Reporter's Notebook: Hungry Hound in London

April 20, 2009 April 19

London Calling

I'm in London for just two days, serving as one of the Regional Judges for the "50 Best Restaurants in the World" list that comes out at approximately 2 p.m. CST on April 20. Like any list, there will certainly be a little controversy, but the organizers have done a pretty good job of trying to at least do a fair job of collecting the information.

They have broken up the world into about 40 regions, with the U.S. now in three of them (West, Central/Canada and East). Each Regional Judge is a food writer, critic or other industry expert who covers food and wine specific to that part of the world. I'm in charge of the Central/Canada Region. Then each of these Regional Chairs picks 30 judges - all of whom live in or cover their particular region - and have to be equally divided into chefs, restaurateurs and journalists. We instruct these 30 judges to go to a secure site, and vote for five restaurants (three from their own region, two from anywhere else). They must have eaten in these restaurants at some point in the last 18 months to qualify.

In the past, this list - organized by Restaurant Magazine in the U.K. - has been criticized as being too Euro-centric, but I think they're gradually proving that by having representation and judges from around the world, they are beginning to make them more reflective of the entire globe. I will attempt to Twitter as the names are announced. Stay tuned.

While I was wandering around London today, I went over to the Islington neighborhood, to interview Yotam Ottolenghi, the co-owner of the local favorite, Ottolenghi. It sounds like an Italian scooter company, but Yotam and his business partner, Sami Tamimi, have a very unique company. They have four locations throughout London, but only the one in Islington is a full-service, three-meals-a-day restaurant as well. The concept started out as high-end take-out. When you walk into the store, you are overwhelmed by the sight (more like a kaleidescope) of enormous salad platters featuring the freshest vegetables, herbs and ingredients. This is where you see the two owners' connection to the Middle East: Sami was born on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, while Yotam is from the Jewish side of the city. Funny how they didn't meet until they got to London, but they have a strong sense of ethnic ingredients and dishes, and this salad display reminds you of a Middle Eastern souk somewhere in a bustling market, assuming Alice Waters was in charge of the food.

On the other side of the room, a mirror-image to the savory spread, is the largest, most tempting display of sweets I think I've ever seen. This from a guy who is not necessarily a sweets person. I think it was the softball-sized meringues that had me. The killer hazelnut-cinnamon versions were incredibly crispy on the outside, but revealed a soft, moist, (dare I say sensual) interior that was impossible to put down. Over-loaded plates of chocolate Bailey's brownies, fig tarts, lemon polenta cakes, passion fruit muffins, pain au chocolat and apple galette literally made my mouth water, and it was one of those "oh darn it.. I have to make a decision" moments that we foodies dread when faced with so much delicious-looking food.

I headed down Upper Street to check out Chilango, a new fast food Mexican concept from former Chicagoan Eric Partaker. Eric is half Scandinavian, half American, and has lived in Skokie, Niles and Lincoln Park most of his life; his dad was a former GM at Shaw's Crab House downtown. He got to London and realized- unlike Chicago, where there are millions of Mexican immigrants and thus, many great Mexican restaurants- there was nothing here. He hasn't exactly created another Frontera, but rather, a London version of Chipotle. The hot line looks very similar, and the ingredients are awfully close to the ones we have in America, except for iceberg in place of the romaine I prefer. Pulled pork, chopped steak and grilled chicken are all solid, as is the chunky, freshly-made guac. One peculiar highlight, the local apple-elderflower drinks he offers in the refrigerated case. They have two locations in London as of now, but have many more planned down the road.

That's all for now, gotta go to bed. I'll be hitting some Indian places tomorrow, as well as a famous cheese shop, so will report on that when I get back, since I don't think they have wireless connections at 35,000 feet.

April 20

I walked through the Marylebone neighborhood this morning, amazed at all of the tiny boulangeries and patisseries. Everywhere you look, there are incredible food shops, cafes with people sipping espresso out on the sidewalk and quaint shops. Every now and then, you'll walk by a business that claims proudly on its front window that its been in business since 1879, selling shoes, making shirts and the like; then in the next instant, you're walking past a cool, modern, glass-walled building that might have gone up two years ago, and houses an über-hip restaurant or architectural firm. That's what I love about London. So I'm walking here because someone told me to hit Moxon Street, and visit two businesses, side-by-side, which both have very special elements.

The first, La Fromagerie, is a cheese-lover's paradise that would have consumed my friend Ava for at least the better part of an afternoon. You have to ask permission if it's alright to enter their "Cheese Room," since apparently too many people might alter the ambient temperature. As you slide open the glass door, you're hit in the face with the pungent, assertive and yet delicate aromas of aging milk curds. There is something here for everyone, and literally, from everywhere. When the Cheesemonger asked me if there was anything I was interested in, I simply replied, "give me anything with raw milk that's less than 60 days old." He smiled, acknowledging the fact that as an American, I'm deprived of ever tasting something so fresh, so complex (thanks to the USDA guidelines). He assembled a little sampler of goat's cheese from France, Sheep's milk cheese from Spain and a little triple cream cow's milk from the U.K. A side of quince paste was implied, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some plump raisins on the plate, bathed in a few teaspoons of thick sugar syrup. Slabs of fresh farmhouse bread and butter only made the half-hour or so even more pleasurable.

