ILLO BY JEN/WORDS BY LJ
Two weeks ago I went on a solo vacay to London! I didn't do a ton of soul-searching, and I mean that as a compliment. I spent a lot of money, and did a lot of writing while drinking. It was heavenly. And now here is the sort of intense journal I kept of everything I ate and drank while I was there:
October 9th, 2013
The first thing I “ate” in London was an iced Americano from the Gatwick airport Costa. If you've ever been to England, you know what Costa is- they're everywhere. They asked me if I wanted milk in it and I said no but then when they gave it to me it seemed like the entire thing was made of milk. It was very, very foamy. I guess Americano means a different thing here.
I was going to take a taxi straight to my hotel but a very kind elderly gentleman wearing a topaz ring told me it would cost ninety-seven pounds and that I should take a train to Victoria Station and catch a taxi from there instead. I was like “He loves me! He’s the sweetest person ever! What a good omen from London!” but now I am writing these sentences while sitting on that very train, and it seems like maybe it’s just a really obvious thing that everyone knows you’re supposed to do, and it was just sad to him that I'd missed the memo.
At the airport I thought about buying a little meat pie but ultimately decided that wasting a meal in London on eating at the airport would be a very lame thing to do.
The train ride really delivered. There were a couple vistas of the countryside, some hills, a couple cows, scratchy little Paul songs of houses made of brick- it all looked exactly how I needed it to look. I saw a lumpy old man gardening and my knees were aching and I was delirious—half-exhausted, half-jacked on my weird coffee-foam, and also starving— but I was warm inside, and thought of the slogan written on the back of the bottle of my favorite cheap champagne brand: You have made the perfect choice.
I ate a sandwich at the Pret A Manger in Victoria Station, which was maybe stupider than eating a meat pie at the airport, conceptually stupider. But it was actually a pretty special sandwich: “mature cheddar and pickles.” There was an onion jam, or something that was like an onion jam, involved. It was definitely the number one time in my entire life I’ve needed to pee most while eating.
After eating and peeing I decided to be the coolest person in the world and not take a cab to my hotel. I decided to get myself there by foot and Underground, which I did: confidently, successfully, and carrying along a heavy rolly suitcase. Everyone in the entire world was extremely proud of me. I should be receiving my medal soon.
I got off the tube at Bayswater and hung out at a Starbucks for a bit. I remembered that exact Starbucks from the time my boyfriend and I looked up my hotel on Google Street View and I was like, “Oh cool! And there’s even a Starbucks!”- as if there possibly wouldn’t be. I drank a normal iced Americano and wrote my loved ones some emails to let them know that I didn't die in a plane crash.And then I walked to Boots, where I remembered that British Diet Cherry Coke is the best thing in the world. Now I am drinking it in my hotel lobby, waiting for my room to become available.
Now it’s almost five hours later, and I’m drinking a mini-bottle of Harrods-brand champagne in my hotel room. I was at Harrods several hours ago, and all I did was look at the food- if I wanted to look at handbags I can’t afford, I would have gone to New York City. #boom
I went to the bakery/Dean & DeLuca-y part of Harrods- there were tons of petit-fours and also sushi rolls that looked like petit-fours and brioche stuffed with berries and custard and pretzels stuffed with asiago cheese and some pretty good-lookin’ Iberico ham, but I had to pee so bad that it overruled my hunger that time— a big theme of my day was “hunger vs. peeing.” The washroom was in the wine cellar section and I thought it might be chill to drink a glass of wine in the Harrods wine bar- it was kind of insane to me, at that point, that it was almost 3 PM London time and I still hadn’t had a drink- but I was too preoccupied by my needing a baked good. I rode the escalator back up to the bakery and noticed these doughnuts that were frosted with RED GLITTER FROSTING.
They were about as Elizabeth Barkery as London has ever been I bet. For some stupid reason I didn’t buy one, nor did I buy one of the aforementioned brioches, nor did I buy a chocolate chip scone. I bought a red velvet brownie; it was boring. In my life I will periodically try and prove to myself that red velvet flavored things are as awesome as they sound like they should be, but they NEVER ARE.
