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Work while on sabbatical has been productive; given the time difference, I can get an entire day in before most people in the states have started, leaving me an entire other day to do things here.  I’m not sure why this doesn’t work at home, but I’ll take advantage of it now.   The hardest part has been student meetings which are inherently face to face.

Work aside, we’ve been living more like locals.  Teatime in the afternoon, cheeses, biscuits, lavender cookies, and of course, loose leaf tea, and sometimes wine.  Intermix this with the occasional pub afternoon and you have a picture of a life of leisure in the big city.  Well, a life on sabbatical, anyway.

Pubs in central London, when you get away from the tourists, are business places of sort.  In the financial district, we mingled with the local financial wizards at the New Moon in Leadenhall market (where the Leaky Cauldron of Harry Potter fame is).  Great beer, “Old Speckled Hen”, with the best fish and chips I’d ever seen, along with picking at a “pig platter” of various sausages, deep fried pork belly, and  Scotch Egg ( this is a deep fried hard boiled egg – the Scottish do love their deep fryers).

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Beer is ordered simply, go to the bar, select from 20 different kinds and the transaction goes quite smoothly.  Until, that is, someone decides to order a Pimm’s cup – apparently the national summer drink here.  But a Pimm’s cup in a bar grinds everything to a halt and produces raised eyebrows from the bartender.

Let me explain the Pimms’ cup.  A glass of ice, layered carefully with strawberries, lemons and limes and cucumber artfully arranged with maybe a cherry and some mint leaves.  Pour in Pimm’s (it’s gin-based liquor) and then top with sparkling water.  Time to create?  5 minutes.  In a busy pub, an eternity.

Thursday night we went to the PROM (OK, this is actually a concert series put on by the BBC).  Among other pieces, we heard a fantastic rendition of La Mer, at the Royal Albert Hall.  We took the bus from our apartment, arriving in plenty of time to get seated, but there’s always that temptation to run and get a quick cocktail before the show.  A long line, but moving quickly, until the man in front of me orders, you guessed it, two Pimm’s cups.  Our #3 gin and tonics went quickly; the clock is ticking 2 minutes, 1 minute, dash through the door where Lorie is seated, and the conductor walks on stage.

Royal Albert Hall Panorama

Just around the corner from us is a small faux French Bistro, Foxtrot Oscar, a Gordon Ramsay outpost.  It’s more of a neighborhood joint and we were most certainly the only Americans there.  Foxtrot Oscar are the call signs for the letters FO.  FO?  Hmm, what does that mean?  Oh, putting it together, Gordon Ramsay, FO, == F*** Off.  Sigh.

Celebrity chefs.  Yes, I see that Gordon Ramsay is an identifiable name.  As his mentor, Marco Pierre White was once quoted “if the chef is on TV, who’s cooking your food?”  So I take it as more of a level of standard, than an actual cuisine.  Still, there are definitely Scottish influences in the menu, Loch Duart Salmon with fresh English pea mash.  The peas were really wonderful, I missed out on my English pea fix this year due to laziness in planting the garden; I’ve been indulging here.  Of course, in a relaxed setting I ordered, a Pimm’s cup.  Very pretty, quite sweet, now where’s my martini?

Salmon with English Peas
Salmon with English Peas

Friday night we went to Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant (which is walking distance for us).  It’s really Clare Smythe’s show, a star chef with an excellent staff.  For starters, “would you like some Grand Cru Krug? “ “Why certainly, yes we would.”  A whole flotilla of amuses came out included, scotch quail egg (there’s still some Ramsay left in the menu).  Truly the best foie gras terrine I’ve ever had with perfectly matched wine.   A wonderful roast pigeon dish.   I wonder if they ran them down in Trafalgar square?  Best not to think about it.

The Maitre ’d, a large personality, identified himself as from Dijon, where of course we spill the beans that we’re spending 6 weeks there.  “Ah, you must speak French then” and began to converse entirely in French for the rest of the evening. My mind wasn’t quite ready for this, after all, this is an English restaurant, but we began to muster our language abilities.  Lorie is quick with a response through months of French practice as Aliance Francaise.  For me, it’s like shuffling through a Rolodex to formulate sentences, “clunk clunk clunk”.  I thought about telling him that “monsieur, c’est un restaurant anglais” but that’s the sort of thing that can turn a great restaurant experience into an off restaurant experience.  Instead, “ce poisson cuisine perfect” in a good Midwestern accent came out.  If you put this last phrase into google translate, you’ll see how awful I sound.  But, By the end of the evening he invited us back into the kitchen, as always, the effort in language is appreciated.   It was very elegant for Lorie and me, walking home together from a Michelin star restaurant – really felt like the city.

Saturday night we went to the theater district to see a Noel Coward play set in the 20s.  A romping farce staring Anna Chancellor (she played the vice president in Hitchhikers guide and Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Toby Stephens.   That last name didn’t strike home, but when I saw him on stage, I’m thinking “where have I seen him before?”  Turns out he played the villain in a Bond movie.  Who’d have thought?

Theaters in London have a really great practice, you can pre-order your intermission cocktails and they’re waiting for you.  At intermission, Lorie took off for the bar and I took off for the bar, just different bars on different floors.  In keeping with the comedy of the stage performance I ran around with two glasses and a split of champagne looking for her.  We met up after a bit, but it was a really goofy moment.  I did notice that the lines at the bar were quite long; a lot of people waiting for … Pimm’s cups.

Sunday it was Downton Abbey and Stonehenge, but that will wait for another chapter.

Bruce McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013