Sunday, March 8, 2015

3 days of eating (and shopping) our way through London

This year, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to Europe for a week, or three days in London, 2 days in Lyon (post to follow), and 3 days in Paris. A lot of people have asked me, "Isn't a week too short?" and my answer would always be I couldn't take a leave from work for too long, because I needed to earn the money to pay for my trips, but in reality, 3 days in one place is just right, as long as it's a place you've already been to (so none of those touristy things which require lining up to enter on the itinerary), and you already know what you want to do - and in our case, it's always a specific list of restaurants, and for London, a list of markets as well.

Thank you PAL for direct flights from Manila. So convenient, though I
must admit, I almost fainted when I saw no personal screens.
The iPads are a nice touch!

I just realized, my love for London started 18 years ago, when I first when for summer vacation (between High School graduation and University), to help out my aunt, with Jacob, her newborn son - who's also my godchild. My sister and I were reminiscing - those were the days when normal people had no cell phones, the internet was just starting and it was used mostly for email - and you needed a dial-up connection. I'm pretty good at getting around London because during those days, you memorized the bus routes, since there was no google maps, and we carried around the A-Z map book to find our way. To entertain ourselves, we would read the weekly Time Out subscription of my aunt, so we would know when all the free entry days (or time slots) were to all the museums. Nowadays, Time Out is free, and people don't even get them when it's so easy to access everything through mobile internet. My sister's friends were really laughing when we were telling them about our first few years visiting London.

For this trip, my friend recommended an inexpensive hotel
centrally located in Queensway. More on a separate post,
but it's definitely one of the hotels I'd like to go back to.
Turns out, Queensway is some sort of Chinatown extension. I still refer to the main one as Leicester Square of course! It was quite fitting that we arrived in London on Chinese New Year.

Four Seasons Restaurant (famous for Duck)
When we saw, Four Seasons, the original branch of the famous duck place we
lined up an hour in Bangkok for, I told Ady, we absolutely needed to try it.
We may have over ordered since it was a Chinese New Year Dinner.
You can read my post on Four Seasons in Bangkok here.

I first discovered Penneys (Primark) in Ireland so I went crazy when we saw them in London a decade or so ago (first only in Lewisham and Hammersmith), before they opened a huge store in Marble Arch in 2007. Now they even have a second store on the other side of Oxford St (Totenham Court Road). 
In our first 24 hours we visited 3 Primark branches!
Seriously. 2 stores in Oxford St and Lewisham
With the expansion of most of the retail chains in Manila, the only shopping we go for when we travel are brands that are much cheaper from their source of origin, or stores like Primark, which offer a great assortment at reasonable prices not available in Manila.
Sofia sent me with a long To Buy list from Primark so after visiting 3
branches, I was ready to go home with everything she asked for and more.

Lewisham Shopping Center
We used to go to Lewisham because it was just a little bit further than Canary Wharf (where my aunt used to work) on the DLR. Lewisham Shopping Center has a Primark, TK Maxx (UK version of TJ Maxx), The Works - a discount knick knacks and bookshop, previously it had a Marks and Spencer Outlet - which is now closed, several Jewelry Store Outlets, and a Jewelry Repair/ Pawnshop - where I normally go to look for the antique gold mobile charms that I collect. So while Lewisham is quite far, it was normally always worth a visit because I ended up with some finds I couldn't get anywhere else.
However, this trip, pickings were so slim - shopping wise, we ended up just
snacking on coffee and a freshly baked savoury muffin.
Note to self - I can totally see myself experimenting to make my own
version of Savoury Muffins. So good, it's like bread stuffing minus the turkey.

Borough Market
One of the best Foodie Markets in London is Borough Market
I was really really craving for Raclette, so this was our
first stop.
We met up with Ady's friends Mia and Naty. Mia works 5 minutes away
so she was gracious enough to take us on her Borough Market Favorite
Food Tour! More on this on a separate post, everything we tried were winners!
Not to be missed: Monmouth Coffee - the best coffee in London!!!
It was great meeting you Mia and Naty!

Comptoir Libanais
For dinner, I brought Ady to Comptoir Libanais, one of my favorite
Lebanese Chains with several branches around London.
You can read my post on that here.
I was really glad I went back with Ady because this time I got to try their
Couscous Tagine and it was so good. We even had it again at the airport,
but I think the Chicken and Olives Tagine is much better than the lamb.

For our second day (Saturday), we had another full schedule because I wanted to go to visit Portobello Road Market, try out a restaurant I've been eyeing from before, all in time to catch our lunch reservations at a michelin-starred restaurant I wanted to try. Hahaha, ok if I said 3 days in London is enough, it really is, but only if you're willing to eat 5 meals a day - and the same holds true for Paris.

Portobello Road Market
Portobello Road, on a Saturday, is totally swarming with tourists! So you better know what you're looking for, because browsing can get crazy when there are so many people.
Street performers are a normal sight, but these guys doing a Capella
were really good, complete with dancing to "Single Ladies".
I have a few favorite jewelry sellers - that I normally go to for my gold charms.
This old lady is one of them, and this trip I totally scored,3 new charms!
A bagpipe with a Scot in a kilt inside, and 2 that I already have. But are in better
condition - a checkbook with checks and the Old Lady who lived in a shoe
 - with the people painted. So I am starting Sofia's collection too.
I've always wanted to try eating at the Books for Cooks
Test Kitchen, so this time we managed to do that -
more in a separate post.

