London curry houses

There are certain types of food travelers should dare not miss when visiting favorite cities.  In Rome, head for the pasta.  Paris?  Onion soup is a must.  Tokyo?  We’ll bet on sushi.  But if scheduled for a stopover in London, we actually recommend something that just may surprise you - some good ol’ fashioned “ruby murray.”  (Huh?  That’s “curry” for all you non-Cockney speakin’ gents and lasses.)

Now we know what you’re saying... Indian food is hardly indigenous to England!  But with the 1950s and 60s seeing an incredible influx of immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, London has since cultivated a unique spin on the cuisine that hardly compares to others we’ve tasted elsewhere.  And the best part is, unlike the Swinging City’s newer top-notch dining spots, this quality food usually fits right into your budget!  

Brick Lane is arguably the be-all/ end-all when it comes to Indian curries, and you can bet that any one of the countless restaurants that line “Banglatown’s” five Brick Lane blocks will offer you similar, passable food.  In the past, we’ve enjoyed Sheba, Bengal Village and Nazrul.  The last offers saag paneer and papadoms in an atmosphere you just have to see to believe!  Brick Lane has undergone quite a whitewashing in the past decade or so, and though some rather startling street art tries to hold onto the neighborhood’s former edge, locals opine gentrification “progress” as more a dilution of community.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Brick Lane is here where London graffiti gods like Banksy and D*Face and Drab found much of their early fame.)

Of course, Indian eats are not exclusive to Brick Lane.  On our most recent London excursion, we forfeited the usual Banglatown curry hunt in exchange for Maharani, a more modern-vibed restaurant located in the heart of Camden.  Though a recently revamped décor wipes clean the red-flocked wallpaper you’ll often find in London’s East End, at Maharani, excellent Indian flavor still remains.  We suggest some rather tasty murgh badam pasanda (butter chicken tandoori), served alongside pilao rice.  Don’t forget some traditional sag aloo, as well as sweet peshwari naan with a variety of chutneys.

As you will find in most Indian restaurants, the service at Maharani was excellent.  (We’re not sure what it is about their culture, but Indian restaurants always seem to be very friendly and formal - even when drunk and unruly patrons are afoot.  Not that we consider ourselves among this lot, mind you!)

At Maharani, “ruby murray” is yours for lunch daily from 12:00 Noon until 2:30 PM, and then again for dinner from 6:00 PM until Midnight. The restaurant is open from 12:00 PM until midnight on weekends.  Set of Drifters tip:  Be on the lookout for specials.  A free bottle of Kingfisher is yours when you spend 20 pounds, while a free glass of house wine comes to you when you spend 30 pounds. Not bad, eh? 

Sheba - 136 Brick Lane, Shadwell, London  E1 6RU, (011) 44 20 7247 7824, http://www.shebabricklane.com/

Bengal Village - 75 Brick Lane, Shadwell, London  E1 6QL, (011) 44 20 7366 4868, http://www.bengalvillage.com/

Nazrul - 130 Brick Lane, Shadwell, London  E1 6RU, (011) 44 20 7247 2505, http://nazrulbricklane.co.uk/

Brick Lane information (including more restaurants, shopping and art) - http://www.visitbricklane.org/

Maharani Restaurant - 109 Camden High Street, London  NW17 7JN, (011) 44 20 7387 6551, http://www.maharanicamden.co.uk/


Pasha Hotel and Kyrgyz Kazakh House Restaurant

On a recent visit in February of 2012, a friend of ours let us know she would be performing one night with a dance group.  Gobbling up the invite, we gathered the troops, checked the address and headed to... Camberwell?

London’s Camberwell in one of those areas a bit off the beaten track.  Best to catch via bus, the neighborhood was a stomping ground for Set of Drifter Doug during his “former life” in Brixton.  Some 20 years ago, the area had not much going for it, save for a few pubs and Indian restaurants that enticed with strong smells of “Ruby Murray.”  These days however, in preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics, it seems the whole of London is undergoing a grand transformation, and with it, the neighborhood of Camberwell.

To be honest, the makeover was long overdue, and that is precisely why we found Pasha, a unique Turkish-run hotel and spa tucked just away from Camberwell High Street, such a welcome surprise!

Before the show, we sneaked quietly inside to have a peek at Pasha’s lobby, spa and other public areas.  With multiple candles lit, and the aroma of incense wafting through the air, we were instantly transported to somewhere in the Middle East.  Next, we ventured downstairs to the hotel’s Kyrgyz Kazakh House Restaurant.  As it turns out, the intoxicating venue has been hosting monthly belly dancing events for the past few years.  Lucky for us, our friend had clued us in on just the right weekend!

