Category Archives: Soho London

Bocca di Lupo. About time

A man I love very much said to me, “If you were 30, I would give our relationship a go. But you’re 37 – if I go out with you, you will start expecting marriage soon.

I still haven’t found the words to respond to this, but I did add him to a long list of my people obsessed with age. Nobody I know seems to want to be their age at the moment – through mind-numbing food plans, bad hair dye jobs, inappropriate sexapades, and best-selling alter egos, I have found myself in the midst of a lot of people’s age-crisis. So it wasn’t quite by accident that I was drawn to the New Year Day release of The Theory of Everything – a film about Stephen Hawking and his theories of time. Hawking writes an equation to prove that there was a beginning of time. He then proposes the end of time. We go about our lives quietly accepting beginnings and ends of sunrises and sunsets, of days and meals, of relationships and jobs; and yet, we get so sensitive about our age. We fight it – everyday.

As I wandered around Soho and pondered my people’s preoccupation with age, I walked past a restaurant, I’ve always enjoyed visiting. Bocca di Lupo has a chef-owner who has written a wonderful book on pasta through the ages – The Geometry of Pasta. A book that was born of a preoccupation of a more delicious kind – of the Italian’s obsession with the right shape of pasta for the right sauce.

I love a little time travel as much as the next person. Especially if I can taste my way through the travel, as I did tonight.

Agnolotti dal plin

AgnolottiLike all interesting food history, the origin of the agnolotti, a semi-circle stuffed pasta from Piedmont, is attributed to several legends. Some say it’s name comes from the tool that was used to cut the pasta – the anolot. Other stories give credit to its stuffing – agnello (lamb). Or perhaps it was named after the chef, Angeloto, who first made these to celebrate the end of a siege? The version I ate – Agnolotti dal plin (£9) was pinched into delicate pleats and stuffed with pork and veal. Not the best bowl of pasta I have ever had, but tonight I wasn’t after excellence. Instead, reading about its history added texture to my meal – about how this pasta used to be made mainly for festive occasions, given the dainty pleating; or in the winter, when “housewives had to fill long winter evenings with some sort of activity.”

Wine: Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, 2012 (£7.70)

Pappardelle with venison ragú

Pappardelle“They are best served with a chunky, flavoursome, oily sauce in Tuscany; with a chicken liver or hare ragú, in the Veneto and Romagna with a pigeon one.” I had mine with a venison ragú (£9) – a wholesome sauce that lovingly attached itself to luscious ribbons of hand made pappardelle. The book talks about how this pasta has been around since the medieval times “when they were cooked in a game broth, thickened by blood.”

Wine: Primitivo Fatalone, 2010 (£7.50)

KitchenAs I watched 4 chefs cook traditional recipes for a 100 diners, I had to wonder if they ever stopped to think about how old they were. Working in unspoken conversations, the only place they could be was in the moment.

In this moment, it is exactly the time it is. We are exactly the age we are.

-p

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Filed under Italian, London, Pasta, Soho London

Koya Bar. Living in is-ness

I left London three months ago; in as much as I could leave a city that had become part of me over the seven years I lived there. As I began to map my two weeks back, around meals and friends I would eat them with, I realised that I have spent a lot of my life going back. Back to the same cities, back to favourite restaurants, back to old lovers. It’s never the same though.

The city doesn’t change, a favourite meal still tastes good, and old lovers are just as happy to see me – but it’s never the same. I remember London as picture perfect, sans the years of lonely meals and freezing walks in the rain. I am excited about dinner with a lover, having clearly forgotten his refusal to commit any feelings. I order cocktails in my favourite bar, and then…. reality kicks in.

The truth is that today rarely matches up to my airbrushed memory of its yesterday. And yet, I spend so much time trying to recreate perfect experiences; seldom focusing instead, on what is.

On a day when London was especially bleak, I abandoned the temptation of puncturing the memory of a comfortable old favourite with its reality. Not convinced I could revisit a place without “going back”, I chose somewhere new. I walked into Koya Bar – a cosy collection of 24 low stools arranged around an open kitchen. The noodle bar almost forces you to eat in the moment, urging you to leave your baggage at the door.

