With so many amazing places to eat Londoners and by extension, us tourists, were really spoilt for choice. I’d never been to London before so given we had a mere 48 hours or 6 precious meals to have in London, we’d amassed a great spreadsheet list and slowly whittled it down to a shortlist of contenders for those 6 meals. One often equates London with exorbitant prices but I was keen to seek out the establishments that offered amazing food with great value, those usually overlooked by tourists. So we ended up eschewing expensive, high calibre fine dining establishments for more casual but no less impressive places. Places where amazing flavours, ingenuity and value are in the same sentence. And on such occasions spontaneous snacking needs to be reigned in so you don’t jeopardise any of these meals and get the most out of each establishment.
These were the rules we originally set out but immediately set about sabotaging our own plans from the outset. It was our honeymoon, so we decided to treat ourselves with business class flights on Singapore Airlines from Sydney to London via Singapore – a treat that comes with not just plenty of legroom and creature comforts but copious amounts of good food for those that have no self control (i.e. me). Of course I’ll have the bread, entree, main, dessert, cheese and repeated helpings of champagne and dessert wine. Of course I will still investigate the offerings in the business class lounge during our stopover in Singapore and for due diligence, sample a few choice morsels. And then, although I was desperately full by the time we boarded for the Singapore to London leg and once timezones are accounted for, despite it being the equivalent of 3am in Sydney and I should be sleeping not settling in for yet another meal, of course, I couldn’t help myself and had a unneeded light snack. Our excessive snacking made us desperately full (and I’m convinced snacking at strange hours affected our circadian rhythms) so we really didn’t need the extra honeymoon cakes that the very sweet Singapore Airlines staff gave us. Not one, but two cakes! A dense mudcake for the Sydney to Singapore flight and a heavy cheesecake for the Singapore to London flight. (Upon learning that yet another two cakes awaited us on our return trip we panicked and asked the staff to spare our bellies and immediately cancelled those cakes.)
We landed in London bleary eyed but well sated at 6am, dropped our luggage off at our hotel and wandered off into the steady grey London drizzle to seek out some coffee. Not just any coffee mind you, a 6am start after a long haul flight deserved very good coffee.
1. Workshop Clerkenwell
Thankfully, we had great local insider advice to lean on – our friend Ben is a longtime obsessed coffee geek and after years of making and teaching coffee appreciation professionally for a major coffee brand in Australia, he now runs the Tate’s coffee roastery in London so we gather he knows a thing or two about coffee. On his recommendation, we found ourselves at Workshop Clerkenwell, a cafe cum coffee roastery which until recently, was called St Ali, a reference to their origins that can be traced back to St Ali in Melbourne. Workshop gets the coffee lovers’ nod for being one of only a few that roast their coffee on-site – in fact, The Workshop Coffee Co source, roast and supply their own coffee and for additional sustenance, the cafe offers food, wine and beer on the side too. Somehow we found the appetite to sample their breakfast offerings and found both the corn fritters with haloumi very rich and tasty, and the smoked salmon and poached eggs on corn bread delicious and surprisingly substantial.
It was the coffee we were here for and we’re relieved to report it was very good. Creamy and full bodied. I hadn’t realised I was desperately willing it to be good until my entire body relaxed with utter relief on that first glorious sip. I also hadn’t realised that Australians (particularly Melbournians) have a international reputation of being coffee obsessed and have been known to complain bitterly about the sub-par coffee we find elsewhere around the world. Well, I was soon to join those complaining ranks as this was the first and last good cup of coffee we had for the next month as I really didn’t develop an appreciation for those ashy burnt watery characteristics typical of a French roast. Any old coffee for £2.80 is steep; but when you tend to only have one a day, and like this situation, it really needs to count – then for brilliant salvation coffee it’s good value in my books.
To amuse ourselves between meals, the Co-pilot and I hit the high street shops near Oxford Circus but a few hours plodding around in the light but annoyingly persistent London drizzle managed to soak us pretty thoroughly. Wet and bedraggled we were glad to walk into Nopi for lunch and for relief from the ubiquitous rain.
