Postcard from London or: North and South
The old man was quite ‘appy to get rid of ‘is trouble and strife for a bit. I went off to London to see me old china down the boozer, innit, narrowly avoidin’ getting’ Brahms and Liszt. I had me barnet done an’ me ‘amsteads seen to but you wouldn‘t Adam and Eve it, the bread it were. I had a butcher’s in a few shops but me bein’ brassic an’ all, I didn’t even ‘ave no Ruby Murray even though I was properly ‘ank Marvin, so I got in the jam jar and went ‘ome and watched the cookin’ on the telly. I do credit that Gordon Ramsay geezer, though ‘e’s got a right Norf and Sarf on him. So I’ll be tellin’ ya all about ‘is gaff in Union Street that I went to wiv me young ‘uns.
Unless you were born within the sound of Bow Bells (St. Mary-le-Bow church in the city of London), you’re not a cockney and you probably won’t understand much of the rhyming slang above. Let me translate: My husband didn’t mind me (wife=trouble and strife) leaving him behind and going off to London to see my friend (mate= china plate, my old china) in the pub where I narrowly avoided getting inebriated (pissed = Brahms and Liszt). I had my hair (=Barnet Fair) done and my teeth (Hampstead Heath) checked but you wouldn’t believe (=Adam and Eve) how expensive (money = bread and honey) it was. I looked (look = butcher’s hook) around a few shops but I couldn’t even treat myself to a curry (=Ruby Murray) even though I was very hungry (starving = Hank Marvin)because I was short of cash , so I got in the car (=jam jar) and went home to watch a cooking program on TV. I like that guy Gordon Ramsay although he swears a lot (mouth = North and South), so I will be telling you all about his restaurant in Union Street where I went with my children (=young ones).
I, myself, was born in Hampshire and am definitely not a cockney but years of haggling at the antique markets in the East End of London have taught me at least some of the lingo. So much for the linguistic East/West divide in London but there’s also a very decided difference between those that live North of the River Thames and those that live South. “Don’t forget your passport” the North Londoners will mock when referring to a trip over the bridges, implying that it’s foreign territory. “Mind you don’t get a nose bleed” the South Londoners will warn anyone who travels North, indicating that the air is thinner up there. North of the River residents will proudly boast about Regent’s Park, Hampstead Heath, Highgate Cemetery and edgy Camden Market. On the other side of Old Father Thames, we wouldn’t swap Richmond Park, Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, Wimbledon or the Tate Modern for all the tea china. You note how I say ‘we’. Yes, feelings run strong and there’s no fudging your allegiance. My home is in leafy South West London, in Barnes to be precise, so make no mistake in which camp I belong! At whichever point of the compass, London is jam packed full of extraordinary restaurants and eateries of all varieties. Today I will tell you about two, one North of the River in Notting Hill, Beach Blanket Babylon, the other South East in Southwark, The Union Street Café.
Beach Blanket Babylon, 45 Ledbury Rd, London W11
Tel.: (0) 20 7229 2907 www.beachblanket.co.uk
Opulent, fantastical, elegant, eclectic, eccentric, Beach Blanket Babylon, this now almost famous Notting Hill restaurant, visually surprises with its fairy tale aesthetic. The lavishly magnificent bar with its fireplace, the vaulted Crypt, oil painting bedecked Gallery, trefoil screened Chapel, the mosaic decorated Scullery and the sumptuously decadent Ballroom private dining area are all rococo inspired dining spaces, reached by winding stair cases and bridges within this old Georgian mansion on chic Ledbury Road. Open since 1990 it serves modern British and European food and prides itself on its wine list and on serving some the best champagne and cocktails in town. The website tells us: ’It’s a lifestyle, a club for the discerning without requiring a membership. It offers a cool, hip environment to relax in by day over breakfast or lunch, and a destination by night for the well-heeled socialite.’ Right then, turn on heel and do a runner? The temptation to do so after such an eye rollingly arrogant description is monumental, until you realize that it is all very tongue in cheek and in line with the pointed ‘Amadeus’ or ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ or ’Marie Antoinette’ vibe. It’s a sort of beauty spot and wig comment. Still, there is some truth to it; you don’t need to be an it girl to eat here but it certainly isn’t for the budget conscious and yes, it isn’t exactly a run of the mill kind of place, that’s true! The weird name, by the way, is after the longest running musical in San Francisco which is a spoof on Californian pop and political culture, just in case you were wondering. It’s certainly memorable! Which is really more than can be said about the food and particularly the service, on the most recent occasion that we ate here.
