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Memories of London and Its Gastronomic Variety

Hello internet, I’ve been absent from this blog for a little while, but it was for a good reason. In November, I indulged in a separate writing project and completed my first NaNoWriMo (“National Novel Writing Month”), typing out over 52,000 words of a story which hopefully makes some sense. It was just for fun, and I don’t know what will come from this, but I enjoyed spending some time on fiction-writing, if only for 30 days. Since then, December has been all about the holidays, and I’ve discovered that it is quite difficult to get to the computer when one hand is holding a drumstick or a forkful of mashed potatoes for about half the month.

But now I’m back, if a littler fatter, and I’m bringing the food stories. To start, here are some additional highlights from London, covering a little more ground beyond just a proper afternoon tea:

1) London is the home of a great variety of ethnic cuisines. A top selection, of course, is Indian food. On our recent trip there, DH and I spent our first evening at PUNJAB (map!) in Covent Garden and had the best welcome ever.

The smell of delicious cooking softly wafts outside...

The exterior is fairly unassuming, but a peek through the window and you will see that it is a packed house for dinner. We gladly wandered through the neighborhood during the half-hour wait for a table, and were immediately seated upon our return. The restaurant interior is a bit maze-like, and our table was in one of many cozy rooms filled with people happily chatting and scarfing down their meals. The atmosphere was really fun and boisterous. We spent a long time looking through the menu, which had a lot of tempting options, and in the end, decided to go with the classics of Punjabi and Anglo-Indian cuisine:

PAPADUMS - totally addictive. We asked for a second order. And those sauces/chutneys/pickles! I wish I could take them home with me.

Sweet lassi - makes the yogurt lover in me go woooooo

Butter naan in your face! I could eat this at any time of day, any day. Nom nom smack smack. Mmm, bread.

Butterrrrrr Chickennnnn!!! It was the first time we ever had this classic punjabi dish, and it was awesome. Like, "let's put the whole dang spice rack in this dish" awesome.

Saag paneer. Sassy cheese and spinach ohhhh!

And the British "national dish", chicken tikka masala!

We tried very hard to savor every bite and not eat like vacuum cleaners, but it was really tough when all the food was so soft, tasty, and begging to be devoured. Each dish had its own unique taste and the chicken was super-tender, pairing very well with our side of basmati rice. When we finally came up for air and started digesting, we saw that the patrons around us were a mix of South Asians, Anglos, and tourists, and everyone looked equally satisfied with the plates in front of them. DH and I were convinced when we waddled out of the restaurant that it was a solid choice.

And the price? Yeah, every dish is less than 10 British pounds. Yessss.

2) After our Punjab dinner, we were totally in the mood for more chicken for the rest of our trip. Lucky for us, a dear friend and recent transplant from the States introduced us to NANDO’S (map!). Nando’s may be a chain establishment, but it serves up some mighty good chicken of the Afro-Portuguese variety.

In case you don't know what they're all about. It's CHICKEN. Chicken made with love.

There are multiple locations in London (and astonishingly, in Washington D.C. too! I am so there!), and we went to the one in the clean and spacious Jubilee Place mall in Canary Wharf, where we feasted on “peri-peri chicken” and its accompaniments. I liked the restaurant setup. A hostess seated us, then we went up to the cashier to place our order, and a waitress brought the food to the table a few minutes later. Easy!

Yowza.

We also got some pita bread with a red pepper dip.

Yeah, these were all gone in about 3 minutes.

The chicken tasted ridiculously fresh. My mind is blown as to how something of this quality exists in a fast-food-ish context. Next time I am in the D.C./Maryland area, I have to try the U.S. version to see if it’s just as good. I hope it is! (I also recently saw the Nando’s marinating sauce for sale in NYC, so I’ll be picking up a bottle soon.)

3) And then it was time for some coffee. I try to make a point of visiting a good coffee shop in each city we visit, and by now I’ve gotten just a teensy bit tired of the Brooklyn-hipster aesthetic. Sure, if it’s seriously good coffee, I’ll drink it out of a barrel served by a hobo (SOOO indie), but we’re across the pond now. How is London going to serve its coffee to me?