To complement his four popular Ottolenghi restaurants around London, the newest establishment from Yotam Ottolenghi is Nopi, a more casual establishment offering shared plates, perfect for the occasion as the Co-pilot and I were meeting my friend KK there for lunch, a dear friend and a newly relocated Melbournian. I was very much looking forward to this meal as I’m unlikely fan of the Ottolenghi cookbooks. Not because I expected his cookbooks to be anything short of impressive, but because I’m probably the last person that will convert to vegetarianism and yet the Plenty cookbook gets a good workout in our kitchen.
The interior of Nopi is understated glamour, white tiled and white marbled surfaces with pale wooden furniture and swathes of warm brass and gold fittings. A simple neutral colour palette that is an excellent showcase of the impressive riot of colour in the salad bar.
For a light lunch, we order a few small plates and a couple of mains to share from the seasonal menu. The dishes that came out were vibrant with fresh colours, simply dressed and adorned, assembled with care but not pomp and theatre. And that’s where we were completely caught off guard – it looked simple but offered so much more than mere tasty comfort food – the flavour profiles were so robust, brave and in some cases foreign to our palettes. The red pepper salad with feta was simply done but so very flavourful; the tomato and basil side seemed to be made with tomatoes that had been super concentrated with sweet tomato essence and the burrata – that was a breathtaking stunner. Deliciously soft and creamy burrata sweetened by the nectarine and livened by the aromatic nutty toasted coriander seeds. So simple but it had us all excitedly pointing at it after a bite – it was one of the most memorable dishes from our London rendezvous.
Of the mains, the prawns were fragrant with that distinctive char grilled flavour and spiced up with fresh jalapeño paste; the dry aged sirloin was unfussed and unfettered – simply grilled and allowing its flavour to speak volumes; the twice cooked baby chicken succulent; but the surprise was the simple potato side made with capers, garlic and I’m convinced some other secret ingredient because it was addictively good.
It was easily the most surprising meal we had in London – we had good expectations and they were exceeded here with a few key dishes that left a long lasting impression. So much so that we recounted meal in detail to fellow travellers we were meeting with in London and urged them to make Nopi a stop on their London itinerary. Our light lunch came to just £28.50 per person, which whilst not outrageous, isn’t a steal – what is though is their 3 course pre-theatre set menu at £25.50 food this good is genuinely a real steal at those prices. It’s food made with the emphasis on flavour and enjoyment – the way it should be.
More shopping was our plan to working up a healthy appetite for dinner, but squelching about in the rain with inadequate shoes is no winning formula for happy travellers. In fact, a little jet lag, frazzled nerves, wet shoes and persistent drizzle is the winning formula to transform us into cranky belligerent whinging two year olds. We conceded defeat to the infamous London weather and stomped back to our hotel for refuge. Thankfully, we found an accessible London drizzle antidote in a hot shower and change of dry clothes.
Dinner was a family reunion of sorts. A few weeks before our trip to Europe, the Co-pilot’s parents embarked on their month long trip around France. Work circumstances had meant we couldn’t time our trips to coincide, but happily, our first night in London happened to be the one night when all the stars aligned and we would be in the same city at the same time. To make it a bonafide family reunion, we were also meeting with The Surgeon and his Muse. The Surgeon is the Co-pilot’s cousin once removed, and a new relation we’d met for the first time at a wedding earlier in the year. And since meeting him, I have discovered this humble softly spoken yet energetic man is an award winning writer of some impressively critically acclaimed books and he has a wiki entry!
Medlar seemed like the perfect choice for this reunion. Nestled in the affluent stylish London suburb of Chelsea, it offers French-influenced British food in an unassuming local neighbourhood location. However it, like The Surgeon’s works, comes critically acclaimed and highly praised and mere weeks before we arrived in London for this meal, it scooped up its first Michelin star! But in keeping with our intended value-packed theme, it wasn’t an exorbitantly priced Michelin starred established – it offered a set menu: a mere £39.50 for three courses.
