Friday, June 15, 2012

The summer of 2012 U.K. food tour

I have been slow updating the blog but was quite busy since we came back from the U.K.
So, yeah, we were on holidays in the U.K.; stayed 6 days in London, then took the train to Bath, then Bristol, took the plane to Edinburgh, spent 2 days there, rented a car and drove around western Scotland, ending in Inverness where we took a flight back to London, then back to Hong Kong.

It was May's first time in the U.K., my second (but last time, I was 16 and I stayed half a day in London so that was pretty much irrelevant).
First realization: life is expensive in the U.K., very expensive. The cheapest of meals at a sub-par restaurant will be 12 pounds. On the high-end, prices tapper towards international standards however. And exorbitant prices go for everything from real-estate, grocery, to clothing. Different from Hong Kong where real-estate is insanely expensive but everything else is cheap (ok, maybe private international schools are expensive too).

We ate quite well everywhere we stopped but for pubs which I thought tended to offer average quality food, at best. Oh, and Irn Bru is a foul beverage while Haggis is not bad at all. Go figure...

Anyhow, here's the summary of our trip, food-wise. I'll add details about specific restaurants in subsequent posts.

Our AirB&B was in Stepney Green, east of central London. Very ethnic but not a lot of things to do around that area. Lots of Indian restaurants. We tried Passage to India. The food was ok but I have had much better Indian. At £53 for 3 people, I thought it was pricey. But then, everywhere else in London was pricey as well.

Ah, the Borough market... Nestled under the train tracks, it projects a great vibe to whomever visits. It feels airy but contained, packed with people yet personal. It is really one of the nicest market I have visited. And the food variety is there to please your adventurous palate; pulled pork sandwiches, fish & chips, cheese, fresh produce, pies, curries, paella, and some more...

Borough market. Fish and chips at Fish!Kitchen. A bit on the greasy side.

Colors, flavors, scents... a magical place for foodies.

May samples Mrs King's pies. Quite good but that's basic food.  Neal's Yard Dairy will wake up your sense of smell and make a cheese lover such as myself very happy. They will be happy to give you a taste of the various cheeses so you will never leave with a cheese you don't like (as if it were possible to dislike cheese, pfff...)

That was our first pub trial. The platters looked niced enough and all the classics were there (smashed green peas, various pies, bread, cheese, chips, etc...) but to me, there's not enough of a price difference between an English pub and a gastro-pub to have to suffer the inferior food of the former.
About Pimms: it's not awful but Sangria reign is here to stay.  It just didn't do it for me... it's not your fault Pimms... it's not you, it's me!

Walking on Brick Lane, we stopped at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery to get some bagels and pastries for the next morning. What's up with those bagels? Not good. Montreal and New-York bagels are much better. I guess North America has better Jewish bakers! And the baked goods weren't fresh nor tasty. Oh well...

Scones. I had them before but they were always a bit dry, mostly tasteless and not all that pleasant. But London scones rocked my foodie world with the delicious, flavorful, almost moist scones of the Langham hotel. With clotted cream and jam, they were the very height of baked goodness. From that moment, I would demand scones pretty much anywhere we stopped. Even my mom was a convert! Unfortunately, the other places we tried scones at didn't have as good a rendition but they were still good enough for me to overeat on. 