We plunged into our seats and ordered several small dishes to share as the show began.  (Hoummus, spicy lamb meatballs and an aubergine dip with onion and garlic are just some of the small dishes to nibble on.  And it goes without saying, copious amounts of red wine made everything go down just right!)   As for the show itself, expect a collection of snake charmers, coaxing scarves and bejeweled booty-shakers.  And since we are living in modern times, you can be assured that bare midriffs from both female and male hoofers will be on display!

Our festive evening culminated when the crowd finally got into the mix of things.  Depending on your tolerance level for silly drunken booty-shaking, this can be either a good or a bad thing!  Set of Drifters tip:  Seating is limited inside Kyrgyz Kazakh.  Make sure you call ahead for a reservation if you want to sit in the cozy section replete with silk pillows and tapestries!

Accompanied by other plush settings and tranquil music throughout, Pasha Hotel seems the perfect recommendation for those looking for a unique place to stay in London, but keep in mind, its location could prove a challenge if your are visiting for more than a few days.

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube Channel for video from this event! 



Pasha and Kyrgyz Kazakh House Restaurant - 158 Camberwell Road, London  SE5 0EE, (011) 44 20 7277 2228


Cinquecento

Set of Drifters Doug here... London has always been a melting pot of cultures from around the world, but particularly more so since the United Kingdom became part of the EU back in the early 1990s.  These days, people from all corners of Europe have descended upon England’s capital to not only enrich it with new sources of creativity and energy, but also something truly invaluable - new traditions in food!  That’s a good thing since London has often battled the reputation of being a world-class city without world-class food! 

But that all seems to be changing.  In fact, since my very first visit in 1988, and all the way through the 12 years I lived there, culinary choices have only improved, and along with them, London’s overall food quality.

On a recent trip in 2012, my good friends who live in Holloway turned me onto their local Italian restaurant.  Ironically, it just so happened to be named after my favorite vintage car, the Fiat Cinquecento, or “500.”

Family-run, Cinquecento showcases savory Italian fare with a focus on cured meats and unusual flavor combinations (risotto with smoked eel, milk and parsley, anyone?)  But you wouldn’t know it walking down High Street.  From the outside, Cinquecento is cozy and quaint, belying the sophisticated pasta dishes and exquisite wine list proffered inside.

Stand-out dishes include pan-fried prawns served with borlotti bean mash and vanilla, and slow-cooked venison ravioli in a tomato and red wine sauce.  We loved the fact that although the menu showcased some rather stellar concoctions, the vibe inside was not the least bit pretentious.  Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure you save room for some of gelato or sorbet!  Varieties at “500” include pistachio, cinnamon and blueberry.

Cinquecento is open for dinner from 6:00 PM until 10:30 PM Monday through Saturday, and also for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays from 12:00 PM until 3:00 PM.  Sunday hours are a bit unusual, opening at 12:00 PM and closing at 9:30 PM.  Since this place gets very busy at night, we recommend booking a reservation directly from their website!

Cinquecento - 782 Holloway Road, London  N19 3JH, (011) 44 20 7272 3406 ‎

http://www.500restaurant.co.uk/ 


Gilgamesh

During a visit to London’s Camden Town in February of 2012, an unusual structure immediately caught our eye as the focus of a brand new complex.  Literally rising out from the ashes of 2008’s horrendous Camden fire (see "goodies" for more information), the modern three-level glass building was certainly in sharp contrast to the famous old stables and markets that once existed.  (We smell insurance fraud.)  Ultimately, we’re not complaining.  How many checkerboard scarves and football jerseys can once really buy anyway?

Paramount to the new complex is super-venue Gilgamesh, a restaurant/ bar/ nightclub/ tea room that we surmise could easily hold 1,000 people within its 15,000 sq. feet of space.  Borrowing heavily from Sumerian art, the decor is absolutely, unequivocally opulent.  A monstrous, hand-carved “Tree of Life” acts as Gilgamesh’s centerpiece.  The curving wooden relief certainly rivals those found in the British Museum, and we bet you won’t be the only ones stopping for a photo when hopping up and down the adjacent staircase!

Though we actually dined off of Gilgamesh’s incredible lunch special, an assortment of four different dishes for an affordably-priced £12 (about $19 USD), the regular dinner menu runs the gamut from Japanese sushi to Thai curries and even dim-sum.  We even noticed the “Babylon VIP bar” serving Peking Duck on a rolling trolley!  We likey indeed.  (Beginning to wonder if the Ancient Middle East theme runs only skin deep?  Don’t worry.  Spice lamb fillet is also on the menu.)