THE NORDIC WAY. Oh.

I love NORDIC BAKERY (map!). I had researched the location online to find a place to rendez-vous with another dear London friend (who happens to have quite a soft spot for the Nordic countries and was glad to meet there, yay!), and had already fallen for the bakery’s website! (Oh, sweet Helvetica font!) Seeing the space in person confirmed my expectations, and it was a wonderfully simple and relaxing place to catch up and have a quiet conversation.

There are some tall ceilings, and the surprisingly un-tacky wood walls had a nice calming effect. Pretend you're in the woods, now!

The latte and hot chocolate was quite tasty as well.

Sugar and caffeine make the world go 'round. Round and round in cute Teema cups.

When I’m back in London again, I’ll have to come and try the actual baked goods. I was eyeing their pastries, but my stomach was still full of chicken then. Next time, pastries. Next time I will eat you so much.

4) Finally, to top off our trip, what else could we eat except good ol’ British fish and chips? And where else could we eat them except for a place with a name as cool as MASTERS SUPER FISH (map!)? I wanted to eat some super fish. Wouldn’t you? So DH and I took a stroll across the Hungerford Bridge and down to the Waterloo area, which was decidedly residential and unexciting, except for this chip shop. We were the first customers, charging in eagerly just as they opened for business that day.

When it comes to chip shops, does divey-er equal better? Maybe.

Our waitress brought us some bread and fresh cooked shrimp (shell on) as complimentary appetizers and we proceeded to peel and eat the sweet and salty little prawns with gusto.

I would have seriously paid some poundage to eat a whole bucket more (I'm not even sure they were on the menu), but we were there for the fish.

And maybe some calamari…

Batter, A++ would fry again

Fried cod and plaice with chips and mushy peas. YUM.

Goodness gracious, let’s get a closer look:

Ah, lovely fish. Your death was not in vain. It was such a tasty fate. A fate covered in tartar sauce.

This is the kind of fried food no one should ever have to feel guilty about. The crispy coating was so light and clean-tasting that you’d almost think it was good for you! The fish, of course, was very fresh and flaked in just the right places. Totally worth it, and again, very reasonably priced for SO.MUCH.FISH.

So those were my top picks for London, but I’ll throw in two more suggestions: anything at the supermarket section of Marks & Spencer (amazing prepared foods that put Whole Foods to shame; I ate tons of their fruit salad) and the many, many amazing selections at the outdoor Borough Market (produce that puts the Union Square greenmarket to shame; omg tomatoes):

"Fruity Beauty Cocktail", with honeydew AND cantaloupe that tastes good? I'm sold.

It's tomatosplosion here on culturesplosion.

So what’s that they say? Cheers? Yes, cheers. Now go eat!

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Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester!

When DH and I finally had the opportunity to visit London, I knew that experiencing a proper English afternoon tea would be at the top of our to-do list. We decided on THE DORCHESTER hotel (map!), and thankfully, its offerings fulfilled all our expectations and more.

The Dorchester hotel. Can you feel the majesty?

The hotel has afternoon tea seatings at 1:15pm, 2:30pm, 3:15pm, 4:45pm and 5:15pm. I made reservations prior to our trip for the 5:15pm seating so that it would serve as an early dinner. The ladies who responded to my reservation request e-mails were so polite and helpful! When we finally arrived, I knew we would be in for a special time.

The Promenade. So pretty...

The dining area is absolutely gorgeous. I believe there was a recent renovation, because all the furniture and decorations looked so crisp and new. The seats were plush and luxurious, and I loved their tableware design (yes, I considered this in making my decision on where we would have our tea).

A light robin's egg blue on the dishes. Gorgeous!

We were treated with the best service. The small army of servers were polished, polite, and clear explaining all the food we received. First up, the tea!

Silver teapot!