I bought Harrods-brand champagne and Harrods-brand strawberry jam at Harrods and then wandered around Knightsbridge freaking out over how beautiful Knightsbridge is until I found a pub called The Bunch of Grapes. I ordered a pint of Stella Artois and drank it while freaking out over how beautiful The Bunch of Grapes was. I barely listened to any music the entire time I was in London. I was so overwhelmed by all the beauty that I felt like my head was going to explode. The last thing I needed was further stimulus.
I wandered around and played a game with myself where I wasn’t allowed to ask a stranger where a tube station was, I just had to wander around until I found one. I finally ended up at Earl’s Court and took the train back to Bayswater. I ate Thai food for dinner- green curry chicken with sticky rice, and a hearty glass of rose wine. Liz and I drank rose when we went out for Thai food the first time I ever went to LA, four years ago, and ever since then Thai and rose kind of “go together” in my mind.
The sticky rice came in this cute bamboo pot and inside the pot it was wrapped up in white plastic. It was as good of green curry chicken and sticky rice as I’ve ever had; it’s all about the same. Anyway, now I’m in my hotel room chillin with my Harrods brand champers. It’s pretty bready for champers, or marzipan-y, like some bready dessert with almonds in it, frosted with marzipan. Now I’m going to check in with what British TV is like and if it sucks watch Mad Men.
I slept for ten hours and woke up at 7 AM. I thought I was going to take myself out for breakfast at this very fancy-looking place called Hawksmoor that I’d found on the Internet— a section of their cocktail menu is dedicated to “anti-fogmatics,” which are early-morning cocktails: what a concept! One of them is called the Marmalade Cocktail and it’s gin, Campari, lemon juice, orange bitters, and marmalade. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and wanted to get myself one, but then I was scared of being alone in an aggressively male/aggressively rich environment with a million English businessmen in tailored grey suits, surrounded by the din of their accents, occasionally picking out business-y words like "global" and "initiative"--- and also was too hungry to wait for myself to get there. I decided to eat the continental breakfast served in the basement of my hotel, but then I checked it out and it looked really depressing, and was not even free. So I whatevsed it and went to Starbucks. I was sad because they gave me the wrong cookie— I wanted the chocolate chip shortbread, but then they just gave me the boring regular chocolate chip, but then I used it to scoop up my latte foam, which redeemed the whole experience for me. I don’t know why I ordered a latte, though- it’s weird how when you’re in a new place you just do weird outside-your-comfort-zone things for no reason. Your rules all break themselves. But I couldn’t finish my latte, it’s more of an outside-my-liking-zone thing. I’m a grown-ass woman and there’s way better shit to drink out there than milk.
I walked around Hyde Park and took an extremely convoluted tube ride to Covent Garden. I looked around and found a little green Starbucks circle jutting out the side of some beautiful building that has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years and vacillated between feeling sorry for the building and grateful for the Starbucks. An annoying thing about Starbucks in England is they don’t have a bold roast option: it’s Pike Place or nada. Pike Place, nada, or some thing called a “flat white”? I don’t know what a flat white is.
I wandered around Covent Garden drinking my Pike Place until I became starving and went to Balthazar. My rave review of Balthazar goes: it's the most perfect place I've ever been! And while I was there I ate the most perfect meal I've ever eaten, and had the most perfect time I've ever had! Here are some pictures of Balthazar being so psychotically gorgeous that it makes me want to commit suicide:
It was PERFECT. Do you understand? I worry that you might not understand.
The bread was charred and soggy (not “charred but soggy”) and the watercress packed an insane garlic punch. The crème fraiche melted into the eggs, which were PERFECT (I know I already said the eggs were perfect, but I wanted to say it again), and it was the PERFECT amount of rich, a really refined rich that would never make your stomach do weird things— it was the Paul to the crab’s John. Or maybe Paul was the eggs... George was definitely the watercress.
After I finished eating, I asked my server if I could see a wine list. I was pretending like I was the richest and classiest person who ever lived. I think I said, “I’d like to see a wine list, if you don’t mind,” and I ordered myself an eleven-pound glass of Chablis. It was a hefty glass of Chablis. It took me an hour to finish it. I wrote on my laptop, a story about a birthday, and it might have been the happiest I ever was.