I paid up, walked outside, then took an immediate right into the next door, home of the Ginger Pig, a local butcher shop that has farms and farm relationships all over the U.K. Stacks of fresh, brown eggs were on offer, as were a host of savory pies. I opted for a sausage roll, which, at just a couple of pounds, could have been lunch. A mound of hot, juicy, garlic-laden sausage, the size of a baseball, is wrapped inside of a fatty, flaky pastry that had to have been made with lard. I savored it as I walked down Bond Street, but had to toss it after about four bites, since I knew that I would be having lunch soon.

My Indian colleague, Rashmi Uday Singh, writes for a few publications in India, and whenever I see her in London, she always has a few great Indian places to recommend. On this trip, she had been promising the owner of the legendary Bombay Brasserie, that she would be stopping by, since the restaurant had recently undergone a renovation. The décor is, quite simply, not what you would ever expect to find in an Indian restaurant (at least in America). The sparkling chandelier was probably the first indication, but the atrium and the magnificent photos and paintings on the walls also showed that the owners were proud of their culture, and wanted diners to feel that you could have a fine-dining experience with Indian food you couldn't get elsewhere.

I guess the sight of waiters serving our naan, parathas and kulcha French style, was probably a giveaway; the plush chairs, fantastic wine list (from Alsatian gewurtz to Indian sauvignon blanc) and subtle heat from the food also showed a deep respect for the cuisine. There would be no bottles of Kingfisher or Taj here. The restaurant is part of the Taj group of hotels, and while I expected to have watered-down, tourist-friendly food, it was quite the contrary: cucumber and mint-flecked raita, deep, smoky roasted eggplant with shards of fresh ginger and a dal that was as good as anything I've eaten in Mumbai.

Sensing our group's excitement, the owner sent out a Goan fish curry, which has a sauce made from coconut and chilies and garlic, and is cooked for several hours to make it smooth and powerful.

Needless to say, our giant meal made us feel a little guilty about taking a cab, so we walked back to our hotel, through majestic Kensington Gardens, through serene Hyde Park, and got back just in time to shower and change for our night's activities.

The "50 Best Restaurants in the World" list always inspires debate among our peers. I'm not sure it's perfect, but I'm not sure any list is ever perfect. I think it's a great conversation starter. The fact that Charlie Trotter and Gordon Ramsay were not among the top 50 this year (and yet David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar was) shows that change is coming, and perhaps not every name, every restaurant is a shoe-in each year. If they were, no one would vote and the process would be pretty boring anyway. Chicago's Alinea was number 10 this year, a significant jump, and I think with the U.S. now in a position to have 93 voters (instead of the 31 we've had the past few years) we'll continue to see more newcomers on the Top 50 --although I think due to New York's influence, many of those top tables will still be on the East Coast. Afterall, when food writers come to the States for a visit, they tend to eat in New York first, Chicago second. Hound visits Alinea

After the awards, a few of us went over to Soho, to check out a new restaurant, Bocca di Lupo. We got to sit at the lively counter, talking with the chefs about ingredients. This was a fun experience, since one colleague was from Greece, the other, Finland. We noshed on tripe in tomato sauce, sheep's milk gnudi, lamb prosciutto and a fritto misto plate that contained sweet polenta and apples, rather than the usual veggies and squid. The oddest dish -- what we would call "critic bait" --came at the end, for dessert. Called sanguinacio, it was described as a "sweet terrine of pig's blood with chocolate and sourdough bread." Served in a small cazuela, the blood/terrine/chocolate had a slightly bitter, intense flavor, with bits of pine nut on top for textural contrast. It was pretty good, frankly; not as good as the brioche sandwich with pistachio, hazelnut and a beguiling chestnut gelati that I'm still thinking about.

April 21, 2009

The farewell/thank you lunch is always held at the seminal St. John, run by chef Fergus Henderson, hero to the "whole hog" fraternity of chefs who waste nothing. The restaurant is beautifully simple, with zero prentension, and a bread bakery that grabs you as soon as you walk in the main entrance. Just slathering fresh butter onto those thick slabs of bread could have sustained us for an hour. But then they brought out giant platters of shredded beets (which they refer to as "beet root" here) hiding large chunks of cooked ox heart and fresh watercress. I have to say, never having tried cooked ox heart, I was dubious, but found that their texture added something intriguing, albeit with a mild, almost subtle beefy echo. For the main course, savory pie, naturally. Last year, it was beef marrow and offal, this time around, pig's head and potato pie. The exterior crust could have held cardboard and plaster and it still would have been tasty; but it was the slow-cooked pig's head pieces, laced with the thinly-sliced potatoes, which had of course absorbed all of that luscious, unctuous piggy fat and odd bits, that really sung. The side of simple green salad with fresh mint provided just the right amount of crunch on the side. Dessert was even simpler: little ice cream sandwiches that had been laced with two types of liquor, sandwiched between thin sheets of sugar cookie. It was a proper British lunch to cap off a terrific tour of this majestic, culturally rich and culinarily diverse city.

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