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Frugal Brit fare beyond fish 'n' chips

Times Staff Writer

Eating cheaply was easy when I was last here more than a dozen years ago. I mostly frequented curry-in-a-hurry or fish and chips shops or avoided restaurants altogether because the quality of the food was not worth the time or expense.

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.

Blue Elephant 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.

Incognico 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.

Masala Zone This city has some of the best Indian restaurants in the Western world, and I was salivating before I even left Los Angeles at the thought of dining at a couple. The two I chose are among a new slew of South Asian restaurants with a light, healthy approach, serving more than the usual fiery chicken tikka.

I dined first at Masala Zone, two blocks east of Carnaby Street in Soho, because its name was on the lips of nearly everyone I asked for recommendations. Its creators, Namita Panjabi and her husband, Ranjit Mathrani, own two other Indian restaurants, Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy, one of London's oldest Indian restaurants.

The décor at Masala Zone is fun. Tables and booths are scattered on two levels, primitive figures and rangoli designs are painted on the walls, and then there's that ever-popular open kitchen. I was off to a promising start with bhel appetizer, which, with bits of corn, cucumbers, potato and red onions, was tangy without being overpoweringly spicy. But I ordered badly for my main course. The ayurvedic thalli, based on the Hindu system of medicine, was "specially for diabetics in accordance with Indian traditional medicine using particular ingredients or cooking techniques." Being a diabetic I couldn't pass up the chance to try it. The small bowl of cluster beans was tasty enough, but the squash and spinach sides were bland. I left feeling unfulfilled. I'd try Masala Zone again, but next time I'll go for one of its innovative noodle bowls, maybe a Malabar seafood bowl with rice noodles — an East Asian twist on curry.

Mela I did better at Mela, which also touts cuisine based on ayurvedic principles. (The waiter even handed me a pamphlet on spices and their health effects with the bill.) Mela's dining room had that by-now-boring minimalist look, with track lighting and blond on blond tables and chairs. I thought I was making a bad choice in ordering one of my favorite dishes, masala dosa, a South Indian rice-based crepe stuffed with potatoes that my mother and aunts do to perfection. I was pleasantly surprised to find the potato filling had fresh curry and coriander leaves, folded inside a crisp dosa, coconut chutney on the side.

I could have ordered another but moved onto the parathas, the wheat flatbreads that form the basis of Mela's lunch menu. I didn't go wrong with the "premium snack lunch" with a paratha stuffed with minced lamb.

The Atlas The sky was spitting rain and snow the evening I dined at the Atlas, and I decided to try it because it was not too far from my B&B. The pub's dim smoky coziness was ideal.

A bar dominates one wall, surrounded by mismatched chairs and tables with wood booths.

The first clue that this wasn't the usual beer pub was the wine list on the back of the menu. There were 31 wines from four continents, including a classic old-vine Zinfandel from California. The second was the barkeep.

He suggested I try an Argentine Malbec, saying it was smooth. Instead I went for a Spanish Syrah, because I wanted to try something new.

"It takes awhile to get used to," he said. Not for me. I enjoyed every drop at my tiny table by the gas fire.

Atlas' menu is inspired by Mediterranean cuisine, with such dishes as Moroccan chicken tagine and Italian lamb casserole. I dined on tender roast loin of pork seasoned in fresh thyme, accompanied by a parsnip purée, a pleasing departure from mashed 'taters. Donald's Chocolate & Almond Cake — "my favorite," the bartender said — was chocolaty and light, and I topped it off with a Guinness because I was in a pub. It came with a shamrock etched into the foam.

Wagamama Monday before I left the country, I fit in a ramen and noodle house. Wagamama has 17 locations throughout the city, and I ate at the Kensington branch. The room was spare and clean, with floor-to-ceiling windows that faced Kensington High Street. Its 11 long communal tables filled quickly with a lunch crowd.

The restaurant promotes "positive living + positive eating." There's a range of choices from vegetarian to meat curries. I chose from its "positive eating" menu the "absolute wagamama" of chicken ramen, gyoza and an Asahi beer for $18. The bowl came with tender pieces of chicken and fresh greens floating in broth. It was an ideal way to wind down my London eating adventure.

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