Given our early start that day, we booked an early dinner and were the first to arrive at the restaurant giving us an opportunity to take in the quasi industrial masculine interior details and matching colour scheme with a palette of greys, greens and blues. As clientele flitted in, we noted the mid week dinner crowd was mostly business suits, all speaking in reserved tones that slowly amounted to a comfortable, hushed background chatter.
Chef Joe Mercer Nairne offers a menu with a variety of influences – from French inspired rustic offal dishes, Mediterrean ingredients, even South American touches – but all with a touch of British heartiness befitting the cool autumn weather. The entrees and mains both offered 7 varied choices to choose from, ensuring something for every palate. For our entrees, the Co-pilot and I shared the ceviche and crab raviolo (my insatiable weakness for crab causes me to inevitably gravitate towards it if it’s offered on a menu). The halibut ceviche was quite thickly cut, making it less delicate than we were used to but still light and pleasingly tangy, the crispy baby squid tempura, radish and salmon roe giving it contrasting crunch and pop, the chilli providing just the right level of spice. The crab raviolo was really delicious and stole the show for me – a brimming single parcel generously packed with crab meat swimming in an aromatic pool of creamy bisque. Completing the seaside scene were brown shrimps and crunchy squeaky strands of samphire, a salt loving succulent that I’d seen on seashores and know graces menus from time to time, but have never tasted myself. It had a taste and texture halfway between a string bean and asparagus.
For our mains we erred towards the more distinctly British choices that we wouldn’t find commonly in Australia, opting for the roast grouse (a partridge-like game bird) and on our waiter’s recommendation, the roast middle white pork dish, a rare but distinctive breed of large white pig native to the UK as well known for its excellent eating qualities as it is its sharply upturned snub nose. The grouse was very lean and as it can easily be overcooked and dry, this was served quite pink and succulent, paired with sweet damson plums and balanced with bread sauce and crunchy potato chips. It also came with a quenelle of pâté, a really punchy, potent, livery thing that the Co-pilot pushed away and I relished with joy. The middle white pork turned out to be a great recommendation. We tucked into super juicy slabs of sweet pork loin that came with an ultrasmooth, rich and buttery celeriac puree and a side of baby vegetables. And then there was the crackling – oh the crackling. It was so amazingly crisp it crunched at deafening decibel shattering levels. That’s not a hyperbole – I tried to muffle each crunchy mouthful but would draw amused looks from the rest of the table.
Dessert was such an impressive visual spread I had to ask the others to indulge me and have me photograph their choices. Unusually for me, the 7 choices on the dessert menu offered so many enticing options it was hard to settle on our eventual dessert choices. We chose the cannele, a pastry local to Bordeaux and a favourite sweet treat for the Co-pilot who delights in its unique crunchy chewy texture. It came with candied walnuts, honey icecream and the sweetest, juiciest ripe figs. These were the first of many figs we would enjoy on our European jaunt, and we were delighted to discover that common European figs were far superior to the common Australian variety we’re used to. They had a much higher pink to white flesh ratio which meant sweeter juicer figs with a noticeable reduction in grassy herbaceous flavours. Our other choice was a splendid blackberry mille feuille with crisp layers of pastry separating dollops of cream and very plump and sweet in-season blackberries.
It was a fitting end to a really nice meal with our family and as we’d hoped – the perfect venue for a more sophisticated yet not pretentious gathering with excellent, attentive service; a taste of good British cuisine at £39.50 for 3 courses and for the fare and experience, just ridiculously good value for money. Want more value than that? Check out their three course lunch – astounding value at just £26 for 3 courses.
4. La Fromagerie
Given our culinary indulgences on our first day in London we awoke on our second day still contentedly sated and decided we needed a light start to allow our appetites to recover. Grey dreary skies threatened but blessedly there was no rain so we enjoyed a long leisurely stroll through leafy parks. Whilst we paused to admire the first signs of autumn all around us London awoke from its slumber and commuters streamed by at a hurried determined trot. I think there’s nothing more pleasing than the knowledge I’m on holiday whilst the rest of the world slavenly trudges to work.