I didn’t have anything again for a lot of hours. I had half a coffee, an Americano, from a place called Caffe Nero. I was like, “Can I get a coffee?” and the girl made me feel so stupid. She was like, “What kind of coffee?” and nodded her chin at the list. Americano, Latte, Cappuccino… it’s really hard to order “a coffee” here. I chose an Americano and then realized they had drip coffee but didn’t care enough to change my order. But it’s insane that they had drip coffee on the menu and she still didn’t understand that that was what I wanted.
I took a bunch of subways all over the place and ended up at another Caffe Nero. I bought a sparkling water so I could use their Wi-Fi, but then their Wi-Fi was all weird and so I found another Starbucks and just used their Wi-Fi without buying anything. In my head I thought, “HONESTLY, STARBUCKS CORPORATION, I HAVE GIVEN YOU SO MUCH.” I felt a sense of entitlement.
It was a bit of a struggle to get there, but I met my friend Brooke for dinner & drinx at a pub called the Exmouth Arms in Exmouth Market. I had three beers and an order of fish & chips b/c when in rome. All three of the beers were IPAs but I only remember the second two. The first was average but then the second and third were something called the Number Eight, I think? It was light and sweet. Hoppy beers can be so feminine sometimes. The fish component of the fish & chips was a lot better than I expected it to be. I was pretty drunk, but it tasted like something, as in, it didn’t just taste like just fish and oil. Somebody, some chef, had obviously put some effort into coming up with some combination of spices that made it better than your usual fish & chips, and I noticed.
The fries were “moderately better than usual.” I had a third of one of Brooke’s sliders, which was coleslaw and aubergine. It’s so smart to say aubergine instead of eggplant. Brooke helped me out with a lot of the fries.
We went to another bar, or pub I guess, called the Queen’s Head. I drank a bottle of a darker IPA. I went home and went to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night, and barfed.
I was in a shitty mood when I woke up because I barfed. I found it difficult to choose an outfit to wear.
I went to the Kensington High Street Whole Foods for "brunch" so that I could eat some vegetables and counteract the fish and chips and beer. I swear the Kensington High Street Whole Foods buffet has not changed one single ingredient in their line up since I ate at the Kensington High Street Whole Foods buffet six years ago. I probably ate almost the exact same meal: soba noodles, curried cauliflower, beets & quinoa, one dolma, and a few chunks of teriyaki tofu. I had a blood orange San Pellegrino. And I’d also had a Grande Pike Place on my way, which I drank half of and then threw out because I felt guilty bringing a Starbucks coffee into Whole Foods. I bought an issue of Grazia to read while I ate. Grazia is the best magazine in the world—it’s a tabloid AND a fashion magazine.
I bought an Americano at Whole Foods after I finished eating. Then I went to this really creepy antiques market with incredibly bad vibes, just all these old ladies and no music on, cufflinks that cost two hundred and seventy five pounds and I left and it started raining and got really cold and everything felt pretty terrible. I took the tube to Oxford Circus and tried on a bunch of dresses at Topshop that looked really good on me but didn’t buy them because I was in a headspace of feeling disgusted by the concept of consumerism in general. I thought about going to a museum but instead went home to my hotel so I could dry off and chill out. I stopped into Starbucks on my way, and fulfilled my two-day-long dream of eating the chocolate chip shortbread cookie the Starbucks employee from yesterday didn’t understand that I wanted. I ate it under an awning in the rain and then had my eyebrows threaded. I came home and opened up the door to my hotel room and saw that there was a giant bouquet of flowers on the windowsill. I walked over to check it out and noticed that there was a bottle of champagne in a bag next to the flowers. I figured out that it was from my boyfriend and started to cry. I drank a couple teacups of champagne and then decided to go back to Topshop and buy myself a dress and then stop into this other store I’d walked past which sold a red plaid tie and buy my boyfriend a red plaid tie.
Instead I went to Liberty London and had my life changed in a way that I will explain in a later blog post, or maybe just hold inside my heart. I’m sure a red plaid tie will turn up again.
