The arrival at Heathrow, after the delights of first class travel, is like being plunged into third world chaos. The arrivals hall is jam packed with people from all four corners of the world. Even holding a customs priority card does not make you immune from the bureaucratic chaos that waits. Less fortunate people are in line for up to 3 hours or more. Apparently, there are standards in place that aim to process people within an hour. However, this measure seems to be well out of practical reach. The coming flood of tourists for the Olympics will test the system to breaking point. They may even establish a new Olympic event – the Customs Race – less than one hour and you get a gold medal.
My host for the next 5 days is my dear friend Iain. He is living in a very cute 3-storey mews house in a very fashionable area of South Kensington. The streets are lined with elegant 3-4 storey white Victorian town houses with iron railings where wisteria and roses cascade onto the street. The shops and cafes in the “village” are a testament to the well-heeled residents, as are the cars that line the streets – BMWs, Mercs, Porsches, Aston Martins, Jags, etc. Is this a sign of personal wealth or an indication as to the size of the mortgage?
On the ground floor of the mews house, there is a small double room, and an adjacent room that Iain has converted to a guest sitting room (or a third bedroom as the case needs). These are connected by a modern bathroom. On the first floor, there is a sitting room overlooking the mews, a dining area and a galley kitchen. On the third floor is a study area with the master bedroom and en suite.
The dining in London has taken a great leap forward during the last 5 years. Mind you there was plenty of room for improvement.
Iain and I dined at his “local” – a very chic restaurant called Launceston Place, just around the corner form his house. The following is my review …
On arrival, you are warmly welcomed by the Restaurant Manager and seated in this chicly elegant space. The wait staff are attentive and yet unobtrusive.
The dinner menu is small and eclectic. Thank goodness Launceston Place’s chef is not trying to be all things to all men and is instead producing high quality, beautifully presented dishes with a wide variety of influences.
To start, we were presented with an appetiser of tiny tasty choux pastry puffs filled with a rich cheese sauce. The amuse bouche was a fantastic mushroom foam with the surprising crunch of toasted hazelnuts (a real winner). Our main was fish – turbot on the bone with summer greens and roasted Cornish cod with chicken oysters – both beautifully cooked and presented. A complimentary palate cleanser of a lemon cream with lemon confit topped with rosemary granita was a real treat. Our desserts were English custard with rhubarb and ginger ice cream, and a raspberry soufflé with raspberry sorbet and a garnish of fresh raspberries.
The wine list is extensive but not inexpensive. There are some good wines reasonably priced, but not short on body and taste.
This is a really lovely dining experience – I won’t be disappointed to make a return visit.
For a change of cuisine we tried a Sardinian fish restaurant in Belgravia. Excellent, but not much on the menu for red meat eaters! The waiters were Italian so I got in a little linguistic practise.
A visit to Olivo Mare will strike a chord if you love seafood and Italy and, in particular, the fare of Sardinia.
This restaurant is a white, sleek space where the food is colourful and the star of the show. If you are a red meat eater stay home and light the BBQ.
As a seafood lover, I was unable to choose just one entree and one main course as there were many dishes that sounded mouth wateringly good on the menu. However, I chose …
Burrata con Bottarga – creamy buffalo mozzarella, grey mullet roe and cherry tomatoes.
Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese, made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream, giving it an unusual, soft texture. Heavenly!
Lorighittas con Vongole – traditional handmade pasta with chilli, grey mullet roe and clams.
The name ‘Lorighittas’ derives from the original shape of the pasta, similar to a ring. In Sardinian, ‘Sa Loriga’ is the word for ‘iron ring’ that was once fixed to the walls of the local houses to tether the horses when the men returned from the fields. My pasta was too “al dente” for my liking but there was no question as to the flavour and freshness of the vongole.
Both dishes were well prepared and presented and the ample portions meant that we were unable to fit in dessert.
The staff were friendly in that “off hand” Italian way and responsive to our requests. My companion did not want fish on the bone and the waiter skilfully filleted and plated her Sea Bream with olives at the table. Quite a lesson in knife skills!
Here you can taste the Sardinian sunshine in the food and be transported to warmer climes.
Around the corner from the mews is the “village” and this small group of shops includes a fantastic French pastry/cafe with excellent coffee. Thank GOD!!
The mews is a 15-minute walk to the Victoria and Albert museum and another 10 minutes to Harrods. In the other direction, a 10-minute walk up Gloucester Rd is Kensington High Street with many good shopping and dining opportunities. Overall this is an excellent location with plenty on offer. For old times’ sake I strolled up to Harrods and had a walk around the food hall. Imagine, in the late 70’s our corner store was Harrods! I lived a block behind in Herbert Crescent. When we ran out of milk or bread Harrods was the closest shop to come to. Trotting in there on a Saturday morning in bare feet and jeans with a hangover from the night before … this was certainly not the usual Harrods customer profile. Living just a block behind Harrods we certainly had champagne tastes on a beer income.
As a special treat while in London, I organised tickets to the opera at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. There is a very special and exciting feeling when you are sitting in a wonderful performance space such as the Royal Opera House and knowing that when the lights go down and the curtain goes up you are in for an experience that is the best in the world. What a great night, and what a dramatic opera – Salome by Richard Strauss, featuring a fantastic German soprano, Angela Denoke. The opera proved to be very engrossing with many dark undertones of revenge, blood lust, persecution, gore and killing. Poor old John the Baptist came off second best and to a very sticky ending at the hands of the executioner, who happened to be a beautiful, naked black man. He really caught my attention – who said that opera was dull?!
To round off the Opera experience I did a behind the scenes tour – here are my comments …
Today I met an engaging and witty professional – Simon, my guide for a behind the scenes look into the private world of London’s Royal Opera House. What a surprise! Initially, I feared that our guide would be a stuffy old fuddy duddy – but no – Simon was a charming, friendly young man who displayed a passion for his subject. He guided our group around the Opera House where we saw the intricate behind the scenes workings of this magnificent institution. We heard many interesting stories and anecdotes of its history and saw a number of the staff going about their business, and performers, dancers and orchestra preparing for their performances. Simon was able to make this one and a half hour tour interesting and compelling for all participants regardless of their age or where they were from. This tour is highly recommended, even if you are not a ballet or opera buff.