Shawarma Soldier

Two years ago, I ate the kebab to end all kebabs. My always-hungry friend Z was visiting. I had an appointment to get my hair cut on Church Street, near Marylebone. I told him he could come along, poke around the antique sellers, and get a kebab from Lahore restaurant across the street, which sets up a kebab stall on market days. An hour into my appointment Z turned up with the most gorgeous lamb shish roll. The lamb was succulent, tender, and medium-rare with a hint of char, and complemented by crunchy salad, the homemade roti wrap was warm with that perfect chewy bite to it, and the sauces – one a garlicky yogurt sauce, and one a hot sauce – struck just the right balance of salty, savory, tangy, and spicy. The kebab plunged us into a fevered discussion of why there are no proper kebab shops in Seattle and spawned my quest to try all the delicious kebab rolls in London. Continue reading

Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs

The concept at Kitchen Table is straightforward: 19 diners sit at a U-shaped bar encircling an immaculate kitchen and watch their 12-course tasting menu being prepared and plated by chef James Knappett and a small team of sous-chefs. I suppose it’s logical that the television-viewing public’s seemingly-unquenchable enthusiasm for behind-the-scenes perspectives on fine dining would eventually lead to actual tableaux vivants. Well, if food is theatre, then Kitchen Table is French art-house cinema: edgy, stylish, and very, very sexy. Continue reading

Eating in Warsaw – U Kucharzy and Stary Dom

It feels like it is always winter in Warsaw. The city is flat, like a prairie or steppe. Once a beautiful city, Warsaw was virtually razed to the ground by the Nazis in 1944 in brutal reprisal for the Polish resistance. It was rebuilt by the Communists into squat utilitarian concrete blocks. Only the old town, also destroyed by the Nazis, has been reconstructed in a painstakingly exact facsimile of the beautiful gothic historic center that used to exist. Warsaw’s streets are broad and straight, and an icy Siberian wind sweeps from east to west.

I was in Warsaw most recently in December, with my mother. It was brutally cold; a dull leaden sky hung low over the city, through which one could occasionally catch glimpses of the sun, a distant icy disc. It snowed every day. The snow blew down the tram lines and squeaked underfoot. Softened by years in temperate Seattle and gentle, gray London, I was so cold. Moisture from my breath condensed and froze on the scarf I had wrapped around my face. I breathed in shallow little gasps. I was too cold to think, too cold to talk. It was in Warsaw that I discovered I have Raynaud’s disease, in which decreased blood flow to the extremities causes them to turn white and numb. My mother and I would set out to walk the city. I would last twenty, maybe thirty minutes before my toes would lose sensation, and then start to ache. There was a narrow window of time, at this point, before the pain would become unbearable and I would have to stop somewhere warm.

On Saturday my mother and I took the tram to the corner of Jerozolimskie and Marszalkowska and then walked to Nowy Świat on our way to the Old Town. It was early afternoon, past lunchtime; we had maybe an hour more of daylight. My mother had a destination in mind, U Kucharzy, in what used to be the hotel Europejski, one of the few buildings that survived the Nazis. A wonderful example of Art Deco opulence, the Hotel Europejski stolidly faced its arch-rival across the street, the elegant Art Nouveau Hotel Bristol. The Gessler group has taken over and renovated what used to be the vast kitchens below the hotel. They’ve kept the massive oil stoves, the tiled walls, and the checkered floors. On a far wall in a small dining room is an enlarged black-and-white photograph of the hotel in its heyday, thronged with people in elegant formal dress. From a distance, they almost look real. Continue reading

Eating in Seattle – Szechuan Chef

Living in London for three years has wholly transformed the way that I think about food in the United States. When I go back to visit, I have no interest in fine dining. I want the food I can’t eat in London. Period. Give me proper Vietnamese food, give me Mexican food, give me homestyle Southern cooking, sushi, and yes, give me Szechuan food.  This last may perplex English readers. There are some excellent Szechuan restaurants in London. However London does not have Szechuan Chef, and, more importantly, London does not have Szechuan Chef’s Szechuan style crab. Continue reading

Saying Goodbye to Kilburn

Last week I moved from Kilburn to Bermondsey, i.e., from an area in which “food” and “restaurants,” are not the first, second, or even third thoughts that spring to mind, to London’s undisputed foodie mecca. There is not a lot I will miss about Kilburn, although live in a place long enough (in this instance, nine months) and you develop funny little attachments.

When I move to a new area, the first thing I do is investigate my food options. What restaurants are nearby? What markets? What food stores? In Kilburn, basically, the answer is “not a whole heck of a lot.” On the high road there’s a giant Sainsbury’s and a Mark’s and Spencer’s. There are a few tiny fruit and veg stalls. The best find on the high road is a decent, honest, independent fishmonger (B & J Fisheries, 147A Kilburn High Road), where fresh seafood is sold at reasonable prices. Around the corner from my flat, there is a Syrian and an Iranian grocer (Nour, 95 Chippenham Road, and Al Ghadir, 197 Shirland Road), where I bought big fragrant bunches of mint, parsley, and coriander, and occasionally made awesome finds: tiny dense intensely flavoured Persian apricots, golden perfumed Pakistani mangos, tender baby aubergines. And of course the Portobello Market is only a half-hour walk or short bus ride away.