Galvin La Chapelle
Part of the Galvin restaurant group run by the Galvin brothers, I discovered Galvin La Chapelle when I was browsing through Amazon Local (UK) for London deals. Amazing how aggressive they are at marketing affordable menus for both Galvin La Chapelle and Galvin at Windows, both michelin-starred restaurants, and sucker for a sale that I am, I couldn't resist trying one of them out! You don't even need to book through Amazon Local, we discovered that you can make a reservation for the menu du chef directly through the restaurant's website.
It was also a great bonus that we were able to meet up with Julie, one of my
friends from work. More on the great food and service in a separate post.
Ambiance was great too since we were eating in a converted old Church.

Covent Garden
My sister hasn't been to London since I was assigned in Paris - so that's more than a decade ago, so she only had 2 things on her To Do List - 1. Eat at Shake Shack (which she wanted more of, since our US trip) 2. Watch a Play. After eating a Shack Stack all by myself when I craved for it when I was in Dubai last year, I was on the fence on that one, and for the show - I only was willing to see The Book of Mormon, but tickets were expensive and hard to find - so I was totally fine not going.

Shake Shack
Shake Shack, while very crowded was quite overrated especially in Winter.
Cold weather = no gooeyness from the cheese = sad :(

Ben's Cookies
But since I kept hearing about Ben's Cookies from different people,
I wanted to try it. It's also one of the busier places in Covent Garden -
and cookies are sold by weight. Shelf life is recommended to be 4 days.
I'm not easily impressed with cookies because I know how to make really good
ones, so I asked for one that was not too sweet, willing to give it a try.
Dark Chocolate Chunks, perfect hint of sweetness in chewy batter with the
perfect consistency. The next day, I was craving for more!

Since I know London pretty well, I just walked around the West Ed from Covent Garden, to Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus. In other words, I just walked around attempting to shop, until I got hungry enough for dinner, because Ben's was only a snack.
Fifty Shades of Grey in Leicester Square
Regent Street
When I finally walked till I was hungry, I was happy enough to head back to the hotel and eat at Four Seasons again.
This time to try their Crispy Duck with Pancake
I must say, they still do the Boneless Roast Duck better, but this meal
beats Shake Shack anytime!

Sunday was our last full day in London, and as usual, our schedule is dictated by the Sunday Market schedule. However, before that, we first had a good English Breakfast.

Petticoat Lane Market
I don't think I've ever outgrown Petticoat Lane Market, a somewhat dodgy Sunday Morning Market - we've been visiting since I was much younger where you can find High Street Brands - and stolen goods prices! Hahaha. They used to say "We nick them, You buy them!", but it makes more sense for them to be selling last season's excess inventory. I no longer shop for clothes for myself (I now have Sofia to buy for), but Ady bought quite a lot of things for work.
Me and Ady with Petticoat Lane in the background.
Watch your valuables, thieves operate in the area.
Old Spitalfields Market
Since we were in the area (again! Galvin was also here - but we didn't have any more tummy space) Ady and I dropped by Square Pie for lunch.
After 2.5 days of eating 5 meals a day, we weren't really hungry so we
just shared a Skinny Steak and Guiness Pie.
You can read more about Anthony Bourdain's recommended Square Pie here.

Unfortunately, it started to get really cold, because it was raining (hard enough) that we had to kill time before we finally decided to buy some umbrellas.
Cyclist Shop and Coffee Shop in One
Coffee was good, I was really craving for Ben's so I ordered the cookie.
It was such a far cry, from Ben's it cured me of my craving.
Aside from the market stalls in the middle (which we really not our thing), we visited the stores selling cute knick knacks.
Market Stalls
This store has cute stuff. Nice to look at. Then you'll think twice about buying
anything when you see the price.
Tiger - This new chain store in the UK, originating from Netherlands, is more
my thing. Just imagine - Ikea for knick knacks! It's a total black hole.
They also have a branch in Lewisham, more on what they have in a separate post.
I was totally not willing to spend my money on a normal folding umbrella,
but getting the cutest umbrellas on earth for the same price was my kind of thing.
Never mind, that we were walking around with kid's umbrellas.
Thank you Tiger!

Now, let's go back to the question - Is 3 days in London enough? Well, we answered it before Day 3 was over, because we could have gone to Camden Market, but we decided, since there wasn't anything in particular we wanted to do in Camden Market (which was also one of our hangouts before) - we opted to go home and rest and pack instead befor meeting Ady's friends again for our last dinner in London.

Casa Brindisa
A popular Tapas place with a few branches in London recommended by Mia - again, more on a separate post so I can do the place justice.
Great food, Great conversation. What more can we ask for to cap off
3 wonderful days in London.
Was 3 days too short? If you plan well, know what you want, and are totally willing to eat 5 times in a day, I think 3 days is just perfect. Truly, a great first leg to for my birthday trip. just saying.

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