Tag Archives: Eating

Taste Test

When I get there, Sam is locking up his bike outside Stour Space, where in just under a year we’ll have our wedding. It’s an art gallery and a community space that hosts evening yoga sessions and midweek, midday ping pong aimed at freelancers. We like it mainly for two reasons: it’s really close to where we live, in a cool part of London, still rough around the edges; and it has an element of surprise.

We knock loudly on the side door and hope we’re heard, and when we gain entry we’re introduced to the chef, Michel. He is French, lean and quietly amicable. Standing in the Counter Cafe the sun is slowly descending behind him, threatening to wipe out the views of progressing construction across the canal. He points to the only table that has been laid out for diners, and we drop our backpacks and our bike helmets and very nearly collapse into the respective seats. House white is promptly offered up; we are tonight’s drinking crowd.

Have you ever planned a wedding? We haven’t, not yet. Being of a certain age though, we have a growing number of friends who have. “How far are you?” sings the chorus, and– having already picked the venue and bought my dress— I confidently reply, “Quite far.” But I know that if we pull this thing off successfully it will most likely be due to the international team of doctors, lawyers, film directors, project managers, poets, architects, and accountants we’ve assembled to help. They call it a wedding party, but I hate the Shakespearean fantasy of the phrase, a mocking nod to the theatrical, sometimes tragic. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a stretch to use the oft misaligned “hashtag squad goals”.

When the caterer, Hugues (also French, but more emphatically amicable), arrives he approaches to say hello. Momentarily disappearing he returns with three additional bottles of wine, this time red, each referred to in terms of character and robustness that in our uncouthness Sam and I can’t quite associate with a taste. We are left alone with four bottles of wine, enough food for six, and a pen and paper with which to jot down our thoughts. Hugues returns to very little, just a splattered scrap of paper that reads in lazy scrawl: Yes, we like this.

Following a debrief with Michel and Hugues, Michel leaves for the night, and, pouring himself a glass of red (full of character, robust) Hugues tells us about managing the Counter Cafe of Stour Space. We love Hackney Wick; the fairy lit bars and restaurants here, the canal, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park– my favourite of London’s outdoor spaces. “We’ve been here for five years,” he says, “but it’s changing. Everywhere is being bought up, smaller places aren’t surviving.” And the arrival of West Ham? “The fans have not affected us, really. There have been one or two incidences elsewhere; a lot of the bars have simply banned colours.” There is a game on tonight, immediately across the canal from us. Every so often we hear a distant roar, but it is negligible.

Having now consumed a large ratio of the wine, I stand up and grab my helmet, as does Sam. Hugues winces. “I didn’t know you were cycling! I wouldn’t have let you drink so much!” I slur something that I intend as a farewell. Confident about our anti-destination wedding on the Hackney Riviera, we stumble to our bikes and zig zag home.

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Beside the Seaside

“This is exactly what I wanted from a restaurant tonight,” I’m saying, looking around us. The tablecloth is red and white checked, brick walls lead up to wooden rafters, and the dimmed lights leave work for the candles on each table; it could be the backdrop for a rom com date scene. (Emphasis on the ‘com’ part of the equation, as the four year old at the next table begins a dinner-long tantrum.) I’m glad– Whitstable Oyster Company was not our first choice, but the Sportsman books up 6 months in advance, Salt Marsh was closed for a private function, and Birdies had no space for us.

On Friday Sam picked me up from work on his motorcycle, and we zoomed down the A2 to Whitstable, just over an hour east of London. It was the end of the summer, and we felt like getting away.

“Does the mackerel have bones?” I ask the waiter, suspiciously. “Yes,” she replies.

“And the skate?”

“Yes, but it’s really easy, I promise.”

“Ok, I trust you,” I say, feeling guilty for being the lazy landlubber who hates to work for her food. Sam, probably on a high from conquering his first oyster earlier in the day, has no such qualms, and confidently orders the whole plaice. “It’s going to have the head,” I say, making a face.

We had spent the day wandering between cafes and pubs, drinking oyster stout on the beach and then shimmying up to the four-person counter in Wheelers for fresh seafood. It may have been around since 1856, but Wheelers Oyster Bar is almost knowingly timeless; it’s easy to imagine the pink and blue storefront rolling its eyes at the news that Pantone has picked Rose Quartz and Serenity as the joint 2016 colours of the year.

“I’m so happy right now,” I say to Sam.

“Here?”

“Here, yes, but right now. Everything is just beginning.” We just reached the one year countdown to our wedding; I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about the direction of my career and have, for the hundredth time, decided to push the fear aside and act instead. I worry that I am not good enough at work. Sam is good at ensuring me otherwise: There’s loads of stuff about how women only apply for jobs they think they’re capable of, whereas men apply for senior positions because they just think they can, he Whatsapps me on Friday. I don’t want to be a victim of the confidence gap. I want to be a woman of Beyoncé strength and Sara Blakely smarts.

“Ok, I think I’m bored now,” I say on our way back to the Airbnb, a charming cottage once home to William Somerset Maugham. “I’ve really enjoyed today, but I’m glad we live in London.” It’s just gone 10pm and a couple in front of us have stumbled out of a pub playing 90s anthems and straight into an Indian takeaway.

“Well,” Sam replies, matter-of-factly, “then it was a perfect weekend away.”

People Who Brunch

Brunch time on Saturday. Sam and I are squeezing ourselves into the middle seats of a picnic table outside of Cafe Route in Dalston, awkwardly trying not to disrupt the already-established pairs on either side. We complete the table; two girls sit opposite one another to my left, discussing their parents’ adjustment to becoming empty nesters and an impending trip to Australia, while on my right two guys with accents are asking the waiter for smoked salmon on the side of eggs benedict.