I started with Otsukemono (homemade pickles), £2.90 and a delicious Kakuni (cider braised pork belly), £6.90 washed down with a chilled Kirin, £4.60. Then I waited patiently as the chef decided on the right moment to serve me Kinoko Atsu-Atsu (mushroom with walnut miso in hot broth), £11.60. The beautiful bowl arrived with hot udon noodles that are made in the traditional manner, dough kneaded by foot. “This is such a leisurely dish,” I said to myself several times as I mixed the large lump of walnut miso into the broth. After my first slurp I was lost in the dish, coming up for air only when the last mushroom had disappeared.

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Each dish is layered with complexity, but presented with such an effortless style, that you can’t help but pay attention to what is. This spirit of is-ness comes from the kitchen and its attention to detail. The dashi would not be as fresh and their umami-rich stock would not have the power to cleanse away your worries if the chefs were somewhere else in spirit.

I left inspired. Determined to not let would-ness and was-ness from taking over the is-ness of my life.

-p

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Filed under Communal tables, Japanese, London, Noodles, Open kitchen, Soho London

Bone Daddies. Food for thought

Except for a trip to the hospital and a short hobble across the street, a sprained ankle ensured I did not leave my apartment for over two weeks. This was the longest period of time I have spent in a small space, mostly on my own. And in this quiet, silent place I realised that there are many things I don’t say even to myself because I’m afraid of what they would say about me.

I am envious of her success.
I don’t have a single original idea.
I cheated on my first boyfriend.

The noise in my head was deafening and I had to leave for somewhere so loud that I would not be able to hear myself think. London’s Soho is exactly that. An area I would never venture into by choice on a Saturday night, today this tourist hell provided just the comfort I needed. After several hours wandering streets where frozen yoghurt parlours and cupcake shops fight for the same footfall as sex shops and The Pleasure Lounge, I finally got hungry.

Bones Daddies isn’t exactly new but London has been noodle-mad for over half a year and this ramen star by ex-Nobu & Zuma chef Ross Shonhan was still rammed. The best part about being a table for one is that even when a restaurant has queues around the block, they will always find a seat to squeeze me into.

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Thanks to almost every London restaurant reviewer and food blogger having already waxed eloquent about Bone Daddies, I knew exactly what I was goin to eat even before I was seated. I skipped the starters (soft shell crab and fried chicken have most votes) and went straight for the Tantanmen ramen (£11) and Pickles (£3) (It says homemade pickles on the menu, but that term looks ridiculous on restaurant menus. Urr… whose home exactly?)

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I started with the pickles (eight different kinds and all yum) and a Maiken-Me cocktail (£7.80) of shochu, umeshu and watermelon. It was more mandarin-y than watermelon-y and a bit too sweet for me. In anticipation of my ramen I reached for the bottle of rubber bands to pull my hair back (a genius idea apparently imported from Japanese izakayas). The table also has other cute extras like a garlic crusher and a sesame grinder.

You can choose from seven different broths and I recommend you begin with the chicken-stock based Tantanmen. When the bowl arrived, it looked too glorious to disturb with a spoon and chopsticks, A few seconds of that, and it was too glorious for me not to attack with a spoon and chopsticks. The broth is fragrant with sesame and so delicious that I could not slurp/chew fast enough. The pork was juicy and while it could have done with a little more chilli one wasn’t complaining. I really do prefer this to the more common Tonkotsu broth. The purists say the ramen is better elsewhere, but I’m no noodle expert and in this instance, taste trumped truth.

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My excellent waiter suggested a black sesame soft serve to end, and even though it was exactly what my heart needed… I had to listen to the tummy this once.

There is nothing subtle about Bone Daddies. But even the luscious meal and pounding rock and roll soundtrack couldn’t drown out my thoughts forever. So as I reluctantly leave, I wonder…

Am I curious enough?
Will I ever be good enough? (For what?)
Sometimes, can just love be enough?

-p

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Filed under Cocktails, Communal tables, Japanese, London, Noodles, Soho London

Great expectations

I’ve often admonished my mother for putting people in boxes: He’s gay, must be artistic. She likes eating out, must be a foodie. He’s gujju, must be vegetarian.

I’m too harsh. I choose to ignore that maybe she needs these boxes to manage her expectations. Far too often we are told not to expect anything of anyone; apparently, we cause our own heartache by expecting the next person to behave a certain way.

I expect to be included in my childhood friend’s wedding. She expects the vows she made that day to stay true forever. My sister expects me to have answers to all her questions. I expect my new crush to notice me.

So what happens when this doesn’t happen? When a marriage ends in divorce; when siblings don’t stand up for each other just because they are related; when a star chef’s new menu doesn’t dazzle you. What then?

