever (soursop fruit anyone?).

“A common thread among diets is the idea of eating “clean.” The basis of this theory is avoiding eating processed foods where unhealthy ingredients are often snuck into recipes. This diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein such as meats and nuts, and dairy products. The key is to ensure these items are free of preservatives and chemicals. By eating five or six small meals a day, it is easier to control the ingredients and portions that go into each meal.”

I think a lot of the angst against quinoa and kale toting menus have to do with the hefty price tag they often come with. Somehow the human brain thinks ‘minimalistic’ when it sees ‘healthy’ and why, the brain demands, should one pay more to eat less (in calories)?I had a smoothie at Third Space in Tower Bridge last month that sells ‘natural fitness food’ (note the terms). I paid just south of £5 for an OK smoothie called Breakfast Beat (gluten free oats, dried mulberries, energise powder, frozen banana & peanut butter) with vanilla protein and almond milk. To be completely honest, and at the risk of offending pro-fitness lobbyists, I couldn’t care less about the fancy sounding ingredients – for me it all boiled down to a generic oats smoothie. But this is a quintessential example of the sort of thing you might find if one day you woke up curious to peep into the lives of those who live outside the margins of morning fry ups. And yes, even though your brain struggles to grasp the concept, there is a cult following.

Clearly I am not a member of this cult but I am not too far out either. I guess I am half and half. I am a foodie who (fortunately) loves the likes of oats, veggies and fruits. I enjoy a balance of greens and meats. But I am miserable when forced to eat food that a) tastes bland and b) costs an arm and a leg. The sensitive balance of calories, cost and taste is very, very hard to strike, something I discovered during my 4 months of 5:2 diet prior to my wedding in 2014.  Leon has managed to find that balance with an originality that demands awe and applause. People who are in the calorie counting game would love Leon lunch boxes so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if one decided to change neighborhoods or jobs just to get close to one of their outlets. On Monday I had the Chicken, Lemon and Olive Tagine (516 calories) and on Tuesday I had Brazilian Back Bean (408 calories). Both dishes were tasty and filling.

Their breakfast menu offers savoury muffins with egg and salmon/mushroom (356 calories) among others. There was some form of sauce or seasoning in the muffin that added a flavourful kick, saving it from being an average breakfast bite. Their organic oat porridge, boldly called ‘Porridge of the Gods’, is topped with banana, filled with dark chocolate and enriched with raw, organic honey (413 calories).

Thursday afternoon I was committed to tick the woefully empty box besides Barrafina in my bucket list (God, I have so many)! Luckily the friend I was meeting that night was up for queuing. I bought a banana and strawberry smoothie for a fiver at Carnaby Street to fill that annoying pocket of hunger that emerges its greedy head about an hour or so before dinner. Every time I step inside a store like Mooshy, I feel like a guilty outcast. I can almost hear the silent sneering going on around me. My sugar tooth revolves in acute discomfort. But, despite my passionate love of all things sweet, I am more a smoothie than a milkshake person.

The seating arrangement in Barrafina is similar to a bar. The bartenders cater both as chefs and waiters. We were attended by a lovely girl who explained the menu in her wonderfully Spanish tinted accent. After careful deliberation, we ordered octopus with capers, pan con tomate, prawn tortilla, chips with brava sauce, solomillo de temera and santiago tart with salted caramel ice-cream. Trust me, I had to be walked through the menu too.

Each dish arrived with much ado.  We oohed and ahhhed at the carefully crafted assembles. The dishes were steeped in flavour where they needed to be and light where they didn’t. I have of late started to appreciate the depths and differences that basic ingredients can bring to a dish when sourced fresh. Simple bread, tomato and olive oil tossed together can taste like ambrosia as the pan con tomate proved. The prawn tortilla looked innocent at a glance but as we ran the knife along its perfectly sculpted body, sauce and pierced prawns oozed out seductively. The brava sauce was delicious and the solomillo de temera, or rather beef steak over potatoes, was perfectly done. Dessert was a beautifully textured tart with a side of salted caramel icecream, served with nuts and raisins on the side.

Spanish tapas are a weakness I have developed over the last two years and my expectations from Barrafina were quite high, especially after queueing for over an hour. Were they met? YES. Joyous celebratory bells rang ecstatically somewhere deep within the temples of my taste buds as flavour met foodie fervour. The tapas are sublime. Pricey, yes, mostly because it’s so easy to quickly spiral out of control with the orders. Many would find the cosy communal setup and long queues off putting but I loved it. It was perfect for a girly solo date catching up with all that is perpetually happening in the eventful lives of women.

Sublime Spanish Tapas @Barrafina, Soho

Verdict: Barrafina not only exceeded my expectations, it is one of those rare restaurants in London that deserves every inch of column space dedicated to it in food blogs, articles and reviews in praise of its food. It’s not ideal for large groups – don’t bring your friends here for a birthday dinner or social gathering. If you cant find an accomplice to wait out the hour long queue, tobe ekla cholo re. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Friday: Polpo & Burger and Lobster

I love wrapping up early on Fridays. I mean, that’s how it should be, right? The American trainer, *Bob, had not had much chance to venture outside Hounslow so I decided to take him on a mini London expedition. Nothing too naughty since he had an early morning transatlantic flight to catch.  We took a cab to the posh neighbourhood of Chelsea. The weather was perfect – comfortably warm with just the right hint of freshness and coolness in the air. Bob wanted to explore good food in a happening London neighbourhood over ticking off touristy bucket lists. Venetian tapas in the beautiful alfresco ambience of Duke of York Square @Chelsea ticked all the right boxes for him.

