Longtime readers of The Road More Traveled know I have an obsession with food. I consider food an essential part of experiencing the local culture. Which means I can’t go anywhere without putting on my amateur foodie hat. After all, you’re dealing with someone who drives 200 miles for barbecue for fun. Despite only 24 hours in London on this trip, I set out to sample the London food scene. I sort of pre-planned two meals before leaving home. First, I’d try afternoon tea at a place suggested by a co-worker. Second, I arranged to meet an ex-colleague for lunch who just happened to be in London at the same time. I say “sort of” planned, because we left the location TBD. That left Saturday dinner to figure out on the fly.
London Food Scene, Part 1 – Ampersand Hotel Drawing Rooms
Location: in the Ampersand Hotel, South Kensington
I asked my English co-worker for a suggestion as to where to have tea. He suggested the Pelham Hotel in South Kensington for a traditional experience, or The Ampersand Hotel for a modern one. Unfortunately, when I checked the Pelham’s website, I discovered the tea room was closed for refurbishment. So, I “settled” for the Ampersand’s Drawing Rooms instead. The hotel allows online reservations for tea, so I booked a table for 4:30.
The Ampersand bills the Drawing Rooms as “French finesse meets British style”. That strikes me as an apt description. A traditional silver tea service set meets elegantly modern furnishings.
The Ampersand brands its tea service the “Science Tea”. £32.50 buys you a pot of tea, and a tower of savories and sweets. Or for an extra £13, they’ll also throw in a glass of champagne. As you might expect, the Science Tea features an extensive choice of more than a dozen teas. I selected the “Ampersand Blend”, which didn’t disappoint. It was full-bodied, with some floral hints, and really hit the spot on a chilly afternoon.
Of course, the main attraction at afternoon tea is the tower of goodies. The Ampersand presents a three-level tower, with savory snacks on the bottom, scones in the middle, and sweets up top. The specific selection of goodies varies by season. With my visit just a week after Halloween, the specially-themed tower appeared – pretty darned cool. Dry ice created the illusion of a smoking tower from the top-down.
Here’s the finished product:
Today’s bottom layer consisted of goat cheese quiche, tuna with a touch of caviar, and a roast beef sandwich. The scones need no further explanation. Meanwhile, the sweets included a mint-covered chocolate ball, a fruit mocktail, and a jack-o-lantern pumpkin cake.
As a traditionalist, I’m partial to the scones with clotted cream and jam. But, the rest of the tower was tasty, too. I particularly enjoyed the cute jack-o-lantern cake. Not to mention, the “test tubes” of vanilla and chocolate sprinkles added an interesting twist. The main problem – prepare for a sugar rush, BIG TIME. Sugar with the tea, sugar in the strawberry jam, sugary cake – you get the picture. Seriously, I thought I needed sugar detox afterwards. The staff provide polished, refined service, as you’d expect at high tea.
Overall, though, I found the experience thoroughly enjoyable, if a little pricey.
London Food Scene, Part 2 – Marrakesh Moroccan Restaurant
Location: Queensway at Bayswater Road, Kensington, across from Queensway Station
Following my mega sugar rush at tea time, I debated whether I even wanted dinner or not. But then, as I exited Queensway Station, I spotted this Moroccan restaurant across the street. Given London’s expanding reputation as a center of world cuisine, I decided to check it out.
The interior definitely speaks of authenticity. Sort of a hookah lounge without the hookah.
If only they’d shut the door. Even though I sat towards the back, it was cold inside. As for the menu, expect traditional Mediterranean cuisine. I started with hummus, pita bread, and soup.
This is some seriously good hummus – creamy and bursting with nutty chickpea flavor. Though I forgot to write down the name of the soup, I believe it was vegetable. It tasted alright, a touch spicy though lacking in definitive flavor. For the main course, I ordered chicken couscous, served in a traditional bowl with assorted veggies.
Wow – talk about a lot of food. The couscous was perfectly cooked and moist. Meanwhile, the vegetables were tender and flavorful thanks to the onions and sauce. The dish suffered, though, from the chicken. Though tender, it tasted as though it was overboiled. I’ve kept chicken boiling too long myself, and believe me, the result is unpleasant. Overall, though, I’m glad I came here for dinner. I could live off that hummus, and the ambience is nice, if a bit sad due to the lack of people. Not to mention, you get a lot of food for 20 quid.
London Food Scene, Part 3 – Dim Sum at Dumplings’ Legend
Location: Chinatown, about a 5-minute walk east of Piccadilly Circus
My friend e-mailed me the night before and told me to meet her at Chinatown’s Leong’s Legend, supposedly one of London’s premier locations for dim sum. Except when I showed up at noon, the restaurant was still closed. Even though the sign said it opened at 11:30. Grrrr. Given that you can’t go 5 feet without seeing a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, no big deal. My friend picked Dumplings’ Legend at random, just across the street.
The interior design is decidedly minimalist. Stark black and white colors make for a cold, uninviting space. Not to mention, Sunday at noon equals a crowded, chaotic place. In other words, the restaurant falls short in the ambience department.
Of course, the food is what’s really important. We left my friend in charge of ordering. And boy, did she go overboard. The dumplings literally covered up the entire table! And yes, that really is three layers of dumplings in each wooden barrel.
Besides the traditional soup dumplings, I’m honestly not sure what the other ones are. My friend ordered in Chinese. For sure, don’t leave without ordering the soup dumplings. They’re insanely delicious, though a little messy. Really, though, everything was delicious. Though shocked at the amount of food we ordered, count me equally surprised that the three of us actually finished almost everything.
In addition to the dumplings, my friend talked us into trying the lychee wine.
Although skeptical at first, I was pleasantly surprised. Wine served over ice seems weird, but the overall taste and flavor resembled a port. In other words, sweet like honey, but not too fruity.
Dumplings’ Legend generally receives middling reviews, with most of the criticism directed at service. You’ll find many complaints about rude, rushed service. I rate the service decent for this visit. Our server, though not exactly friendly, wasn’t rude, either, and she brought the food quickly. Much appreciated, given my limited time before I needed to catch the train back to the airport. Your mileage may vary, of course. The menu prices are reasonable, generally £2-6 for one plate of dumplings.
As you can see, don’t be fooled by the old stereotypes of British food as bland and boring. Modern London teems with food options for every appetite. So what’s my favorite stop of the trip? Afternoon tea in its native habitat, of course. After all, that makes for a fun story to tell Ashok one day. “Son, let me tell you about the time I flew 5,000 miles to drink a cup of tea…”
Note: this post is part of a multi-part trip report series covering my short trip to Europe in November, 2016. Click here for the introductory post and trip report index.