By Jo Cooksey
Every now and then Virgin Trains have a seat sale and frankly it would be rude not to take advantage of a £20 return fare to London so we booked ourselves a gastronomic tour. Our mini adventure was to be over three days and in that time, we would eat a lot, at a lot of different places. This article will be a round up and then there will separate articles for the places of note.
I have been visiting London all my life but one area I have never explored is the East End, so my daughter and I decided to head there and check out the much-lauded food scene. We were going to stay at The Hoxton but they have a no cancellation policy and frankly I couldn’t afford to lose nearly £400 if our plans changed. Who can? Instead, we booked into the citizenM on Holywell Lane and I must say we had a fabulous stay. The aesthetic of the hotel is brilliant; part boutique hotel, part modern art gallery with a very relaxed vibe. I found the carpets in the corridors particularly fascinating. It took me whole day to realise the black pattern on the scarlet carpet was actually a map of London and only then because my daughter pointed out that I was standing on the British Museum whilst waiting for the lift.
The staff are friendly and happy to help in any way they can. The rooms, whilst small had virtually everything we needed for stay; free Wi-Fi, big tele, fridge, hairdryer and a king-sized bed. Every room has an iPad which is used to change the mood lighting, adjust the temperature open and close the blinds and control the TV. There isn’t a separate bathroom as such, more a shower/loo pod in the room. Sounds odd but it works, in a streamlined kind of a way. There are even copies of classic Penguin books and free movies.
However, there was one huge thing missing for me and that was tea and coffee making facilities. Part of enjoying a break away for me is making a morning coffee in the room and snuggling back in bed with news channel on. Instead I had to get up, get dressed and go down in the lift to the canteen in reception, pay a fiver for a tea and coffee and take them back to the room, which rather defeated the object. If we stay there again, which we probably will, I will take my own travel kettle and coffee supplies.
We arrived mid-afternoon on the Saturday and after checking in we ventured over to Old Spitalfields Market, wandered round the food stalls and then sat for a while watching the public screening of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We love that film. We then made our way to nearby Brick Lane, in order to find the legendary Beigal Shop, which apparently is the original and the best. I had been craving one of these freshly baked treats since we booked the hotel and I wasn’t disappointed. They bake bagels 24 hours a day so the ones we had were soft and warm in the middle, chewy on the outside with a sweetness that acted as a good counterpoint to the huge pile of salt beef and pickles piled in it. It’s a good job we don’t have one of these in Manchester because I think I would be there on a daily basis.
Another place on our ‘must visit’ list was Dishoom, the hipster’s and food blogger’s Instagram delight. We had been warned it could take a while to get seated but when we arrived at 7pm the wait was already an hour and 10 minutes. We took one of those little boxes that light up and buzz when your table is ready and fought our way to the bar. The place was heaving, the music was loud and frankly I’m getting too old to stand for an hour waiting for dinner, so we left. The staff were lovely and seemed genuinely upset at our decision but we reassured them that we would return in the morning for brunch, when the queue was only about 15 to 20 minutes and they said they would look forward to seeing us.
After departing we crossed the road to another restaurant called The Albion, that I noticed on our way in to Dishoom. It looked very welcoming, with a fresh and bright interior and its large doors open to the street. It had an air of the Mediterranean port side restaurants I love in Menorca, Italy and the South of France. It was a very good choice, which I will write about in a separate article.
When we came out of the restaurant it was drizzling and we pulled our jackets over our heads and made the dash back to the hotel. As we jogged back through rain soaked streets my phone started going mad with news alerts. It wasn’t until we were in the lift at the hotel that I had chance to check my phone to find that all hell had broken lose just over a mile away and three terrorists were on a killing spree on London Bridge and in Borough Market. We were just trying to come to terms with the Manchester suicide bombing 12 days before and here we were again. Different city, same shit. Excuse my French.
After watching the news channels for a few hours, we concluded that nothing was going to spoil our trip and we were going to be very British about the whole thing and carry on as normal.
Having seen gorgeous photographs on Instagram we were desperate to visit the Columbia Road Flower Market, a Shoreditch Sunday morning institution. This Victorian street is home to lots of quirky and eclectic independent shop, art galleries and cafes. On a Sunday, the top part of the street is closed to traffic and tens of stalls set up selling beautiful cut blooms, herbs, garden plants and shrubs, all at extremely reasonable prices. When we turned the corner in to Columbia Road the floral aroma was amazing and the street was packed with shoppers of all ages and ethnicities. It took quite a while to make our way to the top but that was fine because it gave us plenty of time to look at and photography what was on offer. You can come away with an armful of peonies, roses and hydrangeas for twenty quid and we saw plenty of people doing just that. The traders shout their wares, jostling for people’s attention with their well-rehearsed Cockney banter. It took me back to the markets of my childhood, when stall holders were still allowed to call out and I came away wishing we had such a street market in Manchester.
As well as visiting the flower market I wanted to visit a particular shop there called Nom Living, which only opens on a Sunday, to catch the passing flower market trade. I had recently found this gem online and ordered a selection of their highly polished, jewel coloured, coconut shell bowls. I had been sorely tempted to order their entire product list but thought I’d use the trip to London to go and peruse their products in the flesh, so to speak.
Nom Living was started Bich Tyler, a Cambodian lady of Vietnamese descent, who moved to London in her teens. After living here for a few years, she started importing the beautiful and unique tableware of her homeland. Her son, Tim, now runs the business while Bich continues to work with the artisans who produce their ranges, including lacquer-ware from the south of Vietnam, ceramics from the north of the country and cinnamon and coconut wood products from the middle regions. These days their products are highly sought after by Michelin starred chefs, interior designers, stylists, bloggers, luxury hotels and restaurants. Of course, I left with a couple of bagful’s myself and if it wasn’t for the fact of getting it all home on the train, I would have bought much more.
I have been following the opening of a new hotel in the City, The Ned, very closely on social media and I was knocked out by what I had seen. This joint venture between SoHo House and U.S. hotel firm, the Sydell Group, promised to create a unique and impressive destination. Housed in the beautiful and striking old headquarters of the Midland Bank on Poultry in the heart of the city it offers a hotel, a member’s club, a spa that includes a barbers and hair salon and 9, yes 9 restaurants in what was the banking hall. Two are for members only but the other seven are open to the public. We had to go. So, on Sunday afternoon we set off from Shoreditch on foot and walked through the deserted streets of the City, arriving at The Ned in about 20 minutes with a healthy appetite.
As we entered through the huge front doors and into the banking hall, we were gobsmacked, to use a Northern term. The place is vast and extraordinary, yet at the same time very intimate. One of the greeters gave us a rundown of what was on offer and suggested we walk round and have a look before we made our choice. We pottered round, listening to the live jazz band being played on raised dais in the middle of the hall, looking at the various menus. There was so much choice, from New York Deli to Venetian Brasserie to a pan-Asian restaurant serving healthy choices. Today was a day to indulge though so in the end we plumped for the British menu at Millie’s, which on a Sunday includes an all you can eat hot and cold buffet. To say we were stuffed when we left is an understatement and we virtually rolled down the steps of Bank Underground station. There will a full article on The Ned coming soon.
The following day we were heading back up North but we still found time to fit in a trip up west to Covent Garden, where we had lunch at Le Pain Quotidien followed by a stroll over to Liberty, picking up flower shaped gelato on the way from Amarino.
Despite the attack and because of the excellent gastro journey we had had we are already planning our next trip back to the East End of the capital. Shoreditch we love you.