Monday, February 11, 2013

"Yes, London. You know, fish, chips, cup o tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary-fucking-Poppins. London!"

Luckily our experiences with the food in London were very good ones. Just like the love affair I have for London cocktail bars, I found so many wonderful restaurants in the city known for mushy peas, that I really wish I was getting back over the pond sometime soon.
 Everyone goes for Indian food while in London and I was no exception. I met my girlfriend Caitlin for lunch one day in Covent Garden at Dishoom where we had an amazing mid-day feast. We started with lassis (rose & cardamon, and mango & fennel) and Bombay Pimm's (yes, both!) and then worked our way through multiple courses of really delicious food. The snack of behl (puffed rice with pomegranate and tamarind chutney), meltingly tender lamb haleen and chicken berry biryani were my personal favorites.
This was nothing like the cheap and quick Indian food from nondescript mom and pop shops that most think of, the kitchen here is adding modern twists on lots of classics. Remembering this lunch is making me hungry!

The other thing that is synonymous with the London food scene is of course fish and chips. There is much tongue wagging about who is the best, the original, the oldest, and on and on. One afternoon Dayne and I sought out The Golden Hind in Marlybone, open since 1914 and heavily touted as the best. You chose your fish (cod, hake, plaice, or haddock) and sides (mushy peas and/or chips) are ordered separately. The fish portion was quite large but just ok, the tartare sauce lacks zip and the chips were a bit sad. Ah well, can't win them all.
While I was out playing tourist one afternoon, I came across an adorable little shop called The Wine Library at 43 Trinity Square. During lunch time you can purchase a bottle of wine and then help yourself to a cute buffet of patés, cheeses, salads, quiche, olives, desserts, etc. The manager was very helpful in finding me a small bottle of chilled white and I loved sitting in the cave-like room, listening in on many wine fueled business lunch discussions that were going on around me.
This cute shop/cafe is also just across from the Tower of London making it a great location when seeing the sights.
London is having a love affair with big, meat-centric, chop-house style restaurants. Even though Dayne's boss (who we had many dinners with since this was an extended work trip) is a pescetarian/vegetarian, he loves the atmosphere and popularity of these bold restaurants so we gladly checked out a few around town.

The first one we went to is located in the lovely Borough Market. Roast is quite popular with the locals and tourists alike, and occupies a fantastic space, bright with walls of windows, that use to be part of the flower market. The menu is full of British favorites, all ratcheted it up a notch, like my fried rabbit and side of mashed potatoes with marrow.

Roast actually does have a nice vegetarian menu as well as a daily specials, cocktail & bar menu, brunch, Sunday roast, etc. We all walked out happy and stuffed.

Dayne and I had an impromptu dinner at Hix on Brewer Street one night, on the recommendation of some good bartenders. This particular location also has the very nice Mark's Bar downstairs. My understanding is that, although there are various locations throughout the city, the menus are mostly similar. The restaurants use a lot of ingredients, proteins and cuts that we had never heard of. Things like herring milts, sea beet, and Bannockburn rib on the bone make up the menu. Dayne had a nice set of lamb chops while I tried this incredibly crazy looking game bird (name I am now forgetting). This bird absolutely was living up to its gamey-nature.
The food was all delicious and I've continued to recommend the various Hix locations to friends who have all reported back with thumbs up.

The top dog of chop houses in London is Hawksmoor. Dayne treated his workmates and me to a big, meaty dinner at their Seven Dials location (lobster for the pescatarian). Order up a boozy tiki drink while you peruse the menu and daily board of offerings. The steaks are listed by cut and weight and they are big, gorgeous cuts like Porterhouse and Chateaubriand. You can then decide if you want a sauce for your meat like Bearnaise, bone marrow gravy, Stilton hollandaise...  Holy hell, these folks are not messing around. It was amazing.

The opposite of having decadent steaks is to head to St. John's where the focus is on "poor man" cuts and offal. We chose to eat in the bar one evening, which was quite lively and much easier to get into than the connected restaurant. We had a fantastic meal of small plates including their famed bone marrow with parsley salad, a lovely dish of duck hearts and white beans, welsh rarebit, and goat cheese, roasted shallot and mint which you spread on grilled bread.

France isn't the only place with Michelin starred eateries. We chose to have our anniversary dinner at the 2 star Pied A Terre which was a fantastic recommendation from a friend who lives in the city. We had the 7-course tasting menu (they offer a 10-course also) with wine pairings. They give you a choice between classic wine styles or "discovery", Dayne took the classics and I took the discovery and they were both a really nice selection of wines.
Another higher end restaurant that we loved (and happens to be next door to Pied a Terre's sister restaurant) was Roganic.We had an excellent 3 course lunch there with a friend who was in town from Seattle, they also offer 6 and 10 courses. Can you imagine 10 courses at lunch? Oy! The staff had no problem adding in a nice cheese course for us as well.  The space is very minimalistic and a little zen like. I'd love to go back for dinner next time.

And out in Chiswick, Hedone just received its Michelin star. When we went we thought it was good but not great. It felt like a very friendly neighborhood restaurant vs a destination restaurant. Chiswick is also about as far as you can get from our apartment in the Docklands so the hour + commute on the train might have influenced our opinions. If someone has been there since their star awarding comment below and let me know how it is.

