I'm back from my annual client visits in London (did you miss me? I did manage to get some blog reading in while I was gone), so it's time to talk about this year's culinary experiences. Despite the reputation, London cuisine still tends to underwhelm me. Am I the only one who notices that the British tend to oversalt everything? I think I have a good three pounds of water bloat hanging on me right now. On the good side, nothing was ever bad, and I did have some extraordinary food.
I had the privilege of dining at Axis at One Aldwych Place Hotel on Tuesday night. I love, love, love this restaurant. For one thing, it's amazingly cool. It's almost too cool. I hate it when restaurants try too hard to be hip and edgy, but I forgive Axis. I really do. If it's only fault is being too hip, well, bring on the hipness.
First, let's talk about the decor/experience. You enter the restaurant at street level. You see nothing but a vestibule filled with candles and little white lights and a circular staircase going down. Descend the staircase one level and you come to a landing where the hostess desk is. There is a bar area on this level as well. It's a bit rowdy, but fortunately you don't have to eat there. Go down one more next level to the main dining area. You'll enter a spacious dining room, simply furnished and softly lit. The dining area is separated from the kitchen area with a "wall" of these floor-to-ceiling poles that look like bronzed tree saplings. On the wall behind them is a weird mural. I might consider this place to be horrifically ugly if it weren't done so well. It's not over the top at all.
Service? Topnotch. I've never found Londoners to be terribly nice people. They are often brusque and dismissive in everyday interactions. As a lifelong New Yorker, I shouldn't be shocked by this kind of behavior, which I think speaks volumes about the behavior of Londoners. I don't know if that's the way these people are, or if it's just the American accent that stimulates disdain. (Would it help if I wore a t-shirt that says, "I didn't vote for Bush"?) I don't get this kind of treatment at Axis. Everyone serves you with a smile. I had dropped my menu on the floor at one point and the waiter picked it up for me. I apologized and he said, "Don't worry. It won't break." It's quick and attentive, but never rushed.
The most important part: The food. This food could cancel out in one night everything bad ever said about English food. When I was in London last May I had this incredible goat cheese and tomato soup at Axis that I am still remembering and dreaming about to this day. Sadly, it was no longer on the menu, but that's okay. I had plenty of other great choices. Although I'm not a vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination, I had a meatless dinner Tuesday night and I didn't miss a bite of meat. I started with a cheddar cheese souffle. It was a light and fluffy ball of Heaven, served with lightly dressed mixed greens and a spicy apple chutney. My main course was a garlic and leek ristotto. It was incredibly creamy. There must have been a pint of heavy cream in there. (What does heavy cream no improve upon?) Dessert was a simple lemon tart. The custard had a really nice tang to it, although I thought the crust could have had a little more firmness and sweetness to it.
There were a few other things of note about my London visit. For one thing, I am amazed at how good the tomatoes were. Is it the mild winters that keeps tomatoes growing all year long? Why did tomatoes taste so good in March? How is that possible?
Then there is the classic English breakfast. Although my hotel included breakfast with the room, my boss always preferred to have coffee and muffins at Starbucks in the morning. He left on Wednesday night, so I was on my own Thursday morning. I was too cash poor to buy breakfast, and I didn't see a reason to not eat the hotel breakfast anyway, so I gave it a shot. It was a superior breakfast to Starbucks with both hot and cold buffets. I went for the hot one. It had all of the classic trimmings: eggs, mushrooms, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon (back bacon and "streaky"), and sausages. Can anyone do bacon better than the British. Oh that bacon! Oh that lovely bacon! Oh that lovely, greasy, salty, fatty, wonderful bacon! I could have stuffed that bacon in my face till my arteries screamed for mercy and shut down in self defense. Emeril, you are right. Pork fat does indeed rule. It rules so hard. It rules like a yardstick. Screw the saturated fat fears. Give me more English bacon!
While hanging out in my hotel room watching TV one night, I came across Kitchen Nightmares. Oddly enough, it was the American version, and the restaurant was one that's kinda-sorta in the area where I live. What I found interesting was how almost nothing was bleeped on out British TV. Every profanity from Gordon's mouth was clearly heard. What I found odd was that you heard every "fuck", but it was censored when someone said something about "sucking his BLEEP". So the British don't think copulation is bad, but the organs involved in the act of copulation are bad (or that oral sex is bad)?
Anyway, back to the grind. I look forward to writing my blogs again and reading everyone else's daily.
(Oh, and sorry about that bad pun in the title. I just can't help myself sometimes.)