Gordon Ramsey in Chelsea. I went in unconvinced; chef turned TV superstar? Sellout?  Clare Smyth's masterful kitchen direction quelled my fears. The food is sublime; complex layering, amazingly fresh produce, beautiful plating. A feast for the senses. I will dedicate an entry to Gordon Ramsey a little later. As mentioned before while the low-end of U.K.'s food establishment is expensive, it tappers at the high-end and Ramsey's is no exception; at 600 pounds for 3 tasting courses + one bottle of wine, it was no more expensive than any other 3 Michelin star restaurant.
Train to Bath. Nice town full of character. Tried Sally Lunn's buns. Meh... Just a large piece of mostly tasteless bread. Maybe it gets awesome with toppings but as is, not worth a detour.
Some munchies at Best of British in Bath. Look at the brownie! Brits seem to love their baked goods because there were all sorts of brownies, cakes, cookies and more, pretty much in every single town or village we went to.
Wild Rabbit Tagliolini at Jamie's Italian in Bath. Now, I thought that Jamie sold his name a little bit too quickly. Jamie's Italian was ok but for the American's in the audience, we're talking East-Side Mario's kind of ok. And even the decor sorts of looks artificial, the same way it does at ESM's. I'm not a food snob; I really enjoy a simple dish as long as it is done well. At Jamie's Italian, it felt like the restaurant overshot a little. One exception, the Tiramisu which tasted really good. Almost as good as mine! ;-)
Breakfast at The Henry B&B. Banana bread was very good. Actually, the whole breakfast was great. Well, actually actually (Brits like to say actually, actually), we had great breakfasts at almost all of the B&B we stayed at., gargantuan, full-English (and Scottish) breakfasts.
 The Fine Cheese Co in Bath. Cornish Blue on the left which May enjoyed! I have to say I was thoroughly impressed with British cheeses; they truly have their own personality very different from the French or Italian cheeses. Say, if I compare to Quebec cheeses which I find either try to imitate the French cheeses, or are a bit bland. British and Scottish cheeses were bold, extremely varied in textures and also in colours, which was very interesting. 
Train to Bristol, then flying to Edinburgh (bruh... eh-den-bruh... my mom  was thought to pronounce it correctly by a nice little old lady staying at The Henry). The Dogs gastro-pub at night. Decent food, great ambiance, nice time. There is an ocean of quality difference between pub and gastro-pub food. I mean, like the food is not from the same planet.
Bought some Tunnocks' tea cakes at the grocery store to try. We are not big fans. Didn't finish them. 
Under the spell of more scones. My preciousssss...
Pulled pork sandwich at Oink in Edinburgh. Slight sweetness of the sauce. Juicy pork. Quite good. 
More incredible cheeses for the tasting at I . J. MELLIS. May got a giggle at that one.
Rented a car and started or Scotland tour. First stop, Sitrling. While non-food related, I thought that the court-jester was worth mentioning. The joke is his. He had a few more that I can't remember now. Oh, yeah... What's brown and sticky?
A stick!
Well hello beautiful!
Pies we had quite a few. None of them transcending however. I think there's potential for a more modern rendition of this classic. Chefs, are you reading?
We're on the road. Just past Loch Lomond, heading towards Oban. Stopping at the Real Food Cafe on the way there. Good fish and chips. 

Lots-o-baked goods at Real Food Cafe.
Ok, we were told about it, we tried it, we hated it. Irn Bru. Foul liquid. But then again, neither May nor I drink any kind of pop so, maybe we were not the best target customers.
Seafood in Scotland was un-believable; incredibly fresh and so, so tasty. At Eu-Eusk in Oban, we had mussels that melted in one's mouth, I didn't know that was possible. Quite possibly the best seafood I ever had in my life. 
Isn't this a king's breakfast? Well, those were our regular breakfast in Scotland. Cooked with love by the good people of the Thornloe Guest House in Oban. 
Goat cheese salad; Seared scallops — at Room 9 in Oban. Nice little family owned restaurant. Dishes made with care with fresh ingredients. Very enjoyable. 

Chicken breast; rib eye steak with cream sauce — at Room 9. Scottish beef beats Australian beef. But Canadian beef still holds the crown! Eh?

Not food related but I just had to add it. Oban from McCaig's tower, 22:30. Just magnificent. 
Another glorious Scottish breakfast. Notice the very politically-correct black and white pudding; tasty in both renditions. In Fort Williams.
... oh, yeah, we met a few of those as well. Come here my pretties!
Haggis in their natural habitat. Actually, we had them in quite a few of our meals and it was always quite good. The bad reputation probably comes from the cooking method used before (boiling). 
We took the Jacobite train to Mallaig. Well, Malling is small and there really is nothing to do there. Except eat. And there, we had our very best fish and chips experience, at the Cornerstone restaurant; light batter, not greasy (you can even see it on the picture), generous portion of tasty fish. Very nice! 
We had various rendition of the tablet (fudge) and I have to say I wasn't too impressed. A bit dry, texture was a bit grainy. American fudge is better. Did I just write something sacrilegious?
Isle of Skye. We stayed at The Glenview. Chef owner Simon  prepared excellent dishes with ingredients locally sourced. Orbost Highland beef with mustard hollandaise, crispy polenta, summer vegetables; Poached Shetland salmon with Skye bacon, mussel & cider sauce, Jersey Royal potatoes, Tataig greens
The Glenview also has great breakfasts; highly recommended as a pied-a-terre if you are planning to visit Skye.
I put only a few of the tons of restaurants and food places we tried during this great trip to the U.K. Food-wise, the highlight for me was Scotland as the quality of seafood available there just blew me away.
If you plan such a tour, I really recommend that you plan judiciously not to over-schedule as there are a lot of nice places to go. Focus on a few areas and towns and list the absolute "must go" places. In our case, we picked London, Bath and western Scotland, with a very detailed route for Scotland. We didn't feel rushed, yet our trip was very rich in food variety. 
We have come back with happy bellies and our heads full of indelible memories...

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