Decorated to imbue a cozy harem space with comfy sofas and flowing drapes, the lounge bar is worth a stop if you’re in the mood for exotic cocktails from an extensive cocktail list.  The Studio Nightclub and Tea Room look equally impressive.  With so much on offer at Gilgamesh, we would imagine you’ll need to come back multiple times to get the full experience.  This, my friends, is another Set of Drifters MUST!


Gilgamesh - The Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London  NW1 8AH, (011) 44 20 7482 5757

http://www.gilgameshbar.com/


keeping it cheap in one of the most expensive cities in the world

In case you hadn’t heard London is expensive, and unless you have friends in town to host you with home-cooked meals, you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid some pretty high restaurant bills.  That being said, with a little advance knowledge of what’s out there, you can still enjoy a night (or two or three) out on the town without breaking the bank.  One suggestion for dinner is Brick Lane and its curry houses (see above).

But what about lunch?  One of our favorite spots is relatively new to the scene.  Recommended by a friend Doug had not seen in over 20 years (!), Princi serves up the “spirit of Milano” with some rather tasty Italian finds.  The brainchild of Rocco Princi, an artisanal baker from Milan who has already four different shops under his chef hat there, the first London outpost debuted in the fall of 2008.  Complimented by a sleek interior design and the same hand-made, wood-fired breads, pastries and desserts that made Princi famous back home, the panificio quickly became a London mainstay, particularly to those who work nearby in the media capital of Wardour Street.

Making our first visit in February 2012, we were more than pleased by a sampling of tasty sandwiches created from super fine ingredients:  fresh cured meats, sausages and Parma hams, focaccia breads and olive ciabatta.  We loved the great coffee as well, served by staff that was warm and friendly, despite being very busy!  Considering the overall high quality, Princi’s relatively cheap price-point makes this a very good deal!  And hey, with the recent addition of a 48-seat pizzeria, Princi is now a MUST-RETURN spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner!  Set of Drifters tip:  Naturally, Princi’s makes their own breads right on the premises.  You can even watch bakers’ precise attention to detail in clever glass window boxes that jut out into the street.   Inside, long slab communal-style tables are simple enough not to detract from the excellent food, but intimate enough to coax interaction with others. 

Princi’s bakery is open daily from 8:30 AM until 10:00 PM while the pizzeria is open from Monday through Saturday from 8:00 AM until 11:30 AM for breakfast and 12:30 PM until 11:00 PM for lunch and dinner.  (Expect a rush during weekday lunch hours.  We arrived at 10:00 AM, and in the two hours we spent pigging out on sandwiches and multiple high-end desserts, this place filled up fast.)  Sundays and bank holidays finds Princi’s open for brunch from 11:00 AM until 4:30 PM and dinner from 5:00 PM until 10:00 PM.

Princi - 135-137 Wardour Street, London  W1F 0UT, (011) 44 20 7478 8888, http://www.princi.co.uk/

Another great pizza spot that won’t break the bank is the London mainstay PizzaExpress.  But don’t let the cheesy name (pun intended) stop you from hopping on board.  Pizza Express may be a chain of many London restaurants, but it’s one that pays careful attention to quality - and style.  (In other words, this ain’t no Pizza Hut!)   Established in London during the 1960s by pizza enthusiast Peter Boizot and artist/ designer Enzo Apicella, PizzaExpress is the kind of place that you’ll feel instantly comfortable in, knowing that even amidst a clever, top-notch boutique-style design, you’ll still get a quality meal at a fair price.

The duo’s mantra is “Proud.  Obsessive.  Stubborn.”  And it shows.  From the cool Peter Blake paintings in the Chiswick location to the Richard Rogers wackiness of the Fenchurch outpost, each PizzaExpress has its own unique vibe - which makes visiting multiple locations almost like dining in an entirely new restaurant - save for the same great menu!

Speaking of which, we recommend the salami and sausage calzone, the Diavolo Romana pizza (for those who like the spicy side of life), and the intriguing new choices off the “Leggera” menu that features “pizza rings” with salad in the middle - and on average, 500 less calories!  Smart.

PizzaExpress has many locations throughout London.  Check their website, and enter in the street or postcode of your base of operations to find the nearest outlet.