We wandered down a street packed with impressive butchers and delis – the type to cause me to stop and press my nose to the glass – to La Fromagerie, which as the name might suggest is a cheese monger, a most glamorous cheese monger cum gourmet deli where all the produce beckons invitingly. From the vibrant display of autumn squash greeting me at the door to adorably packaged biodynamic yoghurt in half quart glass bottles, from the bejewelled candied violet clusters to mouthwatering legs of jamon – we wanted it all and zipped about the store like excited kids. Breakfast then was an exercise in self restraint. With difficulty we bypassed the abundant rustic farmer’s plate packed with rustic slabs of cheese, cold cuts, yoghurt and freshly baked bread to settle on coffee and a cheese toastie. To be fair, this was the Co-pilot’s doing. I tried to reason that a Farmer’s plate shared amongst 2 wasn’t going to hurt our appetites (it was of course, which I inherently knew but I have zero self restraint) but he wouldn’t have a bar of it. But he quieted my grumblings with a reminder that the cheese room awaited us. It was no run of the mill cheese room as La Fromagerie owner Patricia Michelson has authored several books on cheese – it was a cheese fanatic’s cheese room.
The heady stewing aroma of wall to wall cheeses was a formidable assailant: grassy, barnyard pongs; pungent smelly socks; ripe odours – we sucked them all into our lungs greedily and set about happily sampling judiciously. But given the next phase of our trip was to France, we consciously stuck to the best of British cheeses and bought small wedges to sample. These beauties were to be saved for a later indulgence…
For one of the most impressive varied selection and displays of cheese in London, the attentive service, generous sampling and the sheer joy that a little morsel of good cheese can bring – value plus and a must for cheese lovers!
With our own personal cloud of smelly cheese whiff now in tow, we wandered lazily through high street shops and artisan produce stores on our way to lunch.
5. Pollen Street Social
This was my most anticipated meal in London. Chef Jason Atherton previously wowed diners as the Executive Chef of Gordon Ramsey’s Maze and opened his own venture in April 2011. The abundance of glowing reviews, a coveted one Michelin star awarded in its first year of service and recently retaining that Michelin star for the second year running, is it any wonder that I was excited about Pollen St Social? The format is relaxed and flexible, with separate bar and restaurant dining spaces and offering diners a myriad of options to sate their fancies: tapas style bar snacks, à la carte, set courses, a tasting menu and a dedicated dessert menu – the last of which was only fitting given it was London’s first dessert bar, a nod to the American tradition of retiring to a different space for dessert.
We were yet again meeting KK for lunch and of course, to meet the conditions of our value-hunting London tour, it too was great value, the set lunch menu was £24 for 2 courses or £27.50 for 3 courses. The lunch menu offered diners a choice of three dishes each for the starter, main and dessert courses and fortuitously given we were three, we decided on sharing the entire menu.
No sooner than we’d ordered some complimentary snacks came our way and as far as complimentary nibbles go, this was a pretty exciting offering and introduction to the things to come. Golden puffed and crispy scrolls of pork scratchings accompanied by a sweet and tangy apple mustard purée; the nicest, meatiest Sicilian olives we’ve ever had (and we’ve had a few) and a smooth buttery salt cod brandade that we attacked viciously, spreading thickly over our bread.
We were sat in the far end of the bar area a perfect vantage point to see the comings and goings of the bar as we devoured our appetiser. The crowd is a mix of suits and gatherings of friends. Sat immediately next to us were some girlfriends catching up over lunch on one side, a young couple on a lunch date on the other. It’s brightly lit, with an excited chatty, buzz in the air. The service is fast and polished, the waitstaff knowledgeable and friendly, without pretentiousness. It feels like they’ve gotten the perfect balance between casual and slick – a great place to subtly, effortlessly impress without looking like you’ve pulled out all the stops and emptied your bank account in the process.
The entrees that arrived lived up to expectations and sure did impress us – each was beautifully presented, popping with vibrant colours and flavours. The mackerel was incredibly tender and succulent, the rich oily flavours cut with the subtle citrus flavours and horseradish – my favourite of the entrees; the tête du porc flaked apart with a slight nudge, paired with different types of beetroot that even KK, traditionally a beetroot hater begrudgingly enjoyed and the watercress soup with peppery and spicy, the truffled hens egg adding to the richness.
