Thursday, February 10, 2011
February is the hardest month of the year for me. Winter has dragged on for three months, it still gets dark at 5pm, and while the snowdrops are blooming, the threat of snowstorms is never far.
When I returned from Asia four weeks ago, I reverted back to my pre-winter holiday self. I redoubled my efforts to find comfort food in London. The highlight of this quest has been my recent meal at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. But there have been other great meals as well, even if they lacked the fanfare of a new opening.
Last night, for example, I went to dinner at Polpo. The restaurant serves Venetian tapas in a small rustic dining room that reminds everyone who enters it of New York City. Polpo doesn’t take reservations in the evening, but after a 40 minute wait, my group was seated at a round table and our tapas extravaganza began.
Out from the kitchen paraded tiny arancini, spinach with garlic and chili, large rings of calamari, a fennel salad with walnuts, flank steak, and bruschetta with grapes and cheese.
I had been to Polpo once before, and this visit confirmed my previous experience: hit-or-miss. The spinach was divine, as was the bruschetta. The hot chocolate dessert was amazing. I didn’t care for the too-crunchy arancini, and the other dishes were just okay. The ambiance was great, though, which is presumably why people keep coming back.
Speaking of a place to keep coming back to, a few weeks ago I was invited to have dinner at the Fox and Anchor pub in Farringdon. Tucked away on a tiny side street near Smithfield’s Market, it would be easy to miss were it not for the year-round crowds buzzing outside the doors.
The interior—a long narrow room with traditional pub decor and a great classic bar—was equally crowded. Thankfully a table had been reserved in the small dining room in the back. Tucked into a perfect little wooden nook was a round table for two with a candle on top. I wasn’t there for a date, but the ambiance and seclusion would have been perfect for one.
The menu at the Fox and Anchor pub was all traditional British. Everything from fish n’ chips to oysters to roasted ox kidney and Welsh rarebit was on the list. I couldn’t help but go for the fish n’ chips, a dish I hadn’t had in awhile, and one that definitely counted as comfort food. My dinner companion chose the same, and we spent the meal enjoying our delicious fresh fish and piping hot chips.
But dinner wasn’t the only meal for which I needed to seek comfort food in London. No, the gray skies during the day dictated that I hole up somewhere and forget about the clouds for awhile. The lunch part of my quest took me to a rather random location. Just behind the Tottenham Court Road tube station was Po Cha, a hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant where I met some friends for lunch on a particularly gray and windy winter day.
Inside the restaurant was full of people enjoying huge cooking pots of tofu, vegetables, and meat, and everything form kimchi to seafood pancakes. We ordered all of those, and seconds of a few of them, and spent the afternoon comforting ourselves with the hot food as we escaped the cold outside.
And then there was brunch, my favorite meal for comfort food in London. The perfect place for this was at Ottolenghi in Islington. Their window display, which was full of amazing-looking pastries on one side and delicious salads on the other, was enough to stop passers-by in their tracks.
I went a few weeks ago with two of my friends, and we enjoyed a huge brunch of French Toast, eggs with chorizo, and delicious breads. It was so good that I returned a couple weeks later to get four of their salads for a take-out lunch.
As if Ottolenghi wasn’t good enough, I had brunch a couple weekends ago at The Providores in Marylebone. The restaurant is one of my favorites in London, and I’m not alone in thinking that. The line out the door was long even at 10:45am, but once the 15-minute wait was over, I sat with my friend at one of the high communal tables and enjoyed a thick Spanish-style tortilla made with sweet potato. It was so good that I wished I could stay in the restaurant for the remainder of the winter.
Sadly that wasn’t an option, as there was an ever-growing line outside when we finished eating. But each day of February brings two more minutes of daylight, and this week has been slightly warmer than the past few. One of these days in not too long I will put my winter coat in the closet with the intention of leaving it there until November, and my quest to find comfort food in London will be on hiatus until winter returns. Until then, I expect that the late summer sunshine in Chile—where I will be next week—will keep me nice and warm through the end of the month.