Lulu has been silly enough to commit to working while she is over here (not very hard, or with great efficiency I would imagine), and this left me at a loose end for the morning. I’ve been given a task by my youngest to go and take a photo of his namesake (Ben), and thought I might jump on the London Eye while I was there and take a few skyline shots (Primrose Hill just didn’t cut it).
But standing on the bridge after taking my happy snaps of Westminster, casting my eye over the water to what was once the tallest ferris wheel in the world, I realise it never moves. There are probably 25 people crammed in each glass cocoon beating their fists on the windows, begging to be let out, because the view was exciting for 5 minutes and then they realised they were only a quater of the way up. Kids throwing tantrums. Parents growing grey hairs and frown lines. Grandmas wishing they’d worn their Poise, today of all days. They’ll all probably step out of their capsule 5 years older.
No thanks. I’ll save that for when my kids force me on it next year. Then I can blame it all on them when they die of boredom.
So the rest of the morning free, the nearby Borough market closed, and a lack of internet or brain cells to provide me with better inspiration, I set off for the only other market I can remember – Portobello Road. I recall (from my visit in 1995) that it’s classier than Camden, and I have a distinct rememberance that I couldn’t afford anything last time, and that only rich people live around Notting hill.
Of course, alighting at the station, I walk in the wrong direction. Fortunately, being lunchtime, and observing a wheelbarrow with herbs poking out of a doorway, I toddle down a side street to find The Shed. Ahh, wifi, and farm to table food, and wine. Magic.
Disregard everything I said yesterday about getting sick of ‘real food’. The Shed is bringing me back into the light. A couple of brothers from Nutbourne in West Sussex leased the most run-down shack of a building in the poshest area they could find, and now flog English country goodness on sharing plates to ladies who lunch, lost tourists and lucky locals (at nights, I’m told, it’s packed to the gunnels). Impressed, I google them over my Nutbourne fizz and find Gill said of the place: “If labradors had hands and a few thousand acres in Sussex, this is the restaurant they’d make.” – If you can’t tell, he liked it. As much as he likes anything, I suppose, which usually isn’t that much.
I like it a little more, I think. Sure, it’s a little hand-fed, but not nearly as produced and prettily packaged up as the ‘real food’ I’ve had pushed at me since I entered the country. Nearly 100% of the core ingredients come from the farm, including the wine (which is actually quite good, particularly the fizz and the rose). That’s better in my book than tracing the genealogy of a cow for the burger on my menu then giving me a tube of Heinz tomato ketchup to drown it in. Not only that, the food is good. It’s innovative and tasty, English but inspired, relaxed but not at all rustic. Staff are kind and friendly, especially to lonely diners who drink too much because their friends have left them all alone in preference of an office in Putney. Booohooohoo.
Portobello Road, once I find it, is not quite as I remember. I think I may be shopped out, but I’m getting a little sick of seeing satchels made of canvas with pink owls stamped all over them, T-shirts with pictures of Polaroid cameras and antique street numbers and door knobs. I mean, what’s with that? I could cruise down a Kensington street at midnight with a screwdriver in my pocket, and set up a stall at market the next day. I imagine the only people buying these ‘antiques’ however are the people who found them missing at 7am though… Could be a risky enterprise.
Lulu joins me at 4 at the entrance of Harrods. It doesn’t matter that it’s now owned by the Qataris – it’s still as English as it gets, and so we pop in for some suitcase fillers and a brief fueling by the bar at Caviar House and Prunier.
“Spermy”, I whisper, dabbing my mouth and quickly chasing with some champagne. It’s a quite revolting way to describe an engorged and creamy spawning oyster, something I picked up from a friend who used to assist in running the Melbourne Fish Markets. Lulu finds herself in an unfortunate position. She sits there with eyes gaping, mouth puckered and cheeks billowed, not liking what I have just said. She obviously took the plumpest oyster, and is faced with the old spit-or-swallow dilemma. Her gulp is audible, and I can almost see the engorged mollusc sliding down her throat like a mole through the body of a snake. You can’t regurgitate your food in Harrods. Even if it is full of breeding matter.
If England hadn’t had such a miserable excuse for a summer, we might have remembered that the hot season is not the best one in which to buy local oysters… The other four oysters stay on the plate, and we eat our five gram spoon of ten pound caviar, relishing the fact that we are both finally mature enough to appreciate it’s intense flavour. But quickly, because we need to go upstairs and buy teddy bears.
Dinner is discovered on the way home. I was armed with a list of recommendations, but no reservation, and so we are met with refusal or locked doors until we become tired and thirsty and just throw ourselves at the mercy of a bearded and friendly looking waiter at The 10 Cases. Sometimes the places you stumble across are the best of all…
We eat from their bar menu at tiny tables with our elbows touching the diners around us. Size doesn’t matter though, and we’re warmed by the choice of obscure wines, and the fact that we can overhear all the conversations around us. Or at least we would be able to if we stopped talking about ourselves. We order plates of vegetables – starved for fibre as we are (our pork-only diet has started to wear thin. Or thick, perhaps…), and find ourselves surprised by the crunch and intensity of flavours.
Beardy keeps coming over and removing Lulu’s empty wine glass then turning around to walk away. It’s a game. Or maybe a subtle suggestion. She keeps calling him back and asking him for more, telling him that if he had put crap wines on his list, she wouldn’t be drinking them so fast. While she is disciplining him, I finally butt into the conversation behind me to find out what they are having for dinner. The octopus is a winner, so we also order it. Just to stop our neigbours getting too romantic, I continue the conversation and find out where they come from, what they are drinking, why they are here and what they do for work. I find out she works at the London International Wine Fair. Poor girl – now I definitely won’t leave them alone. Lulu joins in and tells them they are just about as clever as we are for finding this place. But we are cleverer because they are locals and we are not.
The octopus is just as good as they said. The steak tartare has some kind of magical egg yolk on it that tastes better than butter. Lulu looks at it in utter disdain. I’m unsure she will be ready to put raw meat in her mouth for quite some time after that greasy oyster. Never mind… More for me.
Summary of activities:
The Shed – a must-visit casual restaurant (lunchtime best). Farm, I mean actual farm to table food. 9/10
Caviar House and Prunier – several venues around London. Good caviar, service too nonchalant for the ingredients 6/10
Harrods – Still worth a visit, particularly for the teddy bears and old-school games. And definitely for the food and wine halls 8/10
The 10 Cases – A real find. Casual eats in the ‘cave’ or proper dining in the ‘bistrot’. Great wine list, happy staff, very fresh food – simple, but cooked superbly. 8.5/10