By Janis Turk
Move over, meat pies, and forget the fish and chips. There’s something better cooking across the pond these days.
True, England has never been called the culinary capital of the world, as travelers have long endured too many bouts with charred plum pudding and lumpy shepherd’s pie; however, times they are a-changing.
It seems London has finally figured out that fabulous food and fine wine are the hallmarks of any hip, international city.
And if London is anything — besides expensive — it is extraordinarily hip.
With theater to beat Broadway in London’s West End, to Piccadilly Circus fun, from clubs to pubs, opera and ballet, we were ready to do the town.
Annual Girlfriend Getaway
So five of my friends and I decided to make Great Britain our grand destination for this year’s annual girlfriend getaway.
Last year it was the Rancho de San Juan resort outside Santa Fe; this time it would be the Capital Hotel in London. Next year we may have to do cheap rooms and bad buffets in Vegas, but this time we were going to do it right — and we were determined to eat well, too.
We’d heard about an elegant little boutique hotel just steps from Harrods department store with a restaurant boasting two Michelin Stars — the equivalent of five stars or diamonds in the U.S.
The Capital Hotel is a privately-owned, 49-room hotel which was named “Best Hotel for Food” in the UK by Condé Nast Traveler’s 2006 Gold List, so we knew the food would be superb.
We’d also been told that hotel owner David Levin has a vineyard in France and that his award-winning wines are not to be missed.
Our plan for the week was simple: eat, drink, be merry … and shop.
Our itinerary included heading straight to Harrods, decadent spa treatments, visits to design studios on Pimlico Road, window-shopping along Sloane Street (think Rodeo Drive), and checking out the Princess Diana exhibit at Kensington Palace.
But all of that would be just a backdrop for what we really like to do best — eat.
The Late, Great Luxury Airline
Our eat-our-way-through London trip began even before we left the states in the lobby of the now-defunct Silverjet airlines in the Newark airport. Silverjet suspended operations in May 2008 and went out of business.
Silverjet was an airline that just served London and only had one all-business-class flight a day. Theirs was an oh-so-civilized approach to international travel, treating all passengers as though they were guests at an exclusive club.
On arriving in the Silverjet area, we were met by a well-dressed maitre d’ asking about our reservations and taking our passports, and I thought I had entered a fine New York restaurant.
Then we were escorted to one of many plush sofas with tiny coffee tables in a beautiful silver and blue lounge where champagne, orange juice, sodas, gourmet cookies, cucumber sandwiches and more were served — along with offerings from a full bar.
Waitresses refilled our glasses before we could blink, and we ate our way through the next hour or two as we waited for our friends to arrive one by one.
Then we were escorted through a private security entrance, just for our flight, onto a luxurious new aircraft where handsome British lads in blue and white stripped button-down shirts attended to our every need and fed us well on china plates.
Then we rested in the plane’s 6’ 3” seat-beds until we arrived at London’s Luton airport in the morning.
Once in London, we wasted no time having big plates of smoked salmon and capers with our croissants and hot tea, and while some of us wanted to nap, most of us were ready to hit Harrods — perhaps the world’s largest and most famous department store — owned by the father of Dodi Fayed, Princess Diana’s lover.
Harrods is best known for its glorious food courts — you’ll think you’ve died and gone to a heaven made entirely of food. Harrods boasts the most beautiful edible displays imaginable — a bacchanal playground for foodies like us.
My favorite hall is Harold’s Confectionary, with its candies, cakes, cookies and pastries — a place here marzipan fruits rival real ones in a street market.
There is the Maison de Chocolate with whole rooms that are shrines to cocoa. There are wedding cakes on display the size of small cars.
Then there are fish markets, sushi bars, meat markets, carriages carved in butter, gigantic vegetables in a rainbow of colors, fruits that Carmen Miranda would wear. Food. Glorious food!
I kept making covert midday runs back and forth from the hotel to get some more of the white chocolate maple “Nipples of Venus” candies I’d discovered on my last trip to London. I’d sneak little bags of them back to my room each afternoon to nibble on when I’d take my tea. It was an addiction, and I was ashamed — so I told no one.
At Harrods they have several stories of departments — from designer handbags to elegant stationeries — but I saw little of that. I was mesmerized by the food halls.