I had walked past the Polpo store in Soho many times, bucket listing as I do. I wasn’t aware that it had more than one outlet. In fact, the Chelsea branch was bigger. We ordered fritto misto, crab and chili linguine, chickpea, spinach & ricotta meatballs, flank steak, portobello mushroom & truffle cream, special pizzetta, and ricotta doughnuts. The tapas were oh-so-lovely. I first ate fritto misto in Jamie’s Italian at Westfield Stratford and fell in love with the dish. It’s basically a mix of fried fish with a creamy dip. Polpo’s rendition was really good too. The crab linguini made me drool at its sight, and mmmm at its taste. The crab was dissolved in the linguine sauce so the pasta tasted light but delicious. This was unlike my usual style of pasta experience where it’s always treated as mains. (It inspired me to make an anchovy linguine as a side one weeknight – my picky eater of a Husband approved so now I have more excuses to experiment). The chickpea and spinach meatballs were delicious, the pizzette once again reinforcing my appreciation of the beautiful trick basic ingredients can play and the flank steak was juicy and succulent.

Venetian Tapas @Polpo, Chelsea

We rounded it all off with mint tea and ricotta doughnuts dusted with cinnamon sugar. I was a bit disappointed with the doughnuts – my expectations were different. Other than that, Polpo was a winner. Tapas always are. The enjoyment one gets to experience through the thrill of tasting more than one meal is certainly special. It also means that you aren’t stuck with one bad choice (the number of times that happens, sigh!) I don’t see myself making tapas (WAY to much effort) but it is easily my preferred choice when dining out.

Later that night the Husband made it to London Town and we dined together with a bunch of friends in the newest branch of Burger and Lobster in Holborn. With only three choices in the menu – Burger, Lobster or Lobster Roll, you aren’t left palpitating over deliberations. I went for the lobster, as always, but something left me wanting that day. My friends were divided in their opinion of the lobster roll – they either hated it or loved it. The Husband, a burger junkie, was not very impressed with the B&L rendition. Overall, we didn’t feel like the experience provided value for money. I have always been satisfied with B&L in the past so maybe this was Holborn having teething problems? Hope so!

Saturday: Waterside and Darbaar

I woke up refreshingly late on Saturday morning – a welcome change from the harried weekday starts. Whenever I stay at my friend’s apartment in Imperial Wharf, I HAVE to start the day with a vanilla latte from Harris and Hoole outside the station. Its become a tradition! For lunch we stuck to the same area, dining in The Waterside. I had some grilled sea bass with sea spaghetti and vegetable pakoras. Neither was bad but not particularly exciting either.

For dinner, Husband wanted something Dishoom-like but not Dishoom (I think somewhere deep in our brains we are keeping tab of the number of times we have in dined in Dishoom and feel pressurized by our own conscience to give other places a chance). My friend chose Darbaar near Liverpool Street. It turned out to be quite a fancy place – floor to ceiling windows, dark mahogany tones and copper/blue detailed décor made us feel somewhat undressed for the venue.  Darbaar means royal court and you could tell that the owner had tried his best to create the regal appeal promised by its name. Even before the food arrived, I was left impressed.

According to my friend, the menu was too ‘fusion-y’. I had to agree. In the same vein as Dishoom, and perhaps experimenting further afield, Darbaar has tried its hand at extremely uncommon twists. The starters were all Amritsari spiced calamari fritters and Hyderbadi duck roll, caramel onion jam.

We ordered biryani (hyderbadi kid goat), butter chicken, kadhai spiced  paneer, mewar/ baked leg of rabbit on the bone with rajasthani chilli & corn sauce, kaali daal and of course, garlic naan.

Feast @Darbaar, Liverpool Street

The naan bread pizzas (nenzas) in the menu look interesting but we passed. In retrospect it was the right thing to do. After the decadent dinner, we were all left unpleasantly full from an unexpectedly pleasant meal. The paneer stole the show for me, the spices so strong and lovely that thinking back to it makes me salivate. The biryani was fragrant and beautifully presented in a decorated clay pot, tasty and lovely and comforting all at once like only biryanis can be. The butter chicken was creamy and as good as it gets, while the garlic naan complemented all the rich spices like a match made in food heaven. The rabbit was beautifully textured but the gravy was a bit too salty for me. You could tell that a lot of spices had gone into the gravy yet the harmony wasn’t as well translated as those in the paneer dish. The kaali daal was rich and hearty and a showstopper in itself. After Dishoom, this was probably the best rendition of kaali daal we have encountered, and the Husband, a daal lover through and through, was thoroughly pleased.

Sunday: Home Kitchen

We returned to Southampton on Sunday afternoon. I was back in the kitchen after seven cooking and cleaning free days – longest I have gone this year without grappling with domestic chores. No more fancy tapas and lobsters waited for dinner. I made a simple chicken bhuna and some chickpea-broccoli curry. It put me into a delicious sleep soon after our meal.  The magical thing about home-made meals, and home itself, is the comfort of familiarity. Dining out and travelling wide gives you adventurous stories. But they are best enjoyed when you have a home – and curry-stained dinner table  – to bring them back to.

Wherever that home (and curry speck) might be…

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