We each picked a different tea. I got the 80th Anniversary Blend (from their menu: “A unique blend to commemorate the Dorchester’s 80th Anniversary this year. A mellow and smooth Ceylon Orange Pekoe from the Sri Lankan Uva district with a soft oaky flavour. Best enjoyed with milk.”) and DH got the Earl Grey Supreme (“This blend brings together Sri Lankan Ceylon, Indian Assam and Taiwanese Formosa Oolong and features natural oil of bergamot from Calabria in Italy. A light and perfumed tea with a hint of citrus. Smooth and very refreshing. Can be enjoyed with milk or a slice of lemon.)

Too bad the photo doesn't capture the scent. It was amazing.

I fell absolutely in love with my tea. With stuff this good, I can understand why the British love it so much. As I was reveling in my happy tea haze, the food started arriving. The best part? It’s unlimited, meaning you can keep requesting more of anything you want to eat, as long as your tummy can take it. This is my idea of heaven: a buffet, but they bring the food to you!

You can imagine my excitement when I first saw the delicious finger sandwiches!

No crust. Doin' it right.

From right to left: Tuna on wheat bread, egg mayonnaise with shiso cress on white bread, chicken with wholegrain mustard mayonnaise on basil bread, smoked salmon on granary bread, and cucumber with cream cheese on caraway seed bread.

The smoked salmon and egg mayo ones were just out of this world! All of the bread was very fresh, and the fillings were delicious. Of course, we got a few more helpings! (There was a lady who was vegetarian at the table next to us, so she got a special selection of veggie-only sandwiches, one of which included something with tomato, and sounded great too. If I get the chance to come back again, I’d be interested in trying it.)

Next was a little intermission:

Buttermilk panna cotta with raspberry topping

Mmmm…

And then it was time for scones!

Peekaboo! Raisin and plain scones kept warm under a cloth. Every detail taken care of...

Homemade strawberry jam, apricot jam, and Cornish clotted cream. Glorious.

It is so hard to find good clotted cream in the United States. I had been looking forward to this part for so long! Ah, better than butter by far.

The most beautiful photo of the afternoon.

At this point, having probably consumed at least 6 cups of tea each (which the server kept refreshing for us with more hot water), we decided to try a new kind, which was also included in the flat price. I opted for the The Dorchester Blend (“A truly elegant tea, perfect for anytime of the day. A blend of Sri lankan Ceylon and golden Assam teas. A bright tea with a malty character with just a slight hint of caramel notes. Best enjoyed with milk.”) and DH went for the interestingly-described Keemun Mao Feng (“Dr. Samuel Johnson reputedly drunk over 16 cups in one sitting of this world-renowned tea. A black leaf tea that produces a light somewhat mild and delicate taste with an almost toasty finish. Can be drunk with or without milk.”)

New teapots!

Finally, came the pastries!

Counterclockwise from the right: Raspberry financier, choux pastry with chocolate creme, apricot tart with almond, pistachio macaron, chocolate cake with hazelnut creme. Pastry paradise!

My favorite was the raspberry financier. Not satisfied with just one, I asked for another. (I wish I could have eaten a dozen more!)

Perfection! This is fit to be framed.

And it’s not just pretty on the outside:

Surprise surprise!

How do they do that?? Half cake, half mousse, with a jammy interior. It’s like a miniature cake planet made by baking geniuses! Love love love.

By the time we finished, the two of us were just happy tea-soaked blobs. All the while, there was live piano music in the background, and just as we were getting ready to leave, a jazz band started playing (so lucky that we booked the last tea sitting!). We stayed for a couple of songs:

They were really really good. What a great additional treat to the whole package!

And then we were done, but the memories will last forever.

If you ever get the chance to visit London, you must make time for a good afternoon tea. It’s worth a little splurge to get dressed up and do it right in a nice location. I’m sure there are lots of other good establishments comparable to The Dorchester, but this place didn’t disappoint, and I was very happy with my selection.

Cheers!