I took the tube back to good old Bayswater and stopped into my “local,” the Bayswater Arms. It’s a pretty standard pub, but I think that the most standard pub in London is still significantly cooler and more beautiful than the greatest bar in all of Toronto. I don't even know what I think the greatest bar in all of Toronto is.
I was a little nervous to come into a pub alone on a Friday night and set up shop with my laptop but it’s so different here— I am one of many. I drank a pint of London Pride which was eh, then bought myself a bottle of Stella Artois “Cidre,” which is a thing that exists! It was much bigger than a regular bottle, but much smaller than a forty. I’m just finishing up the end of it now. I’m pretty drunk. The pub is Hallowe’en-themed- I mean, because it’s Hallowe’en. There’s a lot of streamers, of black and orange bats and white and black skulls, and some tissue paper cobwebs. Everyone here is from somewhere else. I was thinking of staying longer and ordering myself a Scotch egg, but I’m not going to. I’ve been here since I wrote the word “anti-fogmatics.” It’s time to move on.
I ended up going to an Indian restaurant down the street. The first time I ever ate Indian food was in London, with my mom when I was eleven. I remember that the restaurant was very skinny and so long, the servers could barely walk down the aisles. We had some chicken in a cream sauce with fruits and nuts and raisins, and it blew the fuck out of our minds. So I guess I kind of wanted to eat Indian food in homage to that.
My server was obviously the owner of the restaurant and clearly made his living bamboozling tourists out of psychotic amounts of money using his crazy upsells. I watched him do it, and then he tried to do it to me, but once he realized it wasn’t working on me he started ignoring me- like, in the middle of speaking to me. He could not have given less of a fuck about me if he tried. He was so zoned out of interacting with me that he didn’t even notice I ordered sparkling water. He was like “Okay, tap water,” and then brought me a glass of tap water.
I had lamb tikka masala and rice. I wanted it to be bad so I could hate the server more, but it was fucking delicious. The lamb was soft and fragrant and had kind of a pounded out vibe to it. I ate it with pickles and tzatziki. In the end, I kind of respected the server.
I went back to my hotel room and drank a cup of ginger tea. I brought it to London with me.
I woke up and had a cup of dirty-tasting instant coffee in my hotel room and then walked to the Bayswater Starbucks, where I had a Venti Pike Place and a “granola bar,” which was not something that we’d call a granola bar in North America. We’d call it, like, a harvest square. I took the tube to Bethnel Green and bought a bottle of lemon/lime Volvic to make change for the bus. I had one sip of it and it was disgusting so I threw it out. I rode on the top deck of a double-decker bus and thought how sad it must be to have lived in London for so long that you’ve become dead to the concept of double-decker buses and sit on the bottom deck because it’s easier.
I did a very impressive job of navigating myself by underground, bus, and foot to Jude and Jessica’s house. They opened their door in a very cute way with Jude poking his head around the door like a spy. I met their baby, Sunday; she’s definitely one of the littlest babies I’ve ever interacted with in my life. I never held her. I’m pretty scared of accidentally killing babies.
Jude and Jessica led me through Broadway Market and London Fields to a “surprise” location. There was lots of talk about “the surprise”; it was a sweet and funny joke that we were all immediately comfortable with riffing on. Here was the surprise: It was Violet!
I love Violet. It was cozy and sunny and also delicious, and I’m not just saying that to make Jude and Jessica feel good about the surprise, although they should feel good about the surprise: it was a good surprise. Jessica came up with the very smart idea of having two courses at Violet, so I copied her. I had a slice of quiche with potato, scallion (maybe), and something else, probably a type of cheese.
It was great, but overshadowed by the cinnamon bun I ate for dessert.
It tasted like Christmas! I think there was some sort of tea in there. Some tea, and maybe allspice. It was particularly satisfying because on my plane ride from Toronto we’d been given a complimentary “continental breakfast” at some cool time like maybe 6 in the morning, which was one of the saddest meals I’d ever eaten in my life: a cup of lukewarm vanilla yogurt served with a little plastic cup of fake orange juice, one of those cups where you peel back a foil top, and then this shitty, dry and tiny cinnamon bun that NOBODY WOULD EVER THINK WAS GOOD EVER. Why would any evil human ever go into business making a piece of food so obviously sawdusty and appealing to NO ONE? So it was very necessary that I exorcise myself of that negative cinnamon bun energy and reclaim The Cinnamon Bun. (Jessica as her sweet had a slice of coconut cake and Jude had a square of carrot cake. I also had a sparkling lemonade. Great choices, everybody.)
