London really is the capital of bad food

I’m on the Eurostar returning to Paris from a busy trip to London. I cannot remember another week in my life when I consistently ate horrid food. I’m talking really, really bad.

I mentioned this to my buddy Glen who remarked: London restaurants make good food as good as any city in the world. But they are the best at making awful food. Amen, glory hallelujah, and pass the bread.
London Cityscape at night
It’s truly amazing my stomach and tongue didn’t go on strike and leave me stranded. I even tried to find good places. I walked for seemingly miles among the west end looking for a new place that had good food. But over and over, i ended up on the short end of the fork.

I will say that my hotel’s breakfast bar had edible food. But when the culinary highlight of the day is medium strength coffee, toast, and Weetabix, you know something is going down the wrong way. It’s a good thing I was on a business trip. I kept the receipts for the expense report and they remind me of such lovely meals.

Day one: Canela – a Portuguese/Brazilian cafe.

This was an easy place, they are across the street from the hotel, it was late, I was hungry, I bit the bullet. Their vegetarian options were pretty sparse, so I got the vegetarian lasagna with salad and a plantain dessert thing. The lasagna wasn’t bad before it took a ride in the microwave express for 5 minutes. Throw some salad on this nuclear lunch and you’ve got a slab of pasta/cheese with broccoli, smothered with wilted salad and dressing. YUMMMY! Fortunately, this was filling enough for me to save the plantain thing for later, oh how lucky…

Day two: Yahoo! cafeteria and Sartaj Limited

The Yahoo! cafe had a lovely serving of pasta with veggies and tomato sauce. It wasn’t awful, just typically British and mediocre. I think this sums up a lot of the food I eat in London. It’s edible and mediocre. You forget what you ate 30 minutes later. Unless you end up burping the flavor every 30 minutes; like today’s unfortunate falafel wrap. *burp*

Dinner was at Sartaj Limited. The menu promised unique Balti food, a rare cuisine in India. I figured, what the heck. It couldn’t be bad. Everyone says you can get good indian food in London. Which is true. You can also get some horrible Indian food in London. Like the Hari Krishna cafe on the last trip where everything tasted like it was cooked in dish detergent. At least it was all you can eat.

But I digress, let’s savor the flavor of Sartaj. I asked the waiter what was so special about the cuisine and why were they the only ones to provide such a service outside of India? The answer: we serve it in the cooking dish, a small wok.

Stop the presses! I think we have a true culinary revolution! They serve the food in the food in the iron skillets that they cook in. Now that is novel! Have I ever had anything like that before? Oh yeah, every truckstop dive in America has their skillet eggs and potatoes. But those dives are not Sartaj!

So, I told the guy I would like the quintessential vegetarian Balti dish. Did I mention I was the only customer for about 40 minutes? I also ordered some variation of naan, raita, and water.

He asked if I liked it hot. I chuckled and said “does the pope shit in the woods?“. Of course I like it hot, I grew up on the Mexican border. Make me sweat, make my nose run, make me beg my momma for mercy, give it to me hot and hard,… ooh, maybe I’m giving away too much information…

The waiter gave me a single glass of water, about three gulps worth and left to chat with the other person working in the cafe. Remember, there are no other customers in sight. After a while, I get the fabled iron skillet of Balti legend. It’s a mixture of onions, peppers, and onions with a spicy broth. The raita is yogurt with a chopped cucumbers on top and the naan had some kind of greasy, pressed creature inside it.

Hold me back, I knew I was in for some dining pleasure with this.
On the train to London
I will say the food was spicy and i appreciated the snot dripping out of my nose and flavoring the dish. I had to mix in some raita to soothe my rapidly eroding tongue as the water lasted about three bites. The creature inside the naan started to look like Bambi and the waiter was nowhere to be seen.

I’m a bit of a silent sufferer. I’d rather sit in the chair and stew in a pool of self pity than get up and pour myself another glass of water or steal a napkin from one of the many empty tables for my waterfall of a snotty nose.

After the dish was finished, I started to cough, sniffle, and read my book until the waiter decided it was time to acknowledge me again. That’s ok, he was busy with the other customers, no wait, I was the only one.

This meal was edible, as spicy as I requested, and not the same ol’ same ol’. I’ll give it that. Besides, it wasn’t the worst thing I’d eaten that day. I walked around the area for a while and decided it was time to hit the hotel and finish that lovely plantain thing from the night before.
Durward
Let me start by describe this thing visually. Imagine a soft cake/pie with layers of plantains (a starchier, less sweet cousin of bananas). It reminded me of a gingerbread/plantain tart. How could such an exotic dish go so bad? I took one bite of this lovely piece of goodness and nearly broke a tooth on the top plantain, while my lower jaw made its way north through something best described as brown semi-solid goo. It had no flavor and reminded me of legos in mud. Yummy, give this one to Durward!

