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London (Day 6)- Taken to Tasca/Dressed to Empress

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Hello everyone, and welcome to the final chapter in my London food chronicles on Mastication Monologues.  While I don’t think that anything will really top the crazy dinner I had at Bunga Bunga on day 5, the last days of London were still filled with great Spanish food at La Tasca and wonderful dishes at the popular Indian eatery The Empress.

During my time in Korea, quality western food items were in short supply, but that is not to say that they were impossible to find.  I had a brief encounter with a taperia in Incheon that supposedly had great tapas but left me wanting.  I’ve lived in Spain, and this place omitted basic tapas that you would find on any menu in Spain or even in the USA.  Then with the tapas that they did have, they couldn’t even do them properly like gambas a la plancha or tortilla espanola.  So, when I landed in London, I was certain that they would at least have the know-how and mettle to pull off a decent tapateo due to the influx of Spanish immigrants or at the very least through geographical proximity to la patria compared to Korea.  I was also meeting up with my friend, Rebecca, who I had met back in 2008 in Manchester, and she also had a taste for Spanish food.  After a bit of wandering around the Covent Garden area, we finally found what we were looking for:  La Tasca.  Rebecca told me she had heard good things about it, so we went inside to see what all the hubbub was about.6905@ltgallery  The decor was filled with plenty of cultural items from the peninsula that were not too tacky, and it was surprisingly empty for the height of lunchtimeIMG_2341IMG_2340.  Oh well, more room for us.  The menu had an extensive offering of tapas of all varieties, cocidos, paellas, and meatless options for you vegetarians out there.  As for drinks, they obviously had an extensive wine menu along with many different types of beers I sampled throughout Spain.  While Rebecca went for more of the seafood options, I went more the land animal route with croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes, a Madrid favorite, L 4.70), mejillas de puerco (pork cheeks, L 5.25), and patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce, L 3.35).  After a bit of catching up with an old friend, our tapas came out.  I began with the pork cheeks that were in a semi-sweet chili sauce nestled in a nest of fries.

Cheeky porky

Cheeky porky

I was greatly satisfied as the sweet sauce combined with the saltiness of the fries to further enhance the tender morsels of pork.  I moved on to the croquetas which were half-heartily presented on tufts of what seemed to be a garlic mayonnaise and garnished with sprigs of clover on top.IMG_2337  Thankfully the presentation did not foreshadow the taste as I found them to have a crunchy, light exterior that gave way to a piping hot interior flush with pieces of all white chicken and melted manchego cheese.IMG_2338  I saved my very favorite for last, the patatas bravas. IMG_2336 This specific tapa is always my personal barometer of how true a tapas restaurant is to the real article in Spain, and while they did an adequate job at La Tasca, I’ve yet to find a restaurant outside of Spain that can recreate the sauce they use.  However, the ones at La Tasca were semi-satisfying in the sense that they had the peppery spice that comes with the dish, but the ratio of mayo to tomato sauce was completely off.  Overall, it was a decent tapas meal, but I would look elsewhere if you are searching for high quality tapas.
La Tasca on Urbanspoon

Moving on from my mini-Spanish adventure, I knew before I left London I had to get some Indian food whether at was at a sit-down restaurant or getting my favorite Chicken Tikka footlong sandwich at Subway.  Either way, I needed to get my curry in a hurry.  So, my friend Ravi set up our last meal together at The Empress located just a short walk from the Aldgate East tube station in the Tower Bridge area of London.empress_indian_restaurant_london_whitechapel_1  The interior was elegantly decorated but had very dim lighting.  I don’t know if they were trying to save on their electricity bills or set the mood, but it made taking pictures of my food a bit harder along with walking through the restaurant in general.  We started off with some Cobra beers (L 3.95) that are Indian in origin but brewed in the UK.IMG_2348  It was a smooth lager that wasn’t terribly filling and had a light, slightly hoppy aftertaste.  After wetting our whistles, we perused the menu to find that they had an extensive menu offering a plethora of Indian specialties from mild paneers to taste-bud scorching phals and everything in between.  To start the feast, we got an order of papadum (Indian flatbread) that came with curry, chutney, yogurt, and pickled vegetables.IMG_2349  The flatbread was crispy and somewhat bland until you put some of the garnishes on it.  My personal favorite was the red chutney that packed a spicy punch.