Pizza Express (Soho) - 10 Dean Street, London  W1D 3SU, (011) 44 20 7437 9595, http://www.pizzaexpress.com/

We also recommend:We also recommend:

Itsu (multiple locations) – The Harlequin Building, 65 Southwark Street, London SE1 0HR, +44 20 3268 2175, https://www.itsu.com/






snacking in Soho

Having lived in London for over a decade, Set of Drifter Doug has compiled more than a simple list of local haunts he deems “MUST-worthy.”  It just so happens that many of these are found in Soho, the eclectic centralized enclave that served as Doug’s stomping grounds for the majority of his “Big Smoke” epoch.

Named not as an acronym but for a traditional cry sounded in countryside foxhunts (?), Soho is mostly known for two things:  a much-storied nightlife, and as the haven for any number of entertainment companies.  The latter attribute has assured Soho as a hotbed of revitalization that consistently offers wonderful places to eat, drink and be merry.  (And yes, for you shoppers out there, you’re more than covered.)  Of course, that gentrification comes at a price.  Many of Soho’s edgier, more interesting watering holes and fleshpots have fallen by the wayside over the past decade!

What follows is just a short list of some of Doug’s Soho favorites.  And since London is not necessarily the cheapest place to visit, many of the options he chosen below are also good for those of you trying to stay within a budget!

Beatroot Vegetarian Café:  Back in the day when Set of Drifters Doug was a London Soho dandy, he would make it part of his daily ritual to head to Berwick Street Market to pick up fresh vegetables.  One of his most guilty pleasures - besides record shopping - would be adding lunch at his favorite vegetarian restaurant, Beetroot.  Luckily for you, the brightly colored little café is still with us, offering foodstuffs that are as delicious, and healthy, as ever!  Doug suggests tempting your tastebuds with gourmet delights of curry, Shepherd’s pie and Beetroot’s plethora of sweetened desserts.  If it’s a nice day, we recommend eating outside so that you can watch the world’s antics, and Soho fashions, saunter by.

Beatroot Vegetarian Café - 92 Berwick Street, London  W1F 0QD, (011) 44 871 971 6438,  http://www.beatroot.org.uk/intro.html

Balans:  If I had a shilling for every occasion I’ve patronized this old stand-by throughout the years, I’d be a very rich man.  Of course it must be said, the main reason for frequent visits was the fact that Balans was the only spot in Soho that remained open on weekends until the break of dawn!  Yes, it was Balans’ good food, usually a plate of poached eggs with smoked salmon, that prevented many an early 90s hangover.

The brightly colored decor inside screams “fabulous,” which makes sense since the clientele is predominantly gay, or gay-friendly.  While Balans has other locations in other parts of London, if walking down Old Compton Street, you won’t be able to miss this outpost thanks to that large rainbow flag waving out front!

Balans (multiple locations) - 60-62 Old Compton Street, London  W1D 4UG, (011) 44  20 7439 2183, http://www.balans.co.uk/Restaurants_Cafes/Soho.php

Stockpot:  Looking for some cheap eats in Soho?  The Stockpot delivers.  Priding themselves in offering traditional English faire like cod in creamed parsley sauce or steak and kidney pudding, the proprietors of this institution have been around since 1958!  When I lived near Soho Square, some 40 years later, I would often use the Stockpot as a rendezvous point with friends when funds were running low.  (Sadly, this was most of the time.)  As an added bonus to relatively modest pricing, the Stockpot serves beer and wine!  So, why not make this your refuel stop if you happen to be shopping around Covent Garden/ Soho, or hanging around Picadilly Circus near their Haymarket location?

Stockpot - 18 Old Compton Street, Westminster, London  W1D 4TN, (011) 44 20 7287 1066, http://www.stockpotlondon.co.uk/

I Camisa & Son:  Even though I used to hit this place up regularly as a London resident, this fabulous Italian deli is worth checking out even if you are visiting for the day.  Since 1961, I Camisa & Son has been serving up freshly made pastas alongside delicious Italian staples like bocconcini, bagna calda and freshly baked focaccia breads.  One of my favorite dishes is the homemade ricotta and spinach tortellini.  Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure to smother this one in butter and sage, or perhaps even some fresh pesto that is also available on-site for purchase.  (In fact, everything here is available “to-go.”)

Now back in the United States for over seven years, I must say this is the place I miss the most from London.  The quality here is just that good, further embellished by decent prices and a family who can be depended on for smiles each and every day.

I Camisa & Son is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 AM until 6:00 PM, but closed on Sundays.  A lunch rush secures lines out the door if you are visiting during the work week.  Don’t forget the antipasto olives, cheeses and meats!

I Camisa & Son - 61 Old Compton Street, London  W1D 6HJ, (011) 44 020 7437 7610, http://www.icamisa.co.uk/