Thursday, 29 January 2009
Undone in London
Nipping up to London for a couple of days is all at once exciting, overwhelming, tiring and expensive. Even my friends who actually live there full time complain about how you can't leave the house without shedding money. So for a greedy spendthrift like me, London - gastronomic (and actual) capital of the country - can be far from a frugal place to spend time in. The other problem is the excitement of being in a place where so many friends are too, and inevitably I try and see far too many people and end up either letting people down or drinking a flurry of hurried half-finished pints and having a flurry of half-finished conversations.
This week I at least had a game plan. My brother was off to India for 5 months on Tuesday so we had dinner at my sister's flat on Monday night - a cracking curry that I may coerce her into putting on here if she gets a minute. Tuesday the only real plan, at least to start with, was to go to a friend's birthday drinks in the evening, but with a day to kill I suggested to a cousin that we ought to go for lunch in a place called the Boot and Flogger. We had been there together in the summer and I had fallen instantly in love with the place.
If you head north from Union Street towards Borough Market you will go up Redcross Way and will, most likely, find your gaze distracted by a large gate adorned with withering wreaths and crossbones. Neither the deserted scrub behind, nor the modernistic gate will detract from the sinisterness of the place. It was a medieval mass-burial site for prostitutes. Being outside the City of London's jurisdiction, the area became a haven for brothels and gambling dens, and these 'single women' were, for their sins (literally), buried in unconsecrated graves - 'the outcast dead'. Cheery stuff. Anyway, should you turn around, you will find the Boot and Flogger.
It is an establishment that defies definition. A complete anachronism, it is somewhere between a pub, restaurant and gents' club - the sort of place where, my cousin pointed out, the waitresses wouldn't think twice if you patted them on the bottom (though we are far too polite for that sort of tomfoolery). With us was cousin Tom's son Sebastien, who is a little older than me, and his (and my Dad's, for that matter) godson Tobie. The menu, like me, is simple, and demands little dithering, something which I love. I'd much rather just be told what I'm eating - can't stand a big menu. We kicked off with a bottle of German Riesling, the name of which I could not tell you. What I can tell you is that it was a cracking wine, being a little sweet as Rieslings tend to be, but sharp as well, which Rieslings often are not. The ideal pre-lunch drink. We nibbled at quails' eggs while waiting for the food proper to arrive - cold ham, tongue and rare sirloin of beef, with salad and new potatoes. A more perfect lunch there could not be. If you have an aversion to tongue I might suggest this would be a good place to start. Incredibly soft and delicate, not as rich as offal but still singing with the addition of horseradish, it is a really underrated, frugal cut. A couple of bottles of Rioja somehow slipped down along with this real meat feast, and arms were twisted towards the pudding menu. Sticky toffee pud with custard, trifle, and fruitcake soaked in Madeira were all yomped down gleefully, coffee was foregone in favour of stonking great glasses of chilled Muscat, and before we knew it we were emerging into the late afternoon, a little light-headed.
Tom disappeared for a meeting while Sebastien, Tobie and I went in search of coffee and more delights at Borough Market. The Market was closed, which was a huge shame. The pub was not. It was heaving in fact, the artisans, grocers, butchers and fishmongers having a well deserved pint after what had certainly been a longer day than ours. We felt out of place - what had we achieved other than a slight afternoon hangover? We were pottering towards Monmouth Coffee Shop on the corner when we spotted Wrights next door - an oyster bar. Tobie had never had oysters, and it didn't take much cajolery to get him out of Monmouth's (excellent coffee, by the way) and into Wrights, where fresh (I assume) oysters were wolfed down with a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet - a Languedoc wine that was sharp and citrus-ey, ideal for oysters.
If Wrights was a little empty, somehow, impossibly, we were not. With fire in our bellies and a glint in our eye we went in search of somewhere else to continue this, frankly ridiculous, afternoon of indulgence. We happened upon Brindisa, a Spanish bar on the other side of the market, and sherry seemed the thing to drink. Ice cold and bone dry, perfect with chorizo and some crunchy broad beans, which is just how we had it. And it was fantastic. Some might say it's a little odd, a little pretentious, a little bit old-ladyish to be drinking sherry on a Tuesday evening, and I would have been inclined to agree. But try it. Not recommended for daily consumption, but it made a really nice change from a bloaty pint of lager.
By this point we all had to go our separate ways, but it seemed churlish not to have one more swift glass of something before disappearing, so we nipped into a wine bar for glug of wine and some bread, more to soak up the alcohol than any real need for nourishment. Off we stepped into the night, and I headed towards Caspar's birthday party in Shoreditch. I tried to resist the offer of champagne, but really that would have been rude, it being his birthday. His Mum had done some delicious canapes, too - in particular quail scotch eggs, ones to remember in future. Sadly I had to head off far too soon to have a relatively late supper with my sister, her boyfriend, a friend of theirs and a friend of my parents.
We went to Green and Red, a Mexican restaurant on the Bethnal Green Road that has had outstanding press, impressive considering Mexican food, or at least the British interpretation of it, is hardly a world-beater. This place was fab, however. Fantastic cocktails knocked up by friendly, knowledgeable bar staff, and a menu that had not made its way to us via the southern United States, though wittily nodded towards current 'gastropub' trends - slow-roast pork belly was given two thumbs up, and my slow-braised lamb shank was all melting and tender, without the heart-stopping amount of fat that you often find on lamb shanks. Sides of guacamole, refried beans and tortillas were gobbled with equal glee which, considering that I had been eating pretty much non-stop since 1 o clock, says a lot about the food. Or just that I am prodigiously greedy. Perhaps both.
I have come to the conclusion that there are different types of binge. The one where you spend five hours throwing as much lager down your throat as you can, the other the type where you spend all day nibbling and sipping, without ever getting horrendously drunk or full. While I'm sure no doctor would recommend either practice were done regularly, as a twice a year treat I can honestly say that it was the best day I have had in a long time. I'm sorry this has been such a long post, but it seemed like the kind of day that ought to be written about. Anyone else had a similar sort of day recently?