With the intention of heading over to Voodoo Ray’s for pizza-by-the-slice, we’ve chained our bikes up in Dalston Square. Most of Dalston is comfortably grubby, but Dalston Square is shiny-new and purpose-built, the cafes and restaurants nestled below shining glass tower blocks. We are frequently running or cycling through but we’ve never really looked to see what’s here, so we have wandered over to see which cafes have outdoor seating. We decide to stay. It’s not terribly warm, but it’s warm enough to make the most of.

Once our plates are cleared, the guy next to Sam, Saturday-casual in a t-shirt and backwards baseball cap, asks us if we’re from around here. He’s from Lithuania, but he’s getting ready to move to New York for work as a business development manager at HelloFresh. “Your marketing budget must be insane,” I’m saying, enviously.

He laughs. “We were just talking about how different New Yorkers are. They’ll chat to anyone, anywhere. Londoners, not so much. We were… testing this theory.” I try not to now imagine the situation as a trial by combat, and agree instead. I am being harmonious.

This year you can’t talk about New Yorkers without talking about Donald Trump. The four of us are equally appalled. “People are voting emotionally. It’s happening everywhere,” the guy next to me is saying. He’s about to move from Dalston to Notting Hill. “I’d rather stay around here– east– but my friends and I found a really good deal. We didn’t even see the place before we agreed on it,” he says with a hint of a shrug. Finding accommodation in London is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for the choosy. He tells us he’s Romanian.

“Romania is a completely underrated country,” his Lithuanian friend states, nodding. I admit I’d like to visit. The Romanian sighs. “Romania is beautiful, it’s just been destroyed by its politicians. But that’s another story.”

Heart & Flesh

In a city, it is possible to feel alone, even though you are surrounded by people. But I find it is more likely that you feel right at the heart of everything.

On Wednesday I walk home from work, wearing a blue a-line dress, Adidas trainers, and my leather Kate Sheridan backpack which although the most expensive bag I’ve ever bought is still a little bit Dora the Explorer. I have my phone in hand and so when Sarah sends me a Whatsapp message I immediately see it– “Are you around tonight?”

Sarah is in town for work from Newcastle, where we went to university together. She was a maths star and is now quickly ascending in the world of finance, and I was dyscalculic and still am. I call her and hash out our plan for the evening out loud, which makes me sound crazy but how can I think on such short notice any other way? We decide to do what we always do when she visits: go to Smith’s of Smithfield at the centre of the meat market, where we will order a slab of beef and drink a bottle of wine each. Maybe just ¾ of a bottle if Sam meets us there; we all have work in the morning, after all.

When the three of us are seated and have decided what we’re having, our order is taken by a woman who is not a waitress– she is in her own clothes rather than a black shirt and apron–a manager perhaps? She attempts the upsell: “No starters?”

“Nah,” I answer for the table, which is one of those bad habits I feel remorse for but never do anything to change. “Just the wine!”

When we’ve finished our meal and two bottles of Garganega, water from the day’s earlier torrential downpour finds its way through the ceiling and upon us. Our manager-server rushes to our rescue. “Well!” we all protest, feigning indignation. “I believe we deserve another bottle of wine for this. Free!” We are shocked when she brings us one; her favourite red. We have not succeeded in limiting our alcohol intake, but life is for living and not always in moderation.

The lights are low and the staff are mostly sweeping and trying to stay awake. It is nearly midnight and we have very nearly overstayed our welcome. The hostess, in a crimson dress, well-coiffed, and confident, approaches us encouragingly with the card reader.

“How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Sarah ventures as we are paying.

“Twenty-two.”

We learn she is from Poland, is here studying, and has been in London since she was eighteen when she moved “for love.” After we have paid, we toast Poland, because everyone comes here from everywhere, for every reason, to do everything. It means London has a lot of heart.

Bar Crawl

“What is nduja?”

We are sitting at the counter in Pizza East, having just ordered two negronis. Sam shrugs. “Ask the waiter.”

“What is nduja?” I ask the waiter. I get my reply: “It’s a salami,” and I quickly ask my next question before he can escape, “and girolles?”

“A mushroom.”

“And guanciale?”

“Pork cheek.”

I pause, glancing back down at the menu. “And…”

The waiter has taken this brief window and sensibly rushed away. “Let’s share the nduja pizza and the girolles and guanciale pizza,” Sam suggests, knowing how indecisive I am and how long it took to even agree on Pizza East (only once I had stared sadly at the enormous queue snaking from Dishoom).

Afterwards we walk back from Shoreditch, stopping for a drink at Redchurch and then Birdcage. On the way I am explaining how upset I’ll be if anyone calls me Mrs when we get married, or assumes I’ve changed my name. “You won’t be sad when I cry if someone calls me Mrs Bourke, or worse, Mrs Sam Bourke?” Losing my own identity would be a trauma.

Sam assures me he doesn’t mind. “We’ll put something about it in the save-the-date email.”

“I feel really strongly about this, but also I don’t want you to be offended. It’s just that it’s not about you, it’s about me!”

Sam laughs and squeezes my hand. “That’s a good line.” I don’t always know what I want, but once I do, I’m certain. By this time we’re in Broadway Market, just before London Fields.

“Want to go to the secret bar?” Sam is referring to Kansas Smitty’s, the bar in the basement of Off Broadway. There’s a neon sign in the window, so it’s not really a secret, as such.

But then once you look there’s often more going on, just below the surface.