Day 3: Questo the Italian Buffet and Diana’s Diner

I grew up with buffets. I was the youngest of six kids and a night out for our family included a trip to the smorgasbord, where kids ate free. My mom always had healthy advice for us: “Skip the salads and head straight for the meats and desserts. Load up on the expensive stuff!”
Mom
I love buffets, from the good, the mediocre, and the bad. You’re gonna get crap, you pay too much, but oh what a selection! I remember people fighting over hamburger patties, cut in half, with a slice of cheese on them at Hometown buffet. That’s the spirit a buffet should inspire. Give me more dammit and don’t you dare take my fifth serving of canned peas!

So, I couldn’t pass up an Italian buffet with promises of pasta and pizza. I instantly thought of my friend, moo, who would join me at Shakeys for the pizza buffet. He would actually visit the vomitorium to get rid of the first batch so that he could continue going through the buffet lines another hour. It’s all about getting your $4.99’s worth of grub.

I walked into Questo and saw the enormous buffet after sitting down. It stretched from one end of the wall to another. Unfortunately, that wall was only 4 feet long. I ordered the buffet (approx. $12) and a Pepsi (approx. $4) and asked where the pizza was. “Oh, the pizza is extra, that’s not included) 16 bucks for four feet of buffet and a Pepsi.

How bad could this food be? I honestly was driven to sample everything to find out what was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. It seemed like a challenge to find something with a satisfying texture or taste. The eggplant parmesan consisted of micro-waved eggplant with tomato sauce brushed on and two crumbs of mozzarella baking in a steam table, the pasta was decimated broccoli/cauliflower with white sauce and penne, there was a semi-solid polenta thing in ketchup, and dry basmati rice with a single stem of saffron waved over the pot during cooking. I was in hog’s heaven.

Just as I declared the polenta thing as the truly worst thing I’d eaten in 2 1/2 years, I noticed a customer going to another buffet bar in the back. Could it be? Am I lucky enough to try yet another treasure trove of culinary delight?

I grabbed my plate and headed for the promised land. I was amazed to see a salad buffet bar. But, do I go against my mother’s advice? Should I skip the salad and grab some ice cream from the freezer next to it? Nah, that’s not included. It’s another 4 bucks for a scoop. So, i marveled at the salads and started grabbing spoonfulls of pre-processed macaroni, egg, bean, etc salads.

The polenta remained on top as the worst dish. Frankly, it will take a truly hideous dish to knock that sucker off its throne. I only wish I had brought my camera to document the awards ceremony.

To top off this luxurious lunch, the cash register guy tacked on a mandatory tip and crossed out the “NOT” in the “SERVICE NOT INCLUDED” statement at the bottom of the receipt. They must have known I was cheap and would have left without some coin on the table. Don’t worry, you were not forgotten. :)

After the lunch, I was feeling a bit less than healthy. *falafel burp just happened* I wanted to tread lightly for dinner and settled on a tiny diner that looked like it belonged in a hippie movie. It was no-frill comfort food. I should have gone for a classic breakfast, but was tempted by a vegetarian risotto. How could this be bad?

I will say that the restaurant was pleasant, the people were nice, it was very affordable, and I did enjoy my meal for what it was worth. I got a salad and the risotto. It’s just a shame to call it risotto. It should have been called veggie stew and rice. They used long grain rice instead of the stubby, starchy stuff of risotto legend. So, I’m giving them a pass. The place was pleasant the food was perfectly mediocre, not over-priced, and didn’t leave me burping risotto for the next two days.

Day 4 Yahoo! catering and Browns bar and restaurant

I was in a big meeting day 4 and 5 and Yahoo brought in trays of snacks and sandwiches to quench our hunger. I hadn’t slept well the night before. It was probably the polenta getting its revenge. For some reason I was also hungry all day long and kept grabbing cookies, snacks, and coffee in the morning. By noon, I was ready for something with protein and tried the egg salad triangles and tomato-cheese finger thingies. Once again, perfectly mediocre and hardly satisfying. But it’s all good once you’ve eaten enough brownies, diet coke, and cookies.
Yahoo! Din Din in London

Afterwards, the meeting participants went out for a real dinner. Some Browns restaurant. It was almost forgettable due to it’s perfectly edible food that actually had taste and texture. I actually licked the plate clean. No, really. I was that impressed. I picked up the plate and began licking it clean, first the front and then the back.

Day 5: More Yahoo! catering and attack of the killer falafel, scone and potential pizza.