I didn’t eat out as much in Kilburn as I would have liked, partly because it was hard to persuade people to come to me when the options were generally so much better near them, and partly because for most of the time I was there I was too broke for restaurants. A destination for fine dining Kilburn is not. Here are some of the highlights (and low lights). Continue reading

Haz – St. Paul’s

I read an article that claimed the majority of people make their decision to return to a restaurant based upon service, rather than food. As with all generalizations, one can always think of exceptions – I’ve returned to restaurants where the service has been pretty flaky; indeed, sometimes slightly inept service can even be charming. In the United States, of course, there is a tacit understanding: good service is rewarded with a good tip. Actually, having worked in the restaurant industry myself, my rule is slightly different. Always tip well, and when the service is good, tip exceptionally well.

In the UK, things are a little different. The majority of restaurants automatically tack a “discretionary service charge” onto your bill. While some restaurants in fact give this money to their servers, many do not. Instead, the house pockets the entire service charge, so it functions essentially as a 12.5% surcharge on your meal. The thing that I’ve learned to do is ask, when I get the bill, whether the servers get the service charge. If they do not, I ask for the service charge to be removed, so I can leave a cash tip. The resistance one encounters to this seemingly simple request is remarkable. On one memorable occasion, the frightened server refused to take off the service charge, on the grounds that the restaurant management would “find out” and she’d get in trouble. On another occasion, a server pointed out that the word “discretionary” did not precede “service charge” on the bill. In other words, the restaurant pocketed the service charge, and there was not a goddamn thing she, or we, could do about it.

Which brings me to Haz Restaurant St. Paul’s, in the City of London Continue reading

Eating in New York City — Ippudo

Whenever I come to New York, I have every intention of eating out as much as possible. Usually what happens, however, is I gorge on bagels and smoked sable from the Polish district in Greenpoint (which my mother buys in bulk, and which is one of those foods that permanently alters your DNA so you crave it forever), and/or I stay at home and eat my mother’s delicious cooking. Last Monday, however, friend K asked me, “Have you been to Ippudo?” “Iiiipppuuudddoooo,” crooned friend C, her eyes glazing.

Ippudo is a Japanese chain founded by “Ramen King” Shigemi Kawahara. There are 43 shops in Japan, but according to Ippudo’s website, New York is Ippudo’s first international outpost. I love noodles in soup, and for me, ramen is like the Holy Grail; I will go on the modern-day equivalent of a knightly quest if good ramen is promised at the end of it. K claimed this was “the best ramen.” She was right. Continue reading


When I announced to a friend that I had a reservation at the hardest table to book in London, I am sure there was a note of unholy glee in my voice.  “What, the Ledbury?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Dabbous.”

In the few short months that Dabbous has been open, the cascade of glowing reviews from London’s most difficult-to-please critics has been followed by extraordinary hype. Giles Coren pretty much sealed the fate of London diners with his rapturous write-up in the Times (which I still haven’t been able to read in its entirety thanks to the Times’ pay-wall). I hear that the wait for a table is now several months long. Nevertheless, when I idly clicked through Open Table on Sunday trying to book a table for four in May (no luck), to my utter surprise there was a table available for two people that Tuesday. The decision required no reflection. I booked it immediately and invited reliable fellow-lover of decadent dining experiences V to join me. Continue reading

Eating in Seattle – Sitka and Spruce Taco Monday

There’s a good reason why you start a Mexican meal with a shot of tequila and a bite of bracingly sour, salty lime. The two open your palate, preparing you for the subtle, delicate, complicated flavours that follow. Which brings me to a myth about Mexican food. This myth is that Mexican food means flabby flour tortillas and great big larded heaps of beans and rice and loads of cheese and two sauces: red and green. This could not be further from the truth. Mexican food – real Mexican food – is about slow cooking, refined flavours, and balance. Above all, balance.  In fairness, I think that thanks to chefs like Rick Bayless and the prevalence and huge popularity of taco trucks lately, most people know this, or are learning it.

This is the story of Taco Monday, as it was told to me by my one of my favourite Seattle dining buddies. Continue reading

Eating in San Francisco – Mission Chinese Food

I’ve been unreasonably suspicious about the new trend of so-called “Americanized” Chinese food ever since I had a bad experience with this kind of restaurant in Seattle. So when I was last in San Francisco and my reliable foodie friends C and A said that they wanted to take me to Mission Chinese Food, I announced grandiosely and unpleasantly that I wasn’t interested, and could they take me somewhere else? For a burrito perhaps? “Come on, Sooz,” said A reproachfully. “Have we ever taken you anywhere you didn’t like? Do you think we’d suggest a restaurant to you if we didn’t think it was good?” I immediately felt horribly guilty. Of course I’d go to Mission Chinese Food. I wanted nothing more. I was sure it would be fantastic. I wasn’t, really, but it’s true that C and A have never taken me for a bad meal. (I wish I could say the same.)

I hadn’t done my research (i.e., I’ve been living in London for the past two years), but if I had I would have known that Mission Chinese Food was opened by one of San Francisco’s culinary darlings and, in the year and a half it has been open, has taken San Francisco by storm Continue reading