(Starting at 12 o'clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

(Starting at 12 o’clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

As for the entrees, we decided to split some smaller dishes like bindi (okra), aaloo mutter (potatoes and peas), raita (yogurt sauce) but also have our own meals.  I was contemplating between the spicy vindaloo or the supposedly hellish phal, but the waiter dissuaded me from the latter saying that I’d only be tasting the spice.  I don’t know if he did that because he thought I couldn’t handle it or was just being nice, but I went for the lamb vindaloo (L 11).  All of our food came out at the same time along with some of the naan (flatbread) we ordered, and it looked and smelled delicious.IMG_2352  The taste test would prove equally fruitful.  My lamb vindaloo was filled with plenty of lamb swimming in the spiciest vindaloo sauce I’ve ever had, but it definitely brought plenty of delicious cumin and onion flavor with the flames. IMG_2353 The raita cut through the inferno with a cool, cucumber splash coupled with some of the basmati rice we ordered.  I really enjoyed the aaloo mutter as well since it was simple, hearty, not overly seasoned, and the peas weren’t soggy.  I’d say it was the best Indian meal I’ve ever had for the price I paid, and I highly recommend you seek out The Empress.
The Empress Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Even though we paid our check and got up to leave, the fun didn’t stop there.  After dinner, one of our friends suggested that my friend Bob and I should try this Indian after dinner mint that helps with digestion called paan.  We walked further down the street to the world famous Brick Lane which is regarded as the hub of the best South Indian fare in the world.  First, we walked into a respectable looking Indian bakery looking to see if they offered this paan treat, but the guy turned us away.  Then, we moved 50 feet down the street to a convenience store selling everything from rolling tobacco to an unusual amount of calculators.  I knew we were in the heart of a different community far from the glitz and glamour of more touristy spots as all of the workers referred to me as “boss” since I was the only person not of South Asian descent in the store.  I saw the cashier take our order and proceeded to roll up what looked like a medium sized oval leaf into a cone.  After scooping in something that looked like confetti and pouring some syrup inside along with rolling them up in newspapers, we walked back outside to finally try them.  Bob and I took them out of the newspaper to find what seemed to be green cocoons that were packed tightly with that flaky material I saw that man stuff inside.IMG_2356  While I was taking pictures of this mystery food, Bob popped his into his mouth, and I was frightened by his reaction. His face went quickly from a look of curiosity to a grimace to almost a portrait of pain as he subsequently ran to the nearest garbage can to spit it out.

Yum...

Yum…

I decided to give it a go, and I bit through the semi-bitter leaf to find the interior to be similar to sawdust in terms of texture along with pieces that almost felt like rocks.  When I chewed even further, that is when the true flavor came out that made my friend Bob pay a trip to the nearby rubbish bin.  My mouth was overwhelmed with a taste I could only liken to extremely floral potpourri mixed with cherry syrup with a heavy emphasis on the former.  It was such a mess in my mouth, and I couldn’t get it out sooner.  Unfortunately, it was thoroughly chewed which made it harder to gracefully spit out into the garbage can.  My friend who brought us there said it wasn’t good quality, so I’ll just take his word for it.  I asked him what was in it, and he said coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, camphor, anise, and the cherry syrup among other things.  Either way, it quickly shot up my list into the top three grossest things I’ve ever consumed, and it will live long in my memory.  However, it was a memorable way to say goodbye to some great guys (and the girlfriend of one of them) that I hope to see again, and I still appreciate the hospitality they showed me while in London.IMG_2359

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London (Day 3)- Feel De Riddim, Feel De Ride, Sit on Down, It’s Eatin’ Time!

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After a rousing first and second day in London, day three would put them all to shame as I managed to try two different restaurants while going all out at night at some fun night clubs and bars.  However, let me start at the beginning.