The second day of the meeting also had an assortment of cookies, snacks, and tea sandwiches. I prepared for this spread by having a large breakfast at the hotel. I skipped the Weetabix and went for eggs, hash browns, and mushrooms. Yep, they eat mushrooms for breakfast in England, those silly chaps.

The catering was unremarkable and less than filling. So, I figured I would get something for the ride back to Paris. I should have gone to a decent sandwich shop by turning left at the office door. But no, I had to make a right and go towards Soho and the land of bad takeouts. I stopped at the first falafel place and ordered a sandwich to go. I spotted some pizza with corn as a topping and thought that would be good if I was absolutely desparate on the Chunnel and didn’t feel like eating my shoe.

I knew I was in trouble when he dropped a ball of falafel and it bounced off the floor and landed back in his hand. He promptly placed a few of these super bouncy balls in the microwave to heat up. Oh yes, this was going to be good. These were wrapped in a large pita with a shmear of hummus a tease of flavor and a hint of taste. I asked for the pizza to be left cold, no need to heat up this wonder.

Needless to say, the falafel was really awful. It wasn’t as bad as the polenta from earlier in the week, but truly bad. I’ve been burping this chickpea-garlic flavor for the past few hours. *falafel burp*
Scary pizza from London
I was starting to thing twice about the pizza sitting in my luggage. Could I really be hungry enough to eat it? I’d better not chance it, so I bought a scone at Le Pain Quitodien. This restaurant is actually pretty good. It’s a chain of bakery/cafe’s. Leave it to me to buy the worst thing in the cafe. The scone was bad. It was flavorless and dry. Perhaps I’m jaded. I’ve been spoiled by the sublime scones at Rebecca’s in San Diego. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out today’s scone was a bomb.

So, now I sit on the train heading to Paris. I’ve got a piece of scary pizza in my luggage, I’m burping falafel from lunch, and writing about a week of truly bad food. I can’t wait until my next trip to London.

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Now playing: Mogwai – Acid Food

2 thoughts on “London really is the capital of bad food”

  1. I want to have a friend named Durward. I think everybody should. Of course, if you make him eat all the nasty food you find in these dives, I can’t imagine he’ll be a friend for long…By the way, you could cook your OWN meals in half the time it takes you to write about all these hell-holes, and you wouldn’t have to worry about eating Bambi. Or worse.

  2. I really do find London food awful. I have read absolutely preposterous claims of London being the world’s ‘culinary capital’ and I always wonder whether I am in a parallel universe when I hear that. It’s usually EDIBLE, but it is hardly ever good. I’ve had this argument with London friends who have protested and then taken me to some of their favourite places, only to find myself in the awkward position of having to smile and say how nice it all is, just to save having an awful time whilst eating! But all the while I know full well that it’s utterly mediocre. Edible – but totally mediocre.

    In fact that’s being polite, because ‘mediocre’ implies that London’s food is ‘average’. It’s not. It is clearly below average. I think the typical London meal you get is a 3/10, and when you get a 6/10 you should feel very lucky indeed. The places my friends take me to in order to proudly show off ‘London’s best’ is usually decidedly 5/10 (though the price is not!). The best meal I have ever had in London was about a 7/10, and that was the only meal I have ever had in the capital that I found sufficiently good to return for.

    When I compare that to what I get when travelling! Even most places in America have a higher standard. Making the obvious comparison that is so often made, I think New York wins comprehensively as a culinary city. The quality of steak for one thing is far higher. South American beef is lovely too. I would say that as a traveller South Africa had the most consistently high quality food I’ve ever eaten. I did have some poor meals there when off the beaten track, but as an average there is an exceptionally high quality of meat, fruit, vegetables – all produce in fact. In the cities the standard of meals if you are even slightly discerning is quite exceptional. The steak is the best I’ve ever had by far, and at least a dozen of the best meals I have ever had have been on Holiday in South Africa. If you are prepared to spend even half what you’d spend on a bad ‘cheap’ meal in London, you can eat like a king in a Gourmet restaurant throughout the Cape, or in Johannesburg. Italy is not very far behind South Africa as a gastronomic delight, despite the fact that it tends to be expensive. What is great in Italy is that though you pay, you pay for something good – and I do find that it’s difficult to get a genuinely poor meal there. Steak and meat in general in Tuscany is very good, and of course Italian pasta is simply superb. I’ve also had wonderful food in several countries throughout Asia, and Sydney’s food tends to be of a high standard and very cosmopolitan.

    Anyway, let the advertisements scattered throughout London do the talking for the city. ‘Food Poisoning. Word gets out… for free advice on how to avoid food poisoning in your restaurant blah blah blah’. What other city actually has to advertise that at its bus stops for the many restaurateurs? And certainly what other so called ‘global city’? Sorry, but the capital’s cuisine is by and large a national disgrace.

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