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I say "lesser restaurants" not because they weren't almost uniformly excellent, but because they were not the Fat Duck (reviewed here last week). That was an amazing experience to be sure, but London is, in my opinion, one of the best restaurant cities in the world. There is an amazing array of food to eat with everything from old-fashioned English food to every ethnic option under the sun. I go on trips such as this for inspiration and was not disappointed this time.
Here are a few highlights and some recipe suggestions that are similar to what I tasted.
There are tapas restaurants in every neighborhood and I have not been disappointed by any of them. One of the most popular new cafes is Casa Brindisa in South Kensington. There was a lot to love in this restaurant, and last week I posted a version of Catalan Spinach. I loved the Chickpea and Tuna Salad and this is similar to one of my all time favorite Dr. Gourmet salads (here's my recipe for Chickpea and Tuna Salad). Theirs was not as complex, however, having only garbanzos in vinaigrette, a bit of tomato, cucumber, chives and tuna. You could make this as a side dish for your next cookout in 5 minutes.
Best of all was the Shrimp and Garlic. The thing that I love about great restaurants is that the food is seldom greasy or salty. I have had versions of this recipe where there was so much olive oil or salt that the dish was inedible. Not so at Brindisa, with a light touch and flavor full of garlic. Here's a version of their Gambas Al Ajillo for you.
It's hard to describe just how easy it is to find great Middle Eastern food in London and Ishbilia is a great example. This is not far from Harrod's and being seated for lunch was like a quiet breath of fresh air in an otherwise loud and busy city. The first thing one notices is all the Lebanese diners - you do want to eat where the locals eat after all. The second thing is a big bowl of fresh veggies placed right on the table along with the olives. All I could think was, "Those'll be great for dipping."
There were the old standards, but the best were the Foul Moukala, broad beans with cilantro, garlic and olive oil, and the chicken livers. The Sawda Dajaj are the best sautéed chicken livers I may have ever had. They were cooked in lemon juice with concentrated pomegranate juice. I love Baba Ghanoush - theirs was terrific - and here's a version of Baba Ghanoush for you to make at home.
It really wasn't that I was seeking out Mediterranean food but it's just there and so much of it. Spanish, African, Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek… So many choices and so little time. Which is what led us to Moroccan…
Cous Cous Darna is a charming little neighborhood place. Not amazing food, but a lot of the locals were dining there and the place was packed. The hummus was delicious but the highlight was the Sclada Bal Foule - fava beans salad Moroccan style. This was a in delicious tomato dressing with heat coming from harissa paste. Cool and meaty and hot all at the same time.
Likewise, the lamb tagine was great with little lamb meatballs in a rich onion, tomato and garlic sauce. This Chicken Tagine recipe is close in flavor and it is really simple for you to make.
I stumbled into this amazing restaurant a few years back just after they opened. They were billed as Indian tapas but that is far too plain a description. The dishes are smaller but each is delightfully complex. Where Spanish tapas is usually simple the small plates at Amaya are just the opposite. Each is like a tiny song all on its own. Some are complex and artistic and others very traditional but every one of them great.
The Mango Papaya Salad was rich and creamy and just a touch spicy. It was served in small lettuce cups and the spicy dressing was cooled down by the fruit and lettuce. Like tapas, a small bite but in this case, a complex blend of hot, cool, sweet and spicy.
On my first visit to Amaya I had the stuffed peppers. These are delicious little guys that are cooked on the flat top grill. They are seared on the bottom and then the chef covers them with a dome to trap the heat and melt the cheese. They are soft, creamy and full of fresh tasting Indian spices.
These little morsels and all of the others, including little salads, lacquered eggplant, and the like, are really innovative but there are basics like the Kakori Kabob. This is what I love about restaurants like this: they are not stuck with completely breaking with tradition. The lean ground lamb kabobs are cooked in the deep tandoori ovens in the open kitchen and served with a variety of small chutneys and powders, including ground rose petals and cilantro, ground peanut, spicy tomato, and damson plum.
Those are the highlights of terrific and actually very healthy food in London. We'll be posting more recipes inspired by this trip in the next few weeks.