Now "Londoners have become obsessed" with food, said Rahul Jacob as we dined here on a February evening. Having lived in other gastronomic capitals, Jacob — an editor at London's Financial Times — didn't think the city's culinary scene worthy of such single-mindedness. But there's been such a tidal surge in the quality of the food available that I too found it easy to become obsessed.
I was here to scout out affordable restaurants, no easy task in this city that ranks No. 7 on lists of the world's most expensive. The exchange rate was $1.89 to the pound in late February. For the most part, I managed to stick to my budget of $25 (less than 15 pounds) per person for two courses, excluding wine or drinks. And that's where I strayed: Beverages, especially those with alcohol, can easily exceed the cost of the meal. Another costly mistake I made was ordering water without specifying tap water. I received and was charged for bottled water.
I dined at nine restaurants in four days. To shave costs, I took advantage of lunch and early-bird specials and mined the city's rich ethnic cuisine. I relied on guidebooks and asked for recommendations at my hotel, the Avonmore, a clean, well-run B&B in West Kensington. Owner Margaret Gryzelko suggested the Blue Elephant, which must be one of London's prettiest restaurants. I also stumbled on a good way to dine well cheaply: the set-course meal.
The exterior of this Thai restaurant is easily overlooked, but inside is a world unlike any you'd expect to find in London. It's a tropical jungle with philodendrons dripping from the ceiling and koi floating in a stream lined by cozy tables à deux. Soft light filtered through skylights. Waitresses dressed in silk gracefully glided among tables on various levels. Four pastel roses were laid on one table. Champagne chilled nearby.
Few things can top love, but the food was a worthy diversion. The two-course bargain of $18 made it doubly so. There were a surprising number of choices: five starters, three soups and seven entrees, marked with red elephants to designate the level of spiciness. For my appetizer I chose spring rolls, stuffed with chicken and prawns. They came from the kitchen hot and crisp, served on banana leaves. My three-elephant main, the "chilli lamb," a piquant stir-fry of lamb slices, red and yellow bell peppers and eggplant, was subtly seasoned with ginger, lemongrass, Thai basil and chiles. Water and a Sauvignon Blanc helped tone down its punch.
The Real Greek
Souvlaki & Bar
Jacob steered me to the Real Greek Souvlaki & Bar in the city's trendy Clerkenwell neighborhood, a warren of curving streets and alleys. It's one of the newest offerings from restaurateur Theodore Kyriakou, who made a name here by offering modern Greek cuisine.
Metal and beaded curtains, pendant lights and a glowing bar in the center of the room with an open kitchen gave the place a jumping, mod look.
Jacob and I started with sparkling ouzo mojitos that went down easily. We followed those with mezedes, appetizers all under $13: gigandes plaki (described as oven-cooked giant beans from Kastoria); tiropitakia, feta and spinach triangles that were light and not saturated with oil or butter; and of course, the ubiquitous Greek yogurt sauce, tzatziki. We both ordered souvlaki as main courses: Jacob had his Armenian style with sausage — tasty but salty, he said — and I chose a garlicky chicken that came wrapped in flatbread and smothered in tzatziki.
I stumbled on this Gallic brasserie because I needed to kill two hours before I queued up in the "returns" line for a chance to see Judi Dench in "All's Well That Ends Well." I didn't get to see Dame Judi, but I wasn't too disappointed because Incognico, in London's West End theater district, turned out to be delightful with its three-course prix-fixe lunch and pre-theater dinner for $23.The restaurant is all understated elegance, with wood paneling, leather banquettes and chairs, tables with white tablecloths that are brushed for crumbs after each course. Half-frosted windows are covered by fashionable chain-link curtains, a décor statement that I saw in several places.
The set-course menu is changed daily, and on the Saturday I dined there the chef du cuisine, Denis Fetisson, offered a choice of courgette soup and tête de veau for starters; as mains, roasted quail in pastry and roulade of salmon and monkfish; and to end, chocolate fondant, and bread and butter pudding.
My soup was creamy, the salmon and monkfish roulade was memorable, and the chocolate fondant, which oozed warm chocolate sauce, melted my heart.