The mains had less colour and flair and erred more on the hearty side. The lamb rump was excellent, very tender and flavourful. It needed no more than a sprinkling of salt to adorn it but went nicely with the minted burnt cabbage and rich onion puree. The sweet halibut was equally impressive, supported by two very thick sauces – an intensely aromatic bouillabaisse and an aptly named liquid potato sauce that was just the tastiest concentrated potato essence. The 18 hour braised Angus was surprisingly the least impressive of the three, and although it was very tender and rich in flavour, I found it a tad bit too salty and not unlike dishes I’ve had elsewhere.
As the generous mains settled in our stomachs, willing a warm comfortable food coma to take a hold of us, it didn’t seem to leave much room for dessert but a timely palate cleanser rectified that – a zingy tart raspberry sorbet tempered by a cloud of whipped cream foam and frozen raspberry cubes was positively brightening. Just in time to tackle the slow cooked apples swimming in a really delicious stout sauce and stout sabayon – the sweetness of the apples pairing wonderfully with the bitter notes in the stout. The chilly sorbets and icecreams were equally welcome – it seems no matter how full one gets, you can always make a little room for a spoonful of sorbet.
The dessert I most enjoyed was the rice pudding – served at the table in a copper pot. It was creamy and unctuous flavoured liberally with vanilla. The accompanying side was a bit odd, the mango and ginger both tasty on their own by the little quenelles of lemon were so puckeringly sour my lips took to hiding. Call me boring, but I preferred the rice pudding unadorned, it tasted amazing enough the traditional way.
As we prepared to leave checking the tube map before we embarked on our next adventure, we tucked into hot, crumbly financiers. A generous ending to cap off a really stunning meal – inventive, impressive food at applaudingly good prices.
Our trip to London wasn’t all about food interspersed with shopping, KK the Co-pilot and I headed off to the Tate Modern for a bit of culture. Remember our friend Ben who gave us the coffee advice earlier on? Well, luckily for us, he works at the Tate which allows us to simultaneously tick the tourist and good friend boxes in one – and of course, general admission to the Tate is free! But perhaps I’d best stick to scoffing down food and leave the art appreciation to others. At one point I was looking at an empty, lonely misplaced chair and wondering whether I should be contemplating at the profound post modern existential message inherent in the empty chair. Then the guard came back and sat in it.
Between exhibitions, considered musing and quizzical chin grasping, an afternoon coffee at the Tate Modern’s cafe is a must! We met Ben there to sample his hand picked coffee blends and to soak in the glorious views. The cafe offers one of the best expansive, uninterrupted, high views over the Thames – that was something I could appreciate!
6. Hereford Road
Originally we’d planned on dining at St John Bread and Wine, but on Ben’s recommendation, we spent our last meal in London at Hereford Road, a small neighbourhood restaurant that was one of his local go-to favourites that espouses some of that nose-to-tail ethos. That’s no coincidence as the Chef and co-founder, Tom Pemberton, was formerly head chef of St John Bread and Wine and trained under Fergus Henderson.
I’ve grown up eating offal as a normal part of my diet and am impartial to a dabble in offal every now and then (curiously my dalliances always seem to coincide with the Co-pilot being away). So gearing up for a good re-acquaintance with offal we went to Hereford Road to meet with Ben and his very heavily pregnant partner Jen.
Heat from the flaming stoves blasts us as we trot past the commotion in the open kitchen on route to our table. The decor is a cool, modern red, white and black palette: shiny white tiled surfaces, red upholstered leather booths contrasted with dark finishes. We inspected the menu and I was surprised to not find it bursting at the seams with offal laden dishes. In fact, on the night we dined, we only had two offal dishes on the menu – sweetbreads and kidneys. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed – I find more offal and more variety of offal in my local yum cha!
Still, the menu offered many appealing dishes, but as the starters seemed to be universally appealing, we opted for all the starters offered on the menu (sans the green salad) and just one main, the pork belly, for good measure.
