Does London have good food?
In the London versus NYC dining debate, it is cheap Chinese that almost turns one traveller’s opinion
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About a year ago, I started seeing a baker. As our relationship progressed, so did my equation with food. From not knowing my chives from parsley and believing that soy sauce makes an acceptable accompaniment to everything, I have evolved into a man who cringes when people do not know what spelt, the grain, is. I now know I had been eating cupcakes wrong my entire life—I would work my way through the frosting first and eat the cake top to bottom as opposed to experiencing every layer in a bite. I now know when my shrimp has been reheated. I pretend I can determine if my aubergine has been roasted or fried. I claim I can tell if my squash is organic.
Vacations since the entry of the baker have been all about farmers’ markets and identifying tubers and scouring the length and breadth of a town for the perfect dumpling. It’s now normal to return home with a dozen bottles of fermented concoction and nine varieties of cheese. We thankfully have similar tastes in food. Sometimes, we have disagreements. I don’t think anything with lime should ever be sweet. She likes her lemon meringue pie. I dislike no meat more than goat. She’s indifferent to it. She claims London has the best food on earth. I laugh in disbelief.
For a few months a year, I call London home. For a few months a year, I call New York home. Few claims make me froth at the mouth more than people suggesting that London has better food than New York. The baker says I haven’t been to the right places. Voice becoming louder, I argue that unless one is shelling out a lot of money in London, the food disappoints. Gesticulations growing wilder, I point out that it’s possible to pay $20 (around Rs1,300) at a hole-in-the-wall in New York and eat great food. I haven’t eaten a decent meal at any random London eatery I have walked into, I finish. The baker says she will prove me wrong. We, therefore, exchange Kolkata’s January—the most pleasant winter I have experienced on the planet—for London’s crazy-causing greyness. The plan is to eat our way through London.
We are at the Claridge’s Foyer and Reading Room for low tea. Low tea, also called the afternoon tea, I now know (because the baker has corrected me far too many times), is for the classes while high tea is for the masses. The Claridge’s afternoon tea is considered one of the best in London. The baker had asked me to choose between the Ritz and the Claridge’s, and I opt for the latter because I once threw up in the bathroom at the former. Besides, the Ritz requires that I wear a jacket and tie. The Claridge’s is less pretentious. Its dress code? Elegant smart casual: no shorts, vests, sportswear, flip-flops, ripped jeans or baseball caps. It’s more egalitarian, you see.
The Foyer and Reading Room is all gilded glory, plump cushions and grand chandeliers. The hostess may have half-curtsied us, but the baker says I am imagining it. Our tea specialist drones on about what tea goes best with our finger sandwiches. He’s more restrained in his use of adjectives than the tea menu is. The waiter even devotes a minute of his monologue to the green-and-white-striped china in front of us. But I am distracted. Some expensive-smelling Russians walk in with more “L’s” and “V’s” on their bodies than even the text-heavy tea menu can hold. They do not want to check in their shopping bags. They know the cloakroom will not have enough space for that many bags.
The sandwiches aren’t outstanding. The rose champagne is decent. The scones are faultless. I ask for two extra bowls of clotted cream. Nothing, though, comes close to the vanilla-sandwiched pair of macarons. It’s an ice-cream macaron. It’s a macaron ice cream. It’s absolute joy.
“It’s perfect,” I say, sipping my Malawi Antlers white tea, which I succeeded in ordering with a straight face.
“It tastes a little metallic,” the baker says without a hint of irony.
I one-up her by pointing out that I didn’t like one of the sandwiches very much. “It’s overdilled,” I say, chest puffing with pride. “The overdill is an overkill.”
Three hours and a few illicit helpings later—we were under the impression that only the savories were all-you-can-eat, but our waiter sneakily replenished the sweets too—we are finished.
“Do you still think London doesn’t have good food?” the baker asks. I haven’t ever seen her this euphoric.
“For nearly £200 (around Rs16,500), the food better be good,” I reply.
The Russians leave with their macarons mostly uneaten. I almost pick one up on the way out.
The afternoon tea confirms what I have always held to be true about London dining: You only get good food if you pay a pretty penny. To prove me wrong, the baker drags me to a mid-range Mexican restaurant near Covent Garden. It’s the most whitewashed Mexican food I have eaten. We go to a Middle-Eastern restaurant in Hampstead. The skewers and dips are good, but I would definitely get better Middle-Eastern in New York for half the price, I proclaim.
Frustrated but not defeated, the baker decides that we should embark on an Asian-food adventure. She often rolls her eyes when I mention that I have eaten better Chinese food at a train station in Rome—Rome!—than anywhere in London. Those fusion Asian cafés in Shoreditch do nothing for me, and I think Yauatcha’s offshoots being everywhere has compromised its Michelin stars. My preferred Asian place is Spicy Basil, the only super-cheap London restaurant I love. It’s in Kilburn, on a street where you go to jailbreak your phone and buy bags with “Guci” written on them. Everyone—without exception—I have taken to Spicy Basil has fallen ill after eating the 17A on the menu. I tell the baker that. She takes me to the Royal China Club.
“I have difficulty believing anything with ‘club’ in its name will be cheap,” I say. Despite its Baker Street location, the Royal China Club isn’t expensive. It’s crowded, so I lie that we have a reservation. The “Club” (ha) has an air of exclusivity—perhaps the reason the chain, not exactly known for its service, decided to start a new restaurant with a “Club” appended to its name. When we remove our coats, the waitress places them on a chair and covers them with a napkin.
We eat some succulent char siu buns and prawn cheung fun and sea bass poached in spicy broth. I haven’t eaten anything like the bass before.
“So?” the baker asks. “Still think we don’t get good food in London for cheap?”
“So,” I mimic, the broth of my Shanghai dumpling bursting in my mouth. I don’t argue.
I may have found better cheap food in London than in New York. Our bill comes to less than £25 per person.
We are back at the Royal China Club the next day. And the next. A subsequent experiment with reasonably priced Chinese food at the Mayfair Garden, great as it is, doesn’t compare. It’s a start, though. One can eat good food in London without breaking the bank. One can eat cheap, good food at more than one place.
But there’s bleak news. Affordable curry houses in the UK are closing at the rate of two a week because tougher immigration rules mean that employers can no longer get away with paying their support staff next to nothing. I have never liked these curry houses, but when we walk to the Brick Lane Market, I am traumatized when I discover that juice bars have replaced the Bangladeshi restaurants I once grudgingly, drunkenly patronized.
We are at the market because it’s a compromise. For every trip to a kitchen store, I make the baker walk around Hampstead Heath. Every time I am hauled to a food store, I demand that we walk around Regent’s Park. The baker likes her food shopping. I like to walk out in the open. We each get what we want at farmers’ markets. We walk to the Borough Market one day. There’s the Marylebone Market the next, which we don’t find. There’s one at St John’s Wood that’s close to us.
When one shops for fresh, seasonal food almost every day, one has more food in the house than the fridge can hold. I learn the hard way that organic food spoils fast. With so much food at home, we entertain—writers, rare-book sellers, chefs and wayward fools come over. We store some of our food in the balcony because the fridge has no space.
One night, friends from New York visit. The topic, of course, meanders to eating out in London versus eating out in New York.
“New York is still better for cheap food,” I say. “But London has a few places. My goal is to find 25 new places where you can eat for cheap by the end of the year.”
I don’t gesticulate wildly. I don’t froth at the mouth. Prajwal Parajuly is the author of Land Where I Flee and The Gurkha’s Daughter.