I turned thirty in London. It was a potentially horrid day – not only had I seen enough girlfriends turn thirty, depressed and surly, it was going to be the first birthday I would spend with absolutely no family or best friends with me. Until this year I never really gave birthdays much thought beyond presents, guest lists and a dress budget.
There wasn’t much I could do about turning thirty but I was determined not to get depressed or surly. So I came up with Birthday Month – why wait an entire year for just one day when I could celebrate an entire month filled with my favourite things? This year Birthday Month featured a day on London Underground’s Circle Line. The original version of this concept included youngsters getting out at every stop on this tube line for a pint. Instead, I picked favourite restaurants, cool bars and added a few boozers (as homage to the original concept). I also made up a few rules:
- Eat or drink only one thing at each stop.
- Everyone must have one alcoholic drink at least every third stop.
- We won’t stop at every stop…
- …and may walk for some of the journey.
Emails sent, announcements tweeted, phone calls made… this Table for One was looking forward to sharing her table with a new circle of friends.
Stop 1: Liverpool Street: Dishoom Shoreditch
I was seven minutes late for our 11.30am start, and boy was I glad not to be punctual. Arrive on time and I would have missed out on this debonair welcome party!
Stop 1 had us eating Bacon Naan Rolls (Nayan, Martin, John and Thomas), Vada Pav (Naman), Nankhatai and Jeera Biscuits (Serena) and Akuri (me), There were also many cups of chai, a bloody mary and a few Kingfisher beers on the table.
I may have said this before but I’ll say it again. Dishoom’s Bacon Naan Roll is one of the most delicious pieces of genius I have ever tasted. A fluffy naan, crispy bacon, chilli jam and cream cheese. What’s not to love?!
Stop 2: Farringdon: Vinoteca
My original choice for this stop was Burger & Lobster but they didn’t open until 4pm and we had to improvise. Many thanks to our resident winemaker Nayan, for suggesting Vinoteca. It was only right that he chose our drink for this stop – a beautiful prosecco that went down (too) well.
A common Twitter acquaintance introduced me to Nayan Gowda and my first meeting with him was spent in a (different) wine bar. I have to admit, that if you had asked me then whether Nayan and I would become friends, my honest answer would have been no. He was charming beyond words and I spent the entire afternoon wondering if I may be a tad boring for him. Our worlds seemed so different… until I decided to take us both out of these tiny boxes I had trapped us in. Today I am thrilled to be able to call Nayan a friend. A great one.
Stop 3: King’s Cross St. Pancras: Wine Pantry
The Wine Pantry is the cutest new wine and spirit bar and serves purely British products. It is also where I came up with my version of the Circle Line day. We lost Serena to a working Saturday, and were now the Joy of Six who drank Sheep Dip Whisky (John), Old Salt Rum (Naman), Kernel IPA (Nayan), sparkling wine (Martin) and Rhubarb Chase Vodka (me). Thomas cheated and brought in a coffee from next door. Thomas Mielke is my most grown up young friend. From our first holiday together (Budapest in 2007) to our forthcoming trip to NYC (next week) he has been an unwavering pillar in my life. I have not felt so close to someone I am so dissimilar from. Six years later we sometimes resemble a crotchety old couple, and have agreed to disagree on many things (except perhaps my drawing skills).
Just as we were ready to leave we were joined by newlyweds Giulia and Sandy. We were now the Hard Eight!
Stop 4: Euston Square: Mestizo
We had every intention of walking to Euston Square. London rain had other plans for us and the Hard Eight took a rather long tube journey for a rather short distance. Mestizo, one of my favourite Mexican restaurants in town, was chaired by my favourite bartender John Leese. I first met John when he was making cocktails at the Match bar across from my office. Short version of our story: I flirted, he asked for my number, I gave it to him, he took two years to call me!
We may have never been on a date but (now that I have forgiven him for taking his time to call me) I know I can count on John. And I don’t just mean for good cocktails.
John ordered the group (except Thomas who chose beer, and Martin who wussed it out with water) shots of Olmeca Altos tequila. But this beautiful tequila deserved sipping, and we all had strict instructions not to touch the salt or lime. John seemed to need a personal moment with this drink – as a result of which we got a mini master class (and iPhone-aided slideshow) on agave, mezcal and tequila. We ordered the customary guacamole (photo above by star photographer Giulia) and all agreed that today it was infinitely inferior to the free salsa and chips at the bar.