After we said goodbye I thought I was going to ride a double-decker train around London but then I was scratching my leg and accidentally opened up an old cut I’d got from shaving a few weeks ago. It bled dramatically. I was really into the bus plan so I tried to ignore it, but then the blood started to itch me, so I got off the bus, and walked to Liverpool Street Station to wash the blood off. Then I walked to Bank Street, where I caught the tube to Oxford Circus, where I bought the dress at Topshop that I hadn’t bought when I was “disgusted by commercialism” one day earlier. I decided that while I was in the nabe I was going to walk to the Air Street Hawksmoor to drink my ear-worm of a Marmalade Cocktail and face my three-day-long fear of feeling vaguely scrappy in a predominantly grey-business-suited environment. I coached myself through my pre-Hawksmoor jitters by reminding myself that it was Saturday and way less people wear business suits on Saturdays than they do on most. But then this crazy thing happened where I walked back and forth up and down Air Street several times and Hawksmoor just WASN'T there! I guess it was like one of those alleys in Harry Potter that disappears for people who aren’t wearing business suits. So then I came up with this very beautiful idea, this very crafty and beautiful idea that the Marmalade Cocktail would now become this sacred thing for me, my Magic Other (of cocktails)— the one thing in the world that would for sure keep me coming back to London.
I took the train to South Kensington and wandered around looking for some place to sit and magically stumbled back upon my favorite pub in the entire world- that’s right, The Bunch of Grapes!! The Bunch of Grapes is a Harry Potter alley that works exclusively in my favor. I found myself a nice little two-seater, set up shop, drank two pints of Strongbow, and got some writing done. I went back to my neighbourhood and ate a really stupid dinner at a really stupid Thai restaurant that was so stupid and shitty I deleted the picture I took of it in protest of my having eaten it.
I woke up at 6:30 in the morning and drank a mud puddle cup of coffee in my hotel room. I took a taxi to Victoria Station in the rain.
On the Gatwick Express I drank a cup of Starbucks-branded coffee that came out of a packet. I took this photo of myself, which my dad called “the humblest selfie ever taken.”
I arrived at the airport and navigated my way back to the stand that sold little meat pies. It was called “West Cornish Pasty Company,” and is obviously a chain. An interesting fact about pasties is that the a is pronounced like the a in pasta and not like the a in pastry. I only know this is true because when I was coolly chowing down on my pasty while waiting in line at baggage check the Gatwick employee was like “Your pasty sure smells good,” and I coolly responded, “It tastes good, too!” It was a really effective pasty commercial I spontaneously happened to be the star of.
I opted for a medium-size “traditional” pasty, because I was intimidated by the act of ordering a pasty and it seemed like the safest possible combination of words for me to say. My pasty was a flaky yellow half-moon made of buttery dough that sure was born to be penetrated by a person’s teeth, stuffed with skirt steak (I only know that it was “skirt” steak because I’m reading the description of the pasty on the Pasty Company website. Please don’t think I’m some kind of crazy meat aficionado who knows what cut of steak something is just by eating it while navigating my way around an AIRPORT), potatoes (I don’t remember there being potatoes in it. The website is helpful), onions (I remember the onions! They were amazing! They were sweet-sweet and brown.), and swede (“What is this mysterious ingredient?” I wondered to myself while eating a swede bit, “It’s not carrot, but I’m just going to let it be carrot in my mind. I’d rather just go with it rather than contemplate this subject any further.” As it turns out, swede is “turnip.” I might not have ever eaten a turnip before. What a big day I had!)
I was buying some UK tabloids at the airport and I thought about buying some UK candy bars to bring back home with me but I didn't. I flew back home to Canada, and ate Thanksgiving dinner at my Dad's.