Thursday, September 20, 2012

dust and string: the new Brick Lane

Brick Lane’s a part of London I have strong memories of from the ‘80’s. It was the home of Northern Indian food, my first bagel and the edgy market piled high with stolen goods.

I’d heard the East End had changed. For better or worse, like the rest of London, I wasn’t sure.  To absolve my divided heart, I went the long way via Mile End. It was almost a relief to see the street market outside Whitechapel tube selling predominantly Asian food and clothing. And that Tower Hamlets was as raw and real as ever.

I hit the Whitechapel Art Gallery and soaked up some of the best art in London, took a breath and turned into Brick Lane. The first block looked more or less the same, wall-to-wall Indian restaurants resisting gentrification. But with every few paces the shops began to change, Caucasian faces predominated and vintage emporiums flourished. Gone were the cheap days of the East End. These shops sported 60’s frocks for a mere £100 and rayon scarfs for a tenner.

One sweet young thing working in one of these stores confided loudly to her colleague “I love dirty, old stuff. The dirtier the better”. And I observed from the price tags - the tattier the goods, the higher the price.

Two things redeemed Brick Lane in my eyes.

The first was a juice and a salad at Suzzle.  Although a newcomer, the café seemed less cynical than the new retail wave. I felt like I’d stumbled on a piece of Collingwood, a tiny shopfront that combined street art with simple food. No sandwiches thank God but salads, tarts, cakes, fresh juices and the like. The salad was just what I needed and it gave me hope for the ‘new’ Brick Lane.

The second was a couple of old Geezers. Or rather blokes in their late 50s with Cockney accents. And impressive DSLRs. I have a bad habit of following unknown people with cameras down laneways. It inevitably leads to great street art. After their initial surprise to find someone following them, we got chatting and our paths crossed frequently over the next hour as we traversed the side streets in search of some colour. Good to see it’s not just the new kids on the block that appreciates the art.

At Maggie Alderson’s prompting I continued onto E2.

It was full of guys like this:

In a bespoke shoe store, a local gallery owner was talking up the new show opening the next week. The artist apparently does amazing things with dust.


Shoreditch seemed full of people who secretly hankered after a more salubrious postcode, selling enamelled baking dishes and legal string (I kid you not) at exorbitant prices. It was something that Remo did in the 80’s in Sydney. Only he did it with greater aplomb with better products.

It was almost a relief to hoof it to the grime of Old Street station. With the homeless congregating under make-shift shelter, public toilets sporting blue lights and string, if it was to be found, tended to hold up trousers. Legal or not.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

eating Camden

When eating out at home, 90% of the time it’s within walking distance. For my week in London I followed the same motto. After all it’s a huge city, time consuming to traverse and after a day of crawling through medical museums, art galleries and shops it’s nice to hang out with the locals.

43 Parkway, Camden, London NW1

This place is exactly what I look for in a ‘local’ - a relaxed atmosphere, unpretentious service and reliable tasty food that provokes a little bit of menu indecision.

Market, is a far cry from the grime and tat of Camden Lock. It’s a comfortable restaurant, with warm brick walls, uncluttered lines and generous serves of seasonal food. The cuisine is British with a French influence. Which really means English food, done well.

Other than side dishes there’s nothing that would sate a vegan but the seafood offerings meant I could eat rather well. There are a handful of daily specials and a small but well-formed menu. The oil based prawn linguine with a decent dash of chilli on the specials board spoke my name. As it was a very large entrée, it was lucky I was hungry as the whole fish (the type now escapes me, possibly bass), cooked simply with lemon, accompanied by a bucket of chunky chips should have been more than enough on it’s own.

My hosts ate with glee. They loved the meaty offerings. Though they left the large side order of braised greens entirely for me to devour. We drank a delightful French rose, perfect on a warm early autumn evening.

I was too full for dessert, even though the apple sorbet was tempting. From the mouthful I tasted, it was refreshing alternative to the heavier options on the menu.

Cost for three people, 2-3 courses each, plus a bottle of wine $175 (including tax and tip). They advertise 2 course meal deals for those who want to dine earlier in the evening.

It was a faultless night and my pick of places to eat in the area. Though the most amusing thing about the evening was a rather obvious first date being conducted at the next table. The poor woman was literally bored to tears as the guy, around 50, droned on and on about himself. It was so awful, at times we couldn’t help but eavesdrop. It took all my willpower to not cheer her on to walk out on the self-centred prick. 

York and Albany
127-129 Parkway, London, NW1

Away from the rabble, heading towards Regent’s Park, sits a restrained former pub. York and Albany is a boutique hotel in the Ramsay empire. There’s a relaxed front dinning room/ bar where we breakfasted. The menu offered standard options but was well done, with coffee better than average. I ate a perfectly executed eggs Florentine and the boys went for lashings of bacon and posh sausages.

The staff appeared to be have chosen on their looks and were restrained, bordering on snooty. It’s the kind of place you go when you want to impress, rather than for an outstanding dinning experience. Or perhaps if you’re a poor Antipodean who wants to sample an offshoot of Ramsay-dom, without lashing out on an expensive meal.

inSpiral Lounge
250 Camden High Street, London NW1

From the sublime to the ridiculous, this was a solo visit. Not the carnivorous hosts cup of tea at all. Camden’s hippy roots live on in the sadly shabby but not chic market district. In need of some vegan food to balance out weeks of daily fish eating, I took one of Lisa’s tips. After a lovely early morning walk down the canal I spied the open sign on the inSpiral Lounge door. Well they said they were open but only just. None the less the bloke behind the counter said that my veggie breakfast would be out in 5 minutes. Twenty-five minutes and one rather pedestrian coffee later, it arrived. What a blast from the past – veggie sausage, button mushrooms, half a barely cooked tomato, scrambled tofu and a patty of some description possibly a variation on a hash brown.

According to their site, “inSpiral specialises in gourmet optimum nutrition for connoisseurs, all freshly handmade onsite and served from our vibrant counter.”  Not sure my breakfast could be classified as gourmet or 'handmade onsite' (considering the two obviously commercially made components plus bog standard sliced brown bread) but it was exactly what I needed to counterpoint the (actual) gourmet food of the previous three weeks.

Vegan pickings are hard to find in Camden and inSpiral has plenty of raw and organic options. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast looking out over the canal in the almost empty café. Reviews online describe it differently, noting by lunchtime it’s hectic. Many mentioned that the food is overpriced and not as good as it looks on the website. 

Like many vego establishments in the UK, inSpiral is deeply entrenched in 70's vegetarianism and neo-hippy decor. Something we've fortunately moved on from in Melbourne.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

at the Paralympics I ate...

 A sandwich*. But it wasn’t about the food.

 It was about…

An unexpected surprise to get a golden ticket to go up The Orbit

On a spectacular 26c London day.

We could see for miles.

Olympic park was golden at sunset.

And the stadium full to capacity with 80,000 spectators (minus the Royal Box which was conspicuously empty). We sat in row 5, opposite the long jump, feasting on a night of track and field events. While the audience went wild every time Team GB was in a final, it was a good-natured audience, spurring every contestant on.

The perfect way to end an amazing 4 week Europe-Extravaganza.

* I ate a record number of pre-made sandwiches in London full stop. I’d forgotten what a British institution they are. 

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