As Johnson famously said, 'when a man is tired of London he is tired of life', and while I would find it very hard to become jaded to my hometown's charms, I find myself heading back to familiar central haunts; Soho for dinner, the West End for some razzle dazzle, maybe the South Bank for a walk at the weekend. Sometimes the lazy days of browsing record shops in Notting Hill, buying patchouli in Camden Lock, picnics at Kew Gardens, or traipsing to gigs in the wilds of Brixton or Kilburn seem an awfully long time ago.
In order to get right into the nooks and crannies of this city I love I devised a mission for the forthcoming months, ably assisted by the Ewing and Stealth, to dust down my trusty A-Z and get out and see some more, less familiar, corners of this glorious city; starting with a Saturday in the East End.
First up was a lunch of our national dish; curry. While the merchants on Brick Lane pedal their wares to unsuspecting tourists, everybody in the know knows that the best place for Indian food is Tayyabs. And I mean everybody. Located down a grimy sidestreet in Whitechapel, this Punjabi hotspot, first opened in 1972, may be one of the worst kept secrets in London. The famed queues at the weekend (and most weeknights, too) spill out down the street, reservations or not. The only saving grace seeming to be the enticing scent of sizzling meat that perfumes the air, and starting on the BYO six pack that they charge no corkage fee for as you wait to finally make it through the door.
As good as the food is purported to be there are also small grumbles about the cramped environs (despite expanding to three floors of the original building) and rushed service, but choosing a late Saturday lunchtime proved to be a wise move, as we were soon lead down to a nearly empty (it soon rapuidly filled up), spacious basement dining area, and swiftly given poppudums, chutney, and a bottle opener for our Cobras. So far so good.
We started with a sizzling platter of the infamous chops; manna for a lamb-loving carnivore like myself and comprising of the perfect ratio of spice, fat, meat and char. The long bones meant plenty of gnawing potential and proved a sticky, smoky, and justly celebrated delight. Although I managed to bag the extra fourth cutlet in our portion, I could have eaten a whole rack of these beauties without trouble.
The Ewing also ordered a portion of decent Tikka Paneer, the crispy, spiced exterior giving way nicely to the mild and milky, squeaky-cheese centre.
Stealth ably modelling our dish of Karahi Keema, a delicious mess of spiced lamb mince and sweet green peas. This was one of my Mum's signature dishes whenever she cooked Indian food when I was growing up, and eating it always makes me feel warm and nostalgic inside, especially a version as good as this.
We also sampled another highly lauded dish, the austere sounding Dry Meat; rather a misnomer as the fiery beef curry that arrived was rich and moist, containing chunks of meat of melting tenderness and a hefty spice kick. The Ewing also chose the Karahi Prawn, a speciality only served on Saturdays that featured perfectly succulent shrimps in a light and sweetish sauce, cut through with a lemon-y zing.
Veg came in the form of Dhal Baingun; smoky, soft baby aubergine served with creamy, sticky yellow lentils and Methi Aloo Gajar; a dish rich and earthy dish carrots, potatoes and fenugreek leaves. I love Indian vegetable based dishes, and these did nothing to change my mind. Absolutely spot on. I was only sad that we couldn't manage to sample some of the spiced pumpkin, Tinda Masala as well.
Foregoing rice for bread also proved a good choice; the puffed up, sesame studded peshwari and buttery plain naans made the perfect vehicles for scooping and mopping every last scrap of sauce from our plates.
To finish the Ewing ordered a banana lassi; a frosty metal beaker of frothy goodness, balancing the cooling tang of the yoghurt with the sweetness of the fruit. Chuck in a couple of the obligatory chocolate mints, some very sweet and efficient service, a pleasing slight bill (coming well within the £20 budget) and it made the perfect ending to a laudable lunch.
Staggering from the restaurant and across the Whitechapel Road, we decided to have a quick mosey about before retiring for an afternoon nap. The last time I was hanging out with the cool kids in this part of Shoreditch it was on a pub crawl for the Ewing's birthday. A lovely, if blurry, evening that ended up with the obligatory late night beigel, and I couldn't imagine coming to this part of town without a visit to the famous bakers of Brick Lane.
This place is wonderful. Crammed to the rafters on a Saturday afternoon with locals and tourists alike, all eagerly queuing for their platzels, strudel and rye bread. While waiting in line I got a great view of the inner-workings of the place, and could have happily stayed all day watching the two guys in the kitchen churning out trays of bread and rolls while swathed in a fug of steam from the cauldrons of boiling beigels at the back.
We chose a trio of treats each to take home for later; a smoked salmon beigel with a schmear of cream cheese - the proper full fat stuff, no messing here - a salt beef beigel with punchy English mustard, and a generous slice of their baked cheesecake.
The beigels were perfect; nicely sized, endearingly wonky and generously filled. They possessed a chewy, dense crumb and faint sweetness that married perfectly with the salt beef, carved in thick, pink slices and so good I felt instantly sad after the last mouthful. The salmon filling was simply perfect; rich and smoky fish, perfectly complimented by the cool cream cheese. The cheesecake was as reliably brilliant as I remembered it, too, the rich and wobbly lactic topping and crumbly pastry base making a fitting finale to our feast.
We also picked up a loaf of freshly baked chola and a loaf of black bread to take away. The spiral of soft, sweet chola bread with its sticky glaze demanded little more than to be enjoyed in thick slices with a little extra butter, but also makes an awesome (if entirely unkosher) smoked bacon and ketchup sandwich.
The black bread certainly lives up to its moniker. The crackling charcoal crust making way to a sinister-looking crumb, deeply perfumed with the anise-scent of caraway seeds. A serious loaf with a bitter edge that is perfectly complimented by topping with corned beef and pickle or pickled herring and cream cheese.
Although, in my heart, I'm still resolutely a West End girl, there is much to be said for the charms of the East. It's an endlessly fascinating corner of town that, despite the (still not without much controversy) regeneration and gentrification that has taken place over the last decade, juxtaposes great wealth with real deprivation.
Walking these streets provides truly fascinating, vibrant and constantly changing cross-section of human life, with plenty of fabulous places for food and drink along the way. From the Truman Brewery, via the ultra-hip Boxpark and Spitalfields Market, right up to the to the Vietnamese restaurants that line the Kingsland Road.
'Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London... for there is in London all that life can afford."