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

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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 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

Dabbous

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

Eating in San Francisco – Dos Burritos

A couple of weeks ago, I was in San Francisco for exactly 48 hours.  I was guided by a single purpose:  to eat as many burritos as possible. Jonathan Kauffman (a.k.a. SF Foodie), a food writer I revere, had just published his top 10 San Francisco burritos, and the plan was to go on a burrito crawl (a great idea, right?), ideally hitting every one of them, as well as some of my own standbys that hadn’t made it onto his list.  I made it through exactly two burritos before admitting defeat. I know, I know – I wimped out – but in my defense, it’s HARD to eat ten burritos in two days, especially when your friends bring you morning buns and take you to Mission Chinese Food (so worth it!) and fancy taquerias. Also, my friends love me, but it didn’t seem fair to force them to eat only burritos just because I am obsessed.

All the same, I am EXCITED to write this blog post, because one of those two that I did manage to eat was the best burrito I have ever had. That is a statement of cold fact, uninflated by hyperbole. Continue reading