The starters came in thick and fast – the biggest globe artichoke I’ve ever seen was delivered to our table, each of its petals offering a meaty mouthful. It came paired with melted butter, which was fine for a few petals but quickly became a little bland and we all agreed a bright zingy vinaigrette would have been a more welcome accompaniment. Smoky, salty big flakes of ham hock married lovingly with crunchy kolhrabi and peppery radish in a creamy dressing and the smoked haddock was just divine, the salt offset with a very tangy young pea shoot salad. The lamb sweetbreads was the token offal dish we ordered and they were very tasty, not gamey, cooked until it was soft on the inside with a just crispy exterior. Neither Jen nor the Co-pilot are fans of offal and chose to concentrate on the other dishes whilst Ben and I tucked in, indulging in classic offal eater behaviour: bullying, chiding and goading non-offal eaters for being culinary wusses. Guilty as charged.
There was a heaped mound of meaty wild sauteed girolles, tossed with sorrel and served on soft gravy-drowned toast – my first taste of many wild mushrooms on this trip and I really relished the firm texture and lightly perfumed taste as I hadn’t had girolles before whether fresh or dried. The beetroot salad with oozing soft goat’s curd, and cobnuts (a type of hazelnut) was simple but very tasty; the steamed black mussels were small for their big shells, but were delightfully sweet and drenched in cider and thyme broth we scooped greedily using the mussel shells; and we tore at the crispy roasted quail, its flesh still very moist and enjoyed with the accompanying aioli and a drizzle of lemon. With all these generous starters, we were happily sated and didn’t really need the main but welcomed it all the same. A Flintstones-sized chunk of rib-in pork belly was brought to us – a sweet, dribblingly juicy and perfectly pink roasted piece that was gobsmackingly tasty.
It was a deliciously satisfying meal which including a bottle of wine came to a mere £25 per person! Proving yet again, remarkably good, no, rave-worthy food, can be found in London without leaving you wincing. As we paid the bill happily and started waddling out, the maître d’ asked whether we were all chefs. We shook our heads at his odd question and looked at him quizzically, and he explained that it was unusual to see people just order all the starters, but visiting chefs have been known to and it would be the way he’d order too. We took that as a complement and left Hereford Road patting our bellies contentedly, the restaurant still lively and heaving despite being a early midweek night.
And that was our epic 48 hours of eating our way around London, seeking out the best value meals that provided truly memorable gastronomic experiences that I’d be happy to repeat again and again without any heart skipping, teeth gnashing moments when you see the bill.
Our next stop was Paris and to get there we got the Eurostar from London to Paris the next morning. We could have gotten the standard half limp, unappetising pre-packaged sandwich to whet our appetite, but we had a better plan – we bought a fresh crusty baguette and broke out those glorious cheeses from La Fromagerie to kick off the next phase of rich and tasty indulgence in style.
1. Workshop Coffee at Clerkenwell
27 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1M 5RN
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7253 5754.
Open Mon 7:30am – 6pm; Tues – Fri 7:30am – 10pm; Sat – Sun 8am – 6pm
21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5NE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7494 9584
Open Mon – Fri Breakfast 8am – noon; Lunch noon – 2:45pm; Dinner 5:30pm – 10:15pm
Sat Breakfast 8am – noon; Lunch noon – 5:30pm; Dinner 5:30 – 10:15pm
Sun Breakfast 10am – 1pm; Lunch noon – 4pm
438 Kings Road, Chelsea, London SW10 0LJ
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7349 1900
Open Mon – Sun 12pm – 3pm; 6:30pm – 10:30pm
4. La Fromagerie
4-6 Moxon Street, Marylebone, London W1U 4EW (they also have a store in Highbury)
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7935 0341
Open Mon – Fri 8:00am – 7:30pm; Sat 9:00am – 7:00pm; Sun 10:00am – 6:00pm
5. Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen Street, Mayfair, London W1S 1NQ
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7290 7600
Open Mon – Sat Lunch noon – 2:45pm, Dinner 6pm – 10:45pm
6. Hereford Road
3 Hereford Road, Bayswater, London W2 4AB
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7727 1144
Open daily for lunch and dinnerby