Of course you can't go to London without eating at a proper pub. And you should absolutely make a point to have Sunday roast in one. Even Gorden Ramsay is in the pub business with his place on the banks of the Thames, The Narrow. The Sunday roast was fantastic but the banana sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream stole the show.  

Another really good pub was The Charles Lamb in Islington. Around since 1839, it serves excellent food, beer and is right down the street from 69 Colebrook Row. Bonus!

The Gun was close to our apartment in the Docklands, and recommended highly. There's a very nice restaurant on one side and the pub on the other.  We chose to eat in the pub with friends one evening and had delicious pies (savory), burgers and well-pulled pints. 
All London photos here!


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Don't Mess with... Austin

Right before the holidays, Forest was in Texas visiting her parents, so I suggested a short meet-up to do a little eating and drinking. As we do. We chose Austin as neither of us had been before. As a bonus, my friend Margaret had moved there about 3 years ago and it had been way too long since I had seen her.
Forest picked me up from the airport and it was a quick 15 minute drive to our home for the next two nights, The Driskell Hotel. The elegant hotel has a 100+ year history and is the subject of many stories of political balls, Presidential sleep overs and even a haunting or two.

We had a beautiful room with crazy high ceilings and super comfortable beds. The location ended up being so perfect that after we dropped the car off with the valet we didn't need it again until we left town. I will say that we found the cabs in Austin to be possibly the least reliable and hardest to find than most any other city. And we had a few particularly sketchy drivers on top of that!
That night, Margaret met us at the hotel and the three of us were off to our first cocktail stop on our whirlwind tour of Austin. Peché had been recommended to me by more than a few people and it was obvious why. The space is large and just about half of it is taken up by a gorgeous, long, dark wood bar. The bartenders were very friendly and the drinks, like my fig Manhattan, were delicious. And they have this totally cool ginormous absinthe fountain!
Dinner that night was at the very delicious La Condesa. High-end Tex Mex was exactly what we were looking forward to for our first Austin dinner and this did not disappoint! I only wish we had been able to eat our way through more of the menu. Next time!
Forest and I finished up with a nightcap at the hotel bar. Well, we did after we basically had to beg the bartender to make us some martinis. Last call was surprisingly early every night we were in town.

The next day we explored 6th Street before walking over to the state capitol for a free guided tour. This was a really fun and informative experience. Our guide was a college student and had lots of stories about the history of Texas, the six countries who have ruled it, battles and the way the state is run now. The building and the grounds are really pretty and as with everything else in Austin, it was just a short walk from the center area of 6th and Congress.

After all that history, it was time to start checking out the local cocktails again. While waiting for the newest speakeasy in town to open up, we grabbed a quick cocktail next door at Parkside. I would really like to try to eat here next time I'm in town as it smelled heavenly! And a nice gentleman at the bar picked up the tab which made it even better :)

We finished up and headed over to Midnight Cowboy, found the appropriate buzzer, and were let in through a cruddy looking metal door into a very dim and pretty cocktail parlour.
It just so happened that the drinks we chose were done table side, a great way to get that "sitting at the bar" feel when in fact you are lounging in a booth. The drinks here were really good, the vibe very dark and hushed, and the staff was super nice in answering our questions.
We were starving now and it was time to meet Margaret at Barley Swine. It is very popular (for good reason) and they don't take reservations. Faced with an hour+ wait we decided to check out the (very few) neighboring bars. First up was Henri's Cheese & Wine were we had a really delicious charcuterie platter to stave off our hunger. Next we sauntered over to the Horseshoe Lounge in search of a margarita but found only very cheap beer on tap paired with fluorescent lighting. Not to be deterred we walked over to La Feria for slushy regrets. Luckily the restaurant buzzed and out table was ready.
We basically ordered the entire menu to share, which is absolutely the right thing to do. This is "tweezer food" but using southern ingredients like okra, pigs trotters, head cheese, etc. Absolutely delicious!

With such a short amount of time in town we forged on for a nightcap at Bar Congress. This swanky bar is actually part of the trifecta of Congress restaurant and Second Bar & Kitchen, all housed in the same multi-use building.
On our last morning we walked all the way over to the famed Franklin BBQ for a little brisket and ribs brunch. Everyone says this is the best brisket ever. Everyone says you have to go early because they sell out every day. Everyone says you have to wait in line forever. Everyone is right. We didn't get there until almost noon and we waited in line for an hour. And then the sold out sign got slapped on the door.

But not before we got this plate of amazing brisket! Ribs were gone but we had more brisket then we knew what to do with. We were also the last people to leave. The owner was super friendly, coming by all the tables to chat and apologize for not having everything we wanted. This is a must stop but maybe go a bit earlier ;)

We had just a short amount of time to kill before Forest dropped me at the airport so we grabbed a cab and headed to check out the SoCo (South Congress) neighborhood. It's filled with funky shops, patio cafes, corner lots of food trucks, boutiques and bars. We could have spent more time perusing, but it was still a good look at the quirkiness that is Austin. There's a reason the city's tagline is "Keep Austin Weird".

All Austin photos are here!

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