Top (reasonable) London Eats

Posted on April 4, 2010

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Original post, February 26 2010

When I think of heaven, I usually envisage a long serving table without visible end crammed full with dishes and specialities from around the world. As I imagined my coming trip to London and the many food options available there, it came very close to what I thought to be foodie paradise, and my mouth was already watering as my plane was preparing to land at Gatwick airport.
Granted. I only stayed in London for 5 days, which means that there were only a very limited number of restaurants I had time to visit and dishes I could drown my face in, but here is, nonetheless, a list of those I loved most. Because the choice of places to eat and their differing price range may be a bit overwhelming, my advice is to invest in a good guide book and do some research upfront (check out my guidebook recommendations here), otherwise, you will, as I have done before, succumb to the appeal of the easier and speedier fast food outlets along each and every street. My lonely planet London food chapter not only let me know whether each particular restaurant was budget, mid-range or top end, but it also provided its website, where I could see for myself the dishes available and come up with a suitable budget for the meal. Ferenc and I worked with a budget of 60 pounds per day (for 2 people) and succeeded in having some memorable meals during those five days of endless walking.

When after a Friday of travelling we crawl exhausted into Soho’s Gay Hussar (www.gayhussar.co.uk), we were instantly enveloped by the cosiness of a restaurant which didn’t look like much from the outside.
Probably the only reason why the idea of eating at a Hungarian restaurant had sounded so appealing to me was because Ferenc’s parents are Hungarian and he had told me many times of the delicious meals his mother used to whip up each day. Indeed, the few occasions when I see his eyes light up at the thought of food is when he recalls such moments and explains to me the nuances of Hungarian cuisine.
Gay Hussar turned out to be a very popular place and I was therefore grateful for the fact that I had easily booked a table two weeks earlier through its online booking system. The smallness of the place, the low lighting and the walls covered with framed caricatures of historical and political figures made for an unforgettable interior. The service was fast and the staff attentive and despite the fact that the restaurant was full, it never got too loud for comfort.
Ferenc and I opted for the chicken in a creamy paprika sauce and galuska (13.25 pounds) and the crispy roast duck with red cabbage, Hungarian potatoes and apple sauce (16.95 pounds) respectively, and two glasses of red wine. At the end of the meal I was left full, satisfied and happily giggling away after that single glass of wine. I was even more pleased to hear Ferenc describe the food as ‘delicious’, a word I have rarely heard him utter over a plate of food which was not his mother’s.
I was dying to try the famous palacsinta (walnut pancake with chocolate sauce) but I had no more space left in my stomach, famous for the fact that is the size of a bird’s.

 

 

Unlike all the other restaurants visited during our trip, I didn’t plan on eating at Taro Japanese restaurant (www.tarorestaurants.co.uk), but simply came across it as Ferenc and I were walking through Soho on a Friday night. The restaurant is strategically positioned just below ground level with a large window on street level providing a perfect observation zone. Taro was not meant to be a fine dining experience and in fact, the interior is modern but unremarkable, but our order of nigiri and maki was brought very quickly despite the fact that the restaurant was full. I may not be a Sushi expert or a Japanese, but to my mind the dishes were fresh, salty and beautifully presented. Our very filling meal including drinks and service charge ended up costing only 26 pounds. Online booking is available if don’t fancy having to wait for a table during the busy weekend evenings.
After the quick sushi, I was completely full but still craved something sweet. The solution? We popped over to Patisserie Valerie (www.patisserie-valerie.co.uk) located along the same road as Taro and got ourselves a takeaway chocolate cake so rich I could not finish it in one go and ended up eating half of it for breakfast the following day. If you have a bigger stomach than I have, the cafe has a tea room where you can feast on your sweet purchase over a cup of coffee or tea.

 

While walking into Myung Ga Korean restaurant (www.myungga.co.uk) on a Monday evening, I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought of being able to savour Korean barbeque once again. The feel of steel chopsticks in my hand brought memories of clumsy meals during my time in Korea when I could not as yet eat with them properly. Koreans are the only Asians who use steel utensils. In the past, Korean kings used steel bowl and chopsticks because they would tarnish if they came in contact with poison, thus keeping them safe from harm. Nowadays, they serve a more hygienic purpose and are annoying to people like Ferenc who haven’t had the time to properly get accustomed to them. Unlike their wooden counterparts, these heavy flat options are much more difficult to use.
I was famished and eager to savour all the different tastes of Korean food, so we ordered a selection of banchan (side dishes), Deung Sim gui (thinly sliced sirloin), moksal (marinated pork) and steamed rice, accompanied by a cranberry soyu cocktail.
It was a slow meal, cooked by ourselves on the grill on our table. The sizling meat and rising smoke made sure that we would carry the smell of barbeque with us on the tube, train and foot journey home.

 

When I stumbled into Camden Town’s Hache (www.hacheburgers.com), I was cold, famished and in a general grumpy mood, after a day of walking and window shopping turned into a rainy, wind-swept and freezing one. As the rain poured during our browse through Camden Market, we could not bring ourselves to purchase any food from the many mouth watering stalls stationed there because our frozen hands wouldn’t have been able to properly grasp a fork. I remembered having read about Hache’s homemade burgers on my guidebook and made a half-hearted attempt at finding it using my map, but ten minutes later I was still walking around aimlessly. Ferenc came to my rescue, took a quick look at the map and promptly found the entrance to the restaurant hidden behind some clothing stalls. I couldn’t have been more grateful. The cold and madness of the world outside was left behind when we sat down in that elegantly decorated interior with dark wooden flooring, ceiling beams and elaborate cascading chandeliers.
My fantastic lamb Moroccan burger was served in a crispy ciabatta and was a welcome explosion of taste after an exhausting day. On a Tuesday afternoon, the restaurant was quiet and almost empty, so we had the friendly staff almost all to ourselves.

 

 

Other less poshy but still to be remembered meals (for reasons other than their wonderful taste) included a greasy subway sandwich upon landing at Gatwick, a flavourful belly pork baquette from Borough market which was so heavy that it made my stomach churn for a few hours after, a meal at a Chinese restaurant during Chinese New Year where the staff was so eager to kick us out and make way for new customers that the paper tablecloth was taken off in our faces as we struggled to pay the bill and hastily put our coats, mufflers, caps and gloves on, and Ferenc’s first greasy, delicious time at KFC (my favourite fast food outlet in the world which is sadly not found in Switzerland).

 

I had set out on my trip to London with the unwavering obsession of enjoying its culinary delights on a budget. Mission accomplished, but I really wish I had had more than just five days. There are so many more restaurants to explore…

– Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @ www.travelwithdenden.wordpress.com

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Posted in: London, London