Nopi (for North of Piccadilly) has received only good reviews. Even those who hated it, loved it. I was SO excited about Sunday lunch at Ottolenghi’s new restaurant in Soho. Having spent many happy meals at his kitchen in Islington, I was glad for something closer to home. Gold lamps reflect brightly off the whitewashed and tiled walls, the furniture is simple and waiters, smiley… Nopi’s dining room is like summer.

I started with a North African breakfast dish – Shakshuka – poached eggs with red pepper and tomato (£8.50). The eggs were okay – the tomato was too tart and eggs not eggy enough for me. I moved on to a Kingfish carpaccio with a spice rub (£10). This is an oily fish and really did not need the generous drizzle of olive oil. I couldn’t finish this overpriced dish except for the salad and samphire decorating the plate. I was beginning to lose hope… and ordered a cocktail to help lift the spirits on my table. The grapefruit and lychee cooler with vodka, and mint was clearly the wrong choice. I paid £10 for what mostly tasted of grapefruit juice and lime.

This is not what I expected. I had all but lost hope and then saw burrata on the menu.  Burrata would have to be on my Top 3 cheese list, and Nopi serves it with blood orange and coriander (£12). This Israeli-born chef has single-handedly changed the way I eat vegetarian food – and this dish reminded me exactly why. Finally, a dish that is pitch perfect! Just as I started to smile at my plate again a surly manager asked me to put my camera away. I ordered dessert (sultana financiers with brandy cream (£6.50), but it was too late. Nopi had let me down.

Or did I let myself down by expecting so much from one meal? Should I want less? Concede more? I don’t know the answer yet. What I do know is that my sister’s expectations of me have made me a better sibling. Her expectations of what she wanted for herself have made her a stronger woman. My expectations from a friendship has given my friend the confidence to make demands of me. For now, I want to wait for those moments when not only does someone meet my expectations; they surpass them. I have great expectations.

-p

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Filed under Breakfast, Brunch, London, Mediterranean, Restaurant, Soho London, Tapas

Oysters ahoy

I have just broken the first rule of an eat-right-and-look-hot food plan my friend Foram wrote for me. I started my day with a glass of champagne.

The Wright Brothers started with an oyster farm in Cornwall and now supply fish to restaurants across the UK. I first heard of them when I found myself slurping delicious oysters at their Oyster & Porter House in Borough market one sultry Saturday a few years ago.

Their new Wright Brothers Soho evokes the atmosphere of a Dickensian bar. Planned over three floors the restaurant has a cosy combination of banquettes and high tables. I asked to sit at the bar around their open kitchen in the lower-ground floor. This is a basement like none I’ve seen. Massive windows allow ample light to stream onto the two open kitchens, and also offer passers-by cheeky views into the restaurant. High tables are lit with candles on old fashioned candle sticks and the white walls are decorated with black and white photographs and blackboards with daily specials.

I love being the single diner at a bar counter. Its like being a fly on the kitchen wall – close enough to hear the chefs talk. And I do exactly that as I order my glass of Billecarte-Salmon (£9). The quiet Russian, loud Indian and flirty Frenchman spent a good part of lunch service deciphering accents for each other. They also did lovely things like walk ten feet across the kitchen to slice a lemon right in front of me.

I began with what I came for – a platter of Duchy natives, Colchester, Maldon and Spéciale de claire oysters (£15). This is very much a restaurant that lets you be. I wasn’t rushed through my oysters; the chefs didn’t mind my staring as they sent out one fish after another; and fashionable Soho diners smiled back from their tables laden with Cornish crab, crispy squid and Monocle bags.

The rest of my meal included a fantastic white bait with tartare sauce (£8.50) paired with a glass of Sancerre (£9.50), and a disappointing hazelnut chocolate pot (£5.50). I am glad I stopped by the washroom on my way out… love this brand of TP!

I first tasted oysters at a stunning restaurant on Hong Kong’s Peak. I was with someone very special and trusted him with my heart and palate. Things started to go wrong a little after that trip and never got right again. Now, many years later from that night, I can finally eat an oyster without being transported to that night. I still haven’t been able to go back to Hong Kong though.

Call someone you trust and try something new today. It is always, eventually, worth it.