We area ‘blended’ family. The lovely husband and I were both married to and divorced from other people a while before we met. Between us, we have five children between the ages of 25 and almost 32. Two are married, a third is about to get married and two are in steady long-term relationships, so on family gatherings with everyone in attendance, we are at least twelve people. With everyone living scattered all over London, North to South, and some in South West England and Wales even, and each of them with successful, demanding careers, organizing a celebratory family evening meal out at the right time, in the right location is quite a feat. Beach Blanket Babylon meets most of the criteria, can seat large groups in intimate spaces and offers that little sense of something special to elevate a mere chowing down to a festive party. Once in a blue moon, this is where we congregate. I won’t go into repetitive tedious detail about what we all individually ordered but with a couple of vegetarians, a couple of committed carnivores and the remaining culinary experimentalists, we pretty much ate our way through the entire menu. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. In principle, the food at BBB is of good quality, well put together, pretty delicious and nicely presented, though on this occasion, there seemed to be rather too many hiccoughs resulting in some of the dishes being quite uninspiring and worse still, tepid rather than hot. Barely warm ravioli and cold apple crumble doesn’t really cut it when you are paying top dollar., especially on a cold winter’s evening. This time, we were seated in the Crypt which for my liking is a little too claustrophobic with its low vaulted ceilings and it was draughty too. Despite several requests, nothing was done about this and I had to eat my dinner wearing my coat. Not ideal. Service overall was careless and inattentive, smiles were pasted on in that ‘missing you already’ artificial way but one got the impression that, really, one was there to eat what one was given and then pay up and go. It’s easy then to feel like a cash cow rather than a valued customer. Maybe staff were particularly frazzled that evening, maybe their previously good reputation has gone to their heads, maybe they are too busy believing their own hype or maybe we didn’t look sufficiently like well-heeled socialites but I for one was disappointed. Funky and fun as the place is, it will be a good long while before we visit again. Union Street Café, 47-51 Great Suffolk Street , London SE1 0BS Tel.: (0)207 592 7977 www.gordonramsay.com There comes that incredible watershed moment when your children are adult and affluent enough to take you out for lunch or dinner. Our three oldest children, two of them mine, are at that point. Sitting back and letting one of the young settle the bill still sits awkwardly with me, having been the one who has provided ice creams and burgers, socks and pants, train tickets, treats and emergency funds for all those years but I realize that now my ship has come in and I need to let the next generation take over proudly and spoil me, adult to adult. And why not, I’ve earned it fair and square with all the kissing away of bad dreams, mopping of vomit, making of endless cupcakes and loo roll rockets, pushing of swings, anxious car park waiting after teenage disco parties, challenging driving lessons and all the rest of joyful, glorious motherhood. I’m not being sarcastic, I really did love every moment, the good and the not so easy, but now I’m fully enjoying the next phase, as I slip into my dotage when eventually, hopefully, they will do pretty much exactly the same for me. Read knees-up at the old people’s home in place of teenage disco party. My son is a bright cookie, not only is he a successful young entrepreneur but better still, a good two years ago he made me the proudest mother-in-law to a beautiful blonde high flying legal eagle, a young woman whose sparkle, intelligence and sense of humour have enriched not just his but our entire family’s life. So I was delighted when the two of them asked me out for lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s super trendy Union Street Café in London’s South East.
Gordon Ramsay, of course, is pretty much known to everyone everywhere, not least because of his almost incessant use of the F word on his many worldwide TV cooking shows. But then you only ever make it on TV if you show some character and profile, so the public persona he portrays may not necessarily be the person that he is in real life. Still, there’s no doubt that the man is a Scottish firebrand and extremely passionate about food. And his family. And sports. And a lot of other things and he doesn’t exactly hold back. He has achieved a total of seven Michelin stars and an OBE for services to the industry and his Ramsay Group has opened a string of restaurants across the globe, one of the newest being the Union Street Café in Southwark. The restaurant, located in an urban street of large factory style red brick buildings, is airy and open and vaguely warehousey with the busy chefs at work visible in the kitchen. It has an unpretentious industrial chic about it, something edgy and pure but, nonetheless, surprisingly, doesn’t lack warmth and comfort. The menu, which changes daily, offers up interesting and tempting modern European cuisine, with a an Italian inflection and a strong emphasis on Mediterranean artisan food products, in the small batches they are produced in and fresh and seasonal direct from source. We had mackerel crudo, which is a type of fish carpaccio, with spiky artichokes, clementines and pistachio, also arrancini de pizzaola and tomino de ferri, raddiccio, walnuts and balsamic, spaghetti olio, dio, pepperoncino, cime de rapa and ricotta and a delicious chocolate brownie with vanilla icecream . Three of us between us had two seasonal three course set menus at £25 each with the mackerel and spaghetti from the a la carte menu extra , as well as two glasses of prosecco, one of juice, a bottle of nice wine, one of water and three coffees totalling £115 including VAT and service charge. Some restaurant critics in London I really admire, such as Camilla Long who occasionally stands in for my journalist hero AA Gill, have slated the place but I loved it and found the food completely exquisite. It was fresh, it was tasty and offered clever and delicious flavour combinations. The ambience is easygoing, relaxed and fun, the service good. I thought the Union Street Cafe was absolutely bl***y effing fantastic!