Part 1: The West End & An English Pub
Part 2: Borough Market, The South Bank, The City, & A Super Steak
Part 3: Hyde Park, South Kensington & Knightsbridge, Hummingbird Bakery, and Portobello Road
Part 4: Best Salt Beef Beigel, A Szechuan Restaurant, and Buckingham Palace
Part 5: British Food I Love (and then some)
It’s easy to pick up the British accent and it’s even easier to love London.
I first went to London back in 1996 and the few memories I have of that trip are steamed (?!) fish and chips and Covent Garden. I never forgot about the Underground however, my main form of transport on this trip. The Covent Garden station is especially notorious because there are only a few lifts (elevators) that take passengers up to the ground floor. The alternative is to climb 193 steps (yes, really) to reach the surface. Though I consider myself reasonably fit, I avoid this at all costs except this one time when circumstances force me to climb down all those steps, and I witness firsthand the chagrin and utter exhaustion of those climbing up.
Covent Garden (all preceding photos) is touristy yes, but I’m a tourist and not ashamed of it. It’s a beautiful introduction to the London I was first introduced to over 15-some years ago. It’s a manageable maze of charming shop-lined passageways dotted with pay-through-the-nose cafés as well as people pretending to be statues and hoping people will be amused enough to pay for it.
Covent Garden Arcade near the Covent Garden Market and Royal Opera House
Piccadilly Circus (below)
It’s clogged with cars and congested beyond belief with a crowd communicating in a thousand tongues but being here makes me feel alive. The flashing ads and neon lights remind me very much of New York’s Times Square.
Shaftesbury Avenue is known as “Theatreland,” home to some of the West End’s most distinguished theatres. I see the billboards of the more classic plays like Les Miserables and CATS but the pop fan in me snaps shots of the more avant-garde productions.
Nearby, I walk up Wardour Street and onto Old Compton Street, London’s gay district and home to some of the city’s best coffeehouses. Perched at outdoor tables while lapping up their caffeinated juices and revivifying ristrettos, I watch people people-watch. Down a few paces, I’m rather beguiled by the numerous “Licensed Sex Shops” in the area and especially by the risqué lingerie store appropriately named, Trashy Lingerie.
Oxford Circus/ Oxford Street
Oxford Street is – depending upon one’s perception of personal space and shopping stamina – human hell or retail heaven. Strolling is impossible and walking through here is like attempting to cross the Red Sea. But all the key UK fashion stores are here like TopShop, Miss Selfridge, Paul Smith, etc., and I can’t help but get buzzed by all the liveliness surrounding me.
The Angel & Crown
Pubs are an integral part of British life and it’s in one of them that my Bin and I decide to have our first meal in London. Pubs, or licensed public houses, are for a quick drink, a casual meal or for lingering over all sorts of beverages from aromatic bitters, wines or even a nonalcoholic cherry beer. Pubs range in style from homey to hot and happening gastropubs where food is the focus and strangers share tables and conversation.
It’s the middle of the day when my Bin and I decide to have lunch, and we’ve chosen this place after much thought and looking around at other pubs in and around Covent Garden. This place is called the Angel & Crown, a rather odd name but as I’ve noticed, many London pubs have equally quirky monikers such as Hare & Tortoise, Coach & Horses, and even Lamb & Flag.
There’s a decidedly for-drinking-only atmosphere downstairs so we head on up to the eating area. Once there, it looks like a throwback to some sweet little grandmother’s living room but the faux leather chairbacks and kitschy accents hark back to the Prohibition era. Whatever it is, our server couldn’t be nicer. When I ask for a cherry beer, she recommends a Kopparberg cider beer with minimal alcohol. Cherry-like and tingly, it’s a perfect afternoon buzz.
On the plane to London, I said that my first meal here would be fish and chips, since there’s nothing else so quintessentially British. At the Angel & Crown, their Fish & Chips (£10.25) makes use of a thick haddock fillet. It has soft flesh and is less flaky than cod but it’s this structure that makes for satisfying eating. The fried batter has puffed up around the fish, closing and covering it so that the flesh steams to a sufficient flake. Dipped alternately in the accompanying tartare sauce and mushy peas (oh, these mushy peas are addictive!) I feel thoroughly British already. And the fat-cut chips, with their crisp exteriors and mealy insides are what my carb dreams are made of, especially when splashed with lots of malt vinegar and salt.
- selection of sauces
British Pie Week! Announces a handwritten sign on the blackboard above the counter. So we obey and it’s quite the lovely proposition on this chilly, rainy day. My Bin opts for the Steak & Stout Traditional Pie (£9.50), instead of the Roast Chicken & Mushroom or the Ratatouille (both pies). One bite, and I see his shoulders slump in delicious submission. My Bin is not a pie guy – I am – but this pie’s got him in its grips. Figures. He adores gravy and this dish is swimming in one made with red wine and tarragon. The wine brings out the complexity of the meat while the tarragon’s anise-like flavor is subtle but noticeable, rounding out all the flavors. And mash, oh how the Brits know that you can’t have pie without mash and beans. May I say what a perfect combination they are? And what a way to get one’s veg in!
I’m practically dancing on the tabletop with uncontained glee in anticipation of the Sticky Toffee Pudding with Sticky Toffee Sauce (£4.95). Imagine, I’m having this dessert in its place of origin, the UK! “And would you like to have your pudding with cream, ice cream, or custard?” Asks our server. Oh sweet lord, might I have all three, perhaps? I want to reply. My Bin is looking at me most amusedly. “Oh god! Erm… er…” I’m blathering like an idiot before I desperately take hold of my senses. “Custard, please.”
It’s a stunning vision, this pudding is. I can barely snap a few shots before my Bin and I arm ourselves with spoons and dig in. The muted afternoon light casts rays of shine on this dessert’s curves, highlighting its sweet insides (crumbly but moist), and illuminating its date-speckled countenance. The custard freely flows down the sides of the pudding cloaking it in its creamy caress. It’s warm and pure and perfect.
Angel & Crown
58 St. Martins Lane
Covent Garden, London