Thursday, September 30, 2010

London Trip - Day 1

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently abandoned the Commissary to the progeny and their sitters (i.e., the 2 grandmas) while we traveled to merry old England for a few days. The trip was half-business, half-pleasure for the missus (having been asked to present at a global conference in London), but was pure entertainment for yours truly, leaving me largely on the loose in a city well-known (at least within the last 10 years or so) for the vast diversity of its food culture. For those of you that associate English cuisine with fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, puddings, etc., there are still mediocre oceans of that stuff available (although even those old standbys are getting a better reputation at some of the more-progressive restaurants in the country); however, there may be no better place outside of their own nations to sample several types of Southeast Asian and Indian Subcontinent food, a few of which I took it upon myself to track down. Of course, I couldn't just eat the whole time I was there (although I can sense a few of you rolling your eyes in doubt). I did, in fact, visit many of the important tourist sites, just with a little more of a foodie angle than my previous visit to London in 2004. So, without further ado....

Day 1 found me full English breakfasting at the hotel - for the uninitiated, this includes beans, stewed tomatoes, bacon (although leaner and more ham-like than what we're used to here in the States), sausages, potatoes, and eggs, leaving me pleasantly full as I cruised through the National Art Gallery and Westminster Abbey. Around 2:30 that afternoon, I finally felt hungry enough to attempt lunch - taking the Tube to Covent Garden, I headed over to Rock and Sole Plaice (47 Endell St.), a fish-and-chips emporium recommended by my guidebook and seconded by many reviewers on-line. The place was pretty tiny, with about 6 tables inside and a few more on the sidewalk in front. One could pick from 4 different fishes (cod, sole, plaice, and haddock, if I recall correctly), with or without chips, and you paid a little bit more if you wanted to stay there to eat (i.e., table service). I chose plaice (a fish I'd vaguely heard of before, but had never eaten) with chips and was served the golden beauty see above in Picture 1. I have to say, if there is a more Platonic ideal of fish-and-chips out there somewhere, I would be surprised. The fillet was large, crunchy, flavorful, and not the least bit greasy or "fishy". The chips were pretty much just the way I like them - chunky, crisp on the outside, but a little soft on the inside. Sublime. I get the chills just thinking about it even now.

Basking in lunch's afterglow, I was able to do a little more touring before clocking out and heading over to Rasa Samudra (5 Charlotte St.) near the Tottenham Court Tube station, another guidebook-recommended restaurant. I did a little research beforehand and determined that this place specializes in Southern Indian (specifically, the Kerala region of Southern India) food, which features a lot of seafood and ingredients normally associated with the tropics (think coconuts, mangoes, bananas, etc.). The menu was a mind-spinning 10 pages of choices, in which case I usually seek out some kind of combo option (this typically gives you the best opportunity to sample many different items, often at a pretty good price). I picked the "vegetarian feast" featured on the front of the menu and was assured by the waitress that the amount of food included would be manageable (of course, I knew better and fully expected to be stuffed by the time the 3rd course showed up). For starters (called the "pre-meal snack"), I was brought out a basket of various crunchy treats (made primarily out of rice flour, cumin, and sesame seeds) along with three different pickles (lemon, mango, and mixed vegetable) and a couple of savory chutneys for dipping. Next came the "starters", which were three different dumplings (fried potato balls, fried plantains, and my personal favorite, medhu vadai, a spongy dumpling inside a crunchy shell) with three more chutneys (tomato, coconut, and mango) for dipping. Feeling full yet inspired, along came my entree (see Picture 2 above, starting at lower left and going counterclockwise) consisting of moru kachiathu (mango/banana cooked in yogurt), cheera parippu curry (spinach and chickpeas in curry sauce), rasa kayi (spicy mixed vegetables, and savory cabbage thoran (sort of like an Indian cole slaw), plus delicious coconut rice and flatbread. After this feast, I was presented with a small dessert (pal payasam, a sweet rice milk dish) that I must have eaten, although I'm not quite sure how. Anthony Bourdain waxed poetically about Keralan cuisine in a recent No Reservations episode and I can clearly see why. Rolling back to my hotel, I tried to recover for Day 2.....

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