It was a laid-back day where I mainly walked around the museum area of South Kensington.  I thought I would be able to knock out both the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in one day…how foolish I was.  I would highly recommend a trip to the Natural History Museum over the Victoria and Albert Museum since they have many great biological, geological, and astronomical displays.  The only downside was the hordes of school children that swarmed about every main display like screaming ants at a picnic.  After braving my own personal running of the schoolchildren, it really worked up an appetite.  So, I decided I would take a trip to south London, specifically Brixton.  This area has been known over the decades as a bastion for Caribbean immigrants along with scenes of brutal violence like riots and knife crime.  Naturally, like many ethnic enclaves in a cosmopolitan city, it has recently become trendy for students and young professionals to take up residence in Brixton.  With them comes the phenomenon of gentrification, but where I walked around in the neighborhood, I didn’t feel it was as widespread as in certain neighborhoods of Chicago (read:  Pilsen).  I was determined to visit El Negril that specializes in Caribbean food, but as always with my luck, they didn’t open until 5 pm.  So I walked back toward the tube station to find another eatery called Bamboula which drew me in with its vibrant colors. IMG_2221 Once inside, it was moderately full, and I was the only white person in there which seemed to come as a shock to the main waitress/hostess.  I was quickly seated opposite a guy who seemed to be either touched in the head or communicating with Jah while eating/paying for the bill which annoyed my waitress greatly.  Next to him was a Rasta tapping out a reggae beat on his plate between mouthfuls and seemed to be quite a devil with the ladies.  After soaking in these surroundings, I went for the lunch special of goat curry, callaloo rice, grilled plantains, and salad.  It also came with a drink, and there were so many things on the menu that I didn’t even know what they were.  True to form, I went for something called “sour sop” juice.  It all eventually came out with a wonderful presentation. IMG_2220 I started with the goat curry and the callaloo rice.  The goat was quite bony, but the chunks of meat were tender and tasted like a mix between beef and lamb.  The brown curry it was swimming in went exquisitely with the the rice which seemed to be made out Basmati rice and seasoned with some scotch bonnet peppers to give it a proper kick.  This starchy side gets its name from the callaloo leaves which were originally eaten by West Africans and then their ancestors when they arrived as slaves in Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago etc.  I could only describe them as having a very subtle spinach texture and taste.  The salad was refreshing but nothing out of the ordinary, and the plantains were delicious since they were savory yet had a bit of the sweetness of their banana relatives.  Then there was the mysterious sour sop juice.  It looked like lemonade and tasted like a sublime mix of passion fruit, pear, and pineapple juice.  Once I demolished all of my meal, I asked Princess what exactly a sour sop was, and she said that it’s a type of fruit that is native to Latin America that kind of looks like a green pear.  I sent my regards to the Rasta chef and was on my way to see the Brixton Market.
Bamboula Caribbean Restaurant on Urbanspoon
IMG_2225IMG_2222IMG_2226  It was an entire street and mini community of food hawkers that catered to the local populace with sour sop stalls, piles of callaloo, roti shops, tea houses, and plenty of reggae beats floating overhead.IMG_2227  It was like I was transported to a completely different world far from the pomp of Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.  Since I was in the mood of markets, I moved from Brixton Market to the more upscale Borough Market in the middle of London. IMG_2242 My friends recommended that I check it out even though it’s a bit more expensive/tourist ridden than the other central markets.  These negative attributes fell by the wayside as I was in some sort of culinary Valhalla as I wanted to try everything in sight, but unfortunately I think it would take at least a week to hit up every stall.IMG_2228 IMG_2229  It was a wondrous playground as I flitted from a cheese maker to a man serving paella and different curries to a chocolatier to a seasoning shop that had uber-expensive truffles on display to smell.IMG_2235 IMG_2234 IMG_2233 IMG_2232 IMG_2231 IMG_2230  I obliged, and the earthy aroma nearly knocked me over with how powerful it was.  I can see why they’re only served in small slivers as garnishes to dishes.  Eventually, I decided this would be the perfect place to get dessert, and I saw a bakery stall with a very long line that was moving quickly. IMG_2237

A mountain of meringues.

A mountain of meringues.

I jumped in line, and I immediately knew what I was going to get:  a monstrous chocolate chip cookie.  It was a bargain at only 2 pounds (~4 bucks), but it was quite possibly the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had.

Normal sized?

Normal sized?

Think again!

Think again!

It was semi-soft with rich chocolate slices spread evenly throughout along with some rich brown sugar that sang with every bite.  I liked this market too because it was mostly covered as I discovered it had been raining for awhile as I walked out to the tube station in the shadow of the Shard building.  At night, I went out with my friends Ravi, Rav, and Bob in Shoreditch to a restaurant called Chico Bandito which allegedly was a Mexican and Cuban restaurant. IMG_2244 Upon looking at the menu, I couldn’t see even one receta cubana, but the Mexican food all looked muy sabrosa.  I hit it off with our waitress hablando espanol, and she hooked us up with some festive hats as we indulged in the last ten minutes of happy hour.

Viva la hora feliz!

Viva la hora feliz!

IMG_2250 To start off, we got two plates of nachos, one traditional and the other with chorizo. IMG_2248 Both were some of the best nachos I ever had because the tortilla chips seemed to be lighter than the ones back in the USA and with less of an overpowering corn flavor that allowed the gooey cheese, cool sour cream, spicy chorizo, and zesty guacamole to really make their mark on our palates.  As for the main entree, I went for the chicken chimichanga which ended up being a softball-sized fried, stuffed tortilla. IMG_2251 It was expertly made with a crunchy exterior that gave way to a spicy monton de pollo.  The rice and mixed bean and green salad on the sides were delicious, but the problem was that the chimichanga alone ended up sitting like a bowling ball in my stomach for the next three hours.  I couldn’t even finish the rest of the meal.  I didn’t feel greasy, just extremely full which kind of put a damper on our night out when we went to Bar Kick.  I’d highly recommend checking out Chico Bandito though for quality Mexican food.   I eventually felt better by the time we made it to the dance club Concrete where they were having Biggie and Tupac night.    After a long night of dancing to 90s rap tracks,  we rode home on rent-a-bikes from the club at 2 am through the streets of London. I then realized It’s tough being a food critic and a gangsta at the same time.
Chico Bandito on Urbanspoon

Biggie approves this blog post.