Still, my girlfriends managed to drag me up to the top floor where we spent a morning having facials and massages in the Urban Retreat, which is Harrods’ spa. We felt were worth it — at least once a year.
After that, we had lunch in the spa restaurant, which served fresh and healthful foods — pear salads and quiche and such. However our favorite lunch was at a nearby eatery called Tom’s Kitchen on Cale Street in South Kensington.
Tom’s Kitchen is the kind of place where you wish you could lunch every day. There’s something so fresh and clean and white about it — so starkly elegant.
Although it is located in a regular storefront, it feels as though you’re eating in some fabulous, white-tile and marble kitchen tucked under the stairs of a dining room in a huge English country manor or hidden in the back of a palace near the servant’s quarters.
The food is all locally grown, fresh and not frou frou. Owner Tom Aikens has a haute cuisine restaurant in Chelsea, but Tom’s Kitchen is his baby — a simple, Old World brasserie serving up plate after plate of hearty, healthful fare.
Sleek, Modern and a Tad Retro
But we couldn’t eat all the time, so we headed to nearby Pimlico Road, at the edge of the famous Belgravia neighborhood, to see what the hottest designers are doing these days in the way of furnishings and interiors.
First we visited the young, dapper South African-trained designer Justin Van Breda and gushed over his glassware, lamps and custom-made furniture. Then we had coffee on the balcony of designers Lulu Lytle and Christopher Hodsoll’s Sloane studio before visiting the shop of designer David Linley who is a nephew of the Queen.
Everything we saw looked very sleek, modern and, yet, a tad 1960s retro. We loved it all. But then we got sidetracked by the food — again.
We came upon the most beautiful bakery and café that I’ve ever seen — Daylesford Organic. Boasting 4,500 square feet and three stories, the bakery’s countertops, walls and floors of white Carrara marble certainly provided the “wow” factor.
Using a traditional country stone oven, master bakers bake bread, filling the room with an aroma that draws you in. Fresh fruits and vegetables that would put Central Market to shame are laid out on marble slabs. The food gallery is hedged with fresh organic herb gardens and topiary.
Walking it Off
Thank goodness we walked everywhere or we would have each gained 50 pounds. We walked to Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, The River Thames and beyond.
One rainy afternoon stroll took us to Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana lived, to see an extraordinary exhibit, “Diana: A Princess Remembered,” featuring not only the largest collection of photographs and film of the Princess to date, but also a collection of her dresses.
Touring the castle and gardens was also a treat — as was our evening at the Royal Opera House for a ballet that night.
One final delight before we left London was a special pairing of wine and fine food in the private dining room of the Capital Hotel Restaurant.
Head Chef Eric Chavot, with his expertise in continental cuisine and great attention to elegant presentation, chose simple but scrumptious dishes to complement the hotel’s private collections from the Levin Winery’ in the Loire Valley of France: Levin Sauvignon Blanc, Levin Rose and Levin Gamay.
We began our meal with roasted scallops sauce vierge, and went on to enjoy a plate of foie gras and passion fruit, pavé of sole with cassoulet Toulousain and truffle jus, and a main course of honey roasted fillet of duck and macaroni gratin.
A beautiful plate of assorted French cheeses preceded our dessert — which can only be described as chocolate perfection.
Then, full and happy, we waddled to the “lift” and retired to our luxury hotel rooms.
There on my pillow was a little last surprise.
It seems that Clive, the Capital concierge who rivals “Ask Jeeves” in knowing the answer to any question I’d ask, must have seen me sneak in with chocolates and made note of my secret addiction.
For there on my pillow lay a little cellophane Harrods bag tied with a bow, and inside were my candies. Sweet dreams, indeed.
London never tasted so good.
Sorry – out of business.
Fun while it lasted, though.
The Capital Hotel
22 BASIL STREET, LONDON SW3 1AT
Tel: +44 (0)20 7589 5171
27 Cale Street, London
Knightsbridge Tube Stop
Tel. 020 7349 0202
44B Pimlico Road, London, SW1W 8LP
Tel: 020 7881 8060
Royal Opera House, London
51 Floral St
Camden, WC2E 9DA, UK
+44 20 73044000