Monday, November 20, 2006

London hours

That’s all I had in London after Yorkshire – a few hours to watch the stars come out and the buildings light up...

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… then a meal, wake up Sunday at 4:30, post, catch the 6:55 from Paddington to Heathrow,* the 9:15 to Paris, the 1:20 to Chicago, the 5:00 bus to Madison.

It is all I needed. I cannot afford London (taxi to Paddington: $30, train to Heathrow: $30; the Tube: not in operation early on a Sunday). Perhaps it is fitting that my last day in the countryside had a big blow out. My London hours didn't fizzle either -- out they go, with a big bang. England, of all places, ends with a blow out meal.

Anyone who studies the London foodie scene will know the name of the city’s best man in the kitchen, Gordon Ramsay. Not that anyone can get a table in his flagship restaurant. No matter – he is so way over my budget that I swear, it’s like a meal at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago (another place I have never tried) – putting it on my credit card would max it out instantly.

But he has a couple of protégés around town. They have their own kitchens, but they belong to Ramsay’s restaurant group. I looked over the half dozen and picked the one that would not kill me financially – the Boxwood Café.

It is sleek. I knew it would be – in Knightsbridge, sharing space with the Berkeley Hotel, I mean, come on. It’s going to have a lot of women wearing black in very interesting bare shoulder arrangements and men – trying to invent a look of some sort (men are still struggling here, don’t you think?).

I have to admit, I chose to dress down. I often do. I don’t want to be uncomfortable when I eat. Nondescript stuff. Passable attire. No one will frown, but no one will say – nice!

I could only get a very early reservation, but that’s fine. I’m hungry early. I arrive, am ushered to the bar where I spend a wonderful ten minutes photographing my pink aperitif, with a Nina-in-the-mirror effect in the background. The aperitif was so expensive that I decided it deserved the permanence only Ocean could deliver. They must have thought I was nuts. Hey, ol’ boy – see that lady in the bar with the nondescript attire? She is photographing her drink over and over again.

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In spite of this, I get a nice table.

I order the tasting menu. Seven small plates, chef’s selection, no decisions for me, plenty of opportunities to see how good a kitchen it is. And a wine walk to go with it (where the restaurant selects pairings for each dish).

I have to say, I was hugely impressed with 90% of what I ate. [I would have used something other than red peppers to zest up the ceviche of Irish organic salmon with grapefruit and coriander and I would have opted for a different dessert. Anyone can do a great chocolate fondue. Most of us can’t bake beans. Ergo, please bake something for us.]

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ceviche of salmon

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chocolate fondue

Ont the other hand, the seared loin of yellow tuna, fennel, red onion, quail’s egg and black pepper sauce was phenomenal, as was the warm roasted wild mushroom salad with curly endive and smoked bacon.

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tuna, etc.

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wildest of mushrooms

But I want to mention what happened to me early on and what has been the patters since I got my spiffy SLR digital Sony. I get discovered! My cover is blown. [But, what is my cover?]

Suddenly, everyone fusses and hovers. The manager comes out and introduces himself. And at the Boxwood, I get not one, but three wines with the cheese course (no, at this point even I cease emptying the glasses). And they are great wines.

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And toward the end, I get an invitation to the kitchen, to meet the chef.

We lean against his kitchen wall, the chef and I, and we chat. Turns out he spent a year in Wisconsin when he was young. No, he did not get his inspiration there. He admits this. He has vague memories of dining in supper clubs around Lake Geneva.

So we’re chatting and I tell him what I liked and no, I didn’t question the red peppers on the salmon, nor did I meekly hint that the beef would have been okay with an eight hour slow cook rather than nine hours, because at nine it practically melted in your mouth and I’m not sure that this is necessarily a good thing, even if, or especially because this is Dedham Vale beef.

When I booked the table back in Madison, I had promised I’d be out by 8, but I wasn’t. Not even 9. Someone sure had to wait because I was preoccupied with being fussed over.

Blown out tires, blow out meals -- both expensive. Good bye England. I must say, I like what you’re doing with food these days. What a surprise.

*Heathrow: where the magic number is one bag. One carry on. One. It can be a little suitcase. It can be a backpack, what it cannot be is Nina with little suitcase and laptop case and camera and purse. Oh, rules.