Biggie approves this blog post.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

London (Day 1 and 2)- Just a Couple Randos at Nando’s

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Well, it seems that my adventures in Asia have come to a close (for now), and I’m back in the USA writing about them from the comfort of my parents’ kitchen.  On the way back from the Far East, I stopped over in London to visit a few friends, so naturally I had to chronicle my culinary conquests as I made my way through the same streets of Jack the Ripper and Tiny Tempah.

The first day was relatively laid back in terms of food experimentation as I made my way to my friend Ravi’s flat in the notoriously rough but currently trendy East End of London around Bow Road.  This area was also known for its Cockney subculture and signature accent which has been made famous in popular culture through plays like Pygmalion, or through the award winning actor, Michael Caine.  Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s traditional pickled whelks and jellied eels were a bit hard to find, so I instead tried some of Ravi’s home cooking which was wonderful.  He made me a vegetarian shepherd’s pie that seemed to consist of tomato sauce, lentils, beans, carrots, peppers, potatoes, and cheese on top.  It was filling, spicy, and savory which made my taste buds happy since I normally don’t go for vegetarian fare.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

Squash in the glass and the bottle in the upper left hand corner.

However, the funnier part of the meal was the drink I had.  When I first arrived at his apartment, he asked me if I wanted something to drink like water, tea, or squash…squash?  I assumed he meant that he would take out some butternut squash and turn them into juice, so I opted for water.  Dinnertime rolled around, and he offered me this mystery squash to drink again.  So, I decided to give it a go.  He proceeded to bring out what looked like a big bottle of fruit juice.  He then poured a small amount into my glass and filled the rest up with water.  It tasted just like it advertised as a soft blend of strawberry and kiwi.  Turns out the actual squash is just a fruit concentrate with no gourds involved.  Hooray for regional dialects!  Then for dessert, I had another cultural clash as Ravi’s roommate, Jaime, offered me a Milky Way bar.  I love Milky Way bars in the US, so I gratefully accepted it.

Same, same, but different.

Same, same, but different.

After I bit into it, I was a bit taken aback by the contents since it lacked the caramel present in American Milky Way bars.  Instead, it was like a 3 Musketeers bar since there was only chewy nougat enveloped in chocolate.  Either way, it was a fitting end to a delicious meal.

The following day, I was out and about seeing the sights London had to offer.  For lunch, I did stop at Pizza Express, one of London’s most ubiquitous restaurant chains serving pizza and other Italian dishes, I didn’t feel like it really warranted an in-depth review.  Instead, I’ll bring you an even better chain that was introduced to me back in 2006 compliments of my friend Rav.  We were talking about fried chicken in America, and he told me of this place called “Nando’s” in London which he described as, “KFC but they don’t ba’a (batter in East London-ese) it” and had “peri-peri sauce”.  Given these random descriptions and my friend’s clear passion for this mysterious eatery, I vowed one day to try it.  Fast forward to 2008, and I finally made my pilgrimage with my friends to Nando’s.nandos-clink-street-london  Needless to say, I could see why Rav was bonkers about it as Nando’s serves roasted Portuguese/Mozambican chicken.  You have the option of choosing a quarter chicken,  half chicken, or wings with optional sides.  They also have salads, burgers, pittas, and wraps.  On this occasion I went for the half chicken, a side of chips (fries for Amurika), and some macho peas.  Once I ordered my food, I went to the sauce bar which has bottles that range from a pleasant lemon and herb to a mouth-scorching extra-spicy in an ominous black bottle.   The “peri-peri” Rav mentioned back in our college days means “bird’s eye pepper”, and there is a whole lot of it in said extra-spicy sauce.

No fowl play here.  Just good food.

No fowl play here. Just good food.

As for the actual food, the chicken is excellently prepared with plenty of semi-spicy marinade coating the juicy and pure white meat that just barely clings to the bone.  The macho peas were an interesting choice since they were peas seasoned with parsley, mint, and chili which unfortunately tasted like I was consuming minty peas sans chili.  While I like both elements separately, I think they should tinker with the ratio of spices to make this pedestrian side something special.  I’m more partial to their garlic bread side that not only is very garlicky but crunchy and pliable at the same time.  Their chips are good but nothing that will knock your socks off.  Come for the chicken and stay for the sauce, that’s what I’d recommend.  We ended our night with a couple of pints at the Horniman Pub on the Thames River as we watched Tottenham Hotspur cruise to victory, and I went to bed a very satisfied Yank.

Nando's on Urbanspoon

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