Stop 5: Great Portland Street: Queen’s Head & Artichoke
Grey clouds gave way to a burst of sunshine and we walked to Stop 5. Giulia and Sandy left us for furniture shopping and we were joined by a frozen Laxmi. It was a round of Timothy Taylor’s ale for everyone at Queen’s Head & Artichoke – a beautifully restored Victorian pub with the friendliest staff I have seen at any pub in the city, and a much needed fireplace.
Stop 6: Bayswater: Mandarin Kitchen
We lost Thomas to a phone call and John to his job. What you have now, ladies and gentlemen, is the final group that will from hereon be known as the New Famous Five.
It was 4pm and I was craving MSG. The original plan for an Egyptian meal at Edgware Road was abandoned for greasy Chinese at Bayswater. Naman took care of the veggies (aubergine and tofu fried in garlic), Nayan ordered the minced pork with red chillies and Martin made an executive decision about an oyster omelette. All shockingly delicious, considering our location.
What was shockingly un-delicious was Naman’s choice of rice wine. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and so….
This momentary lapse in judgement aside, Naman Ramachandran’s expertise in food and drink cannot be faulted. I first met Naman nearly ten years ago when my mother published his first book Lights Camera Masala. I have only recently reconnected with him and his fantastic better half Laxmi Hariharan. Many weekends are now spent cooking in each other’s kitchens and I am especially looking forward to my birthday lunch of real Bengali food, personally guided by half-Bong, Naman.
Stop 7: Notting Hill: Kensington Wine Rooms
After the ghastliness our palates were subjected to at the last stop, we demanded proper wine. Good thing Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Wine Rooms’ extensive wine by the glass menu were only one tube stop away. Nayan took charge again and ordered us a delicious bottle of red. I wish I could remember which one it was… It’s the seventh stop and the rules have been well and truly abandoned. Nayan spotted a South African wine made by his friend and ordered a second drink! We’re definitely not yet drunk but the New Famous Five were now reduced to giggles for pretty much the rest of the day.
Stop 8: South Kensington: Comptoir Libanais
We were hungry again – the Chinese meal had not made a dent in anyone’s appetite. Thankfully Laxmi’s hummus cravings began exactly when we were whizzing past South Kensington and its Comptoir Libanais branch. I have nothing against chains except that unfortunately most abandon any hint of taste or flavour in favour of mass-produced mediocrity. Comptoir Libanais is thankfully different. The hummus and falafel were excellent, Martin, Nayan and Naman were happy with their arak and I loved my Mona cocktail with rose and prosecco.
I announced a new rule at this stop – no phones. So we had no photos, tweets, or people disappearing from the table. For the first time all day I had the chance of a proper chat with Martin. I don’t know if my words can do justice to our relationship. In the six months I have known him, Martin has seen me experience great joy, hit rock bottom, reach out to him, and shun his help. All through this he has been a rock and the best mirror I could have asked for. What more can a girl want? (p.s. Martin Lumsden outblogged me with his artistic view on our Circle Line day; read here.)
Stop 9: Victoria: The Shakespeare
You don’t get more touristy than The Shakespeare at Victoria station. The pub was filled with St. Patrick’s Day revelers and we got our very own four leaf clover.
Stop 10: Embankment: Wahaca Pop Up
I have a soft spot for Mexican food (it’s the only cuisine to have featured twice on this Circle Line day) and all month long have been looking forward to Wahaca’s pop up on South Bank, and more specifically its fried grasshoppers.
Wahaca is the only restaurant in London to serve this Mexican delicacy. The grasshoppers have an earthy taste flavoured with garlic, smoky chipotle chillies and lime, and served as a baby lasagne smothered with cheese. The insect eaters in the group were not too impressed. There was just not enough grasshopper (or maybe way too much cheese) to have a real notion of what grasshopper must really taste like. Even the other dishes we ordered – guacamole, mushroom quesadilla and pork pibil tacos were strictly average today. We are all Wahaca fans and can only write this off to limitations in their pop kitchen.
The tamarind margaritas on the other hand were ace as usual and Nayan and Martin approved of their mojitos.
One of my favourite views of London is on the walk between South Bank and the Embankment tube station on the Hungerford Bridge. I’m glad this Circle Line day ended here, with my circle of friends, exactly 12 hours since it began.
I have now had six Birthday Months and wonder why I was so worried about not being with family and best friends. Life always does come to a full circle. It doesn’t happen the way you planned it. But, always better.
You can view more photos from the day here.