-p

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Filed under Bar, Communal tables, London, Open kitchen, Oysters, Restaurant, Seafood, Soho London

A classic recipe

When you get hungry in-between “regular” meal times in Central London, the restaurant options get slightly scary. You will struggle to choose between below average pizzerias (Pizza Express, Pontis), chain takeaway favourites (Eat, Pret) and touristy all day diners (Garfunkel, La Tasca). Its 5pm, I am hungry and not willing to compromise. Polpo, a bocaro (Venetian wine bar) in the heart of Soho is a God-send.

It has been an exhilarating week – budget reviews, CEO in town, big promotion, an early 50th birthday party, shopping for a holiday – and in spite of all the excitement, the overriding emotion when I got home each night was “I miss hanging out with myself”! I started writing this blog 69 days ago and can hardly believe that my first post was about loneliness, and here I am craving some alone time.

Polpo is perfect. The large windows open into the pavement and the gentle breeze is a welcome intruder as I sit at the bar and start with the wine list. Even on the hottest day of the year I find I cannot bring myself to drink white wine anymore. I also cannot imagine an Italian meal without wine. Gorgeous bartender Kevin came to my rescue and suggested a chilled red wine. The Ponte del Diavolo Refosco del Friuli 2008 (£8 for ¼ ltr) is smooth and bursting with blackberries. The rest of my meal included a Spinach, Parmesan and Soft Egg Pizzetta (£4.50), Linguine Vongole (£6) and a slab of Taleggio (£4). The food at Polpo is testimony to the fact that ingredient is king. Nothing on the menu is fancy schmancy, in fact the entire menu is simply a list of ingredients instead of made up titles.

Polpo’s menu sort of reminds me of an online dating site my friends Matt and Erica have helped me register on: mysinglefriend.com. Once I log on the first thing I see is a menu of photos that match my age and area criteria. Alongside each photograph is a list of… uh, ingredients? For example:

Chris, London, 35, looking for a female 20-35, creative, terribly witty, a bit independent, a confident sort, a good listener, pretty sexy, thoughtful, an outdoors type, well travelled and a pub lover

Unlike the menu at Polpo though, the menu on this website has each dish sounding pretty much the same as the next. Even when I dig deeper (i.e. click on the photo to read the friend’s testimony followed by the dish’s repartee) based on purely superficial standards it turns out that almost all of them are, “…one of the best blokes I know and I’m amazed that he hasn’t been snapped up yet” who want a “fun, happy, intelligent woman who knows who she is”. Now how do I choose the exact combination of ingredients that will deliver me my perfect meal?

I have to quote a professor from hotel school, who said “cooking is about taste, while baking is about precision”.

Does this mean that I have to start by choosing between pasta and pastry.

-p

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Design, Italian, London, Soho London, Tapas, Wine

Baby steps

I was single for four years before I met the Ex. In between one story and the next I moved to London and for the first time was completely responsible for myself. To twist Spiderman’s words slightly, “with great responsibility came great loneliness”. Yes it was my choice; didn’t make it easier though, knowing it was your decision all the way.

When I first moved to London I had to force myself to go out on my own. My first solo trip to the cinema was a traumatic experience and I remember running home even before the end credits started rolling. I’ve come a long way from that trip to Odeon Swiss Cottage. In the last few years I’ve learnt to love the journey of discovering this vibrant city and myself. I used to love hanging out with myself. Just before I met the Ex my favourite Sunday activity used to be a Table for ONE at a lovely new restaurant. Then I met someone and there began a rosy life as a couple. I forgot what it was to spend time with myself and now find myself at the beginning of a long, solitary road I thought I had left behind forever.

I am not looking back. But trying to move forward is very, very hard. Encouraged by the overwhelming feedback to my first blog post and the Bank Holiday sunshine I walked into Hyde Park this morning. What a bad idea! In no time at all I found myself on the path my Ex and I used to frequent when we walked his dog. I am clearly not yet ready to reminisce. The Elephant Parade amuses me for a minute but I had to get out of there.

I needed to be somewhere safe, somewhere that was just mine. 30 minutes later I find myself at Flat White. The relief as I walk into the familiarity of this narrow coffee bar is obvious and I waste no time at all finding myself a seat. As I wait for the sexy barista to bring me my Flattie (£2.50) I put away my iPod, my book, the notebook with ideas for my blog posts, and the phone. I’m safe now and can deal with a cup-of-coffee worth of thoughts. I miss him immediately; I fight the urge to distract myself and instead let myself miss him. Baby steps.

-p

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Filed under Breakfast, Coffee, Deli, London, Soho London