The many Londons within
Stay away from Oxford Street and learn to love another London!brunch Updated: Nov 18, 2017 21:49 IST
I wonder how many Indians who travel to London ever stop to think about the mismatch between the London they see in the movies and the London that Indian visitors stick to. In the movies, London is usually represented by a shot of Big Ben and the houses of parliament or, in recent years, the London Eye. Both are near the river. The Embankment, which is at the edge of the Thames, is a favourite location for film shoots. Even when James Bond goes home to headquarters, it is at the Secret Intelligence Service’s fancy building by the Thames.
The Thames is so central to most representations of London in popular culture that I find it odd that most of us Indians, who regularly travel to London, have so little to do with it.
Unless you have relatives who live in the Indian-dominated areas of the city (Southall, Wembley, etc.) the chances are that your Indian tourist experience will revolve around Oxford Street and you will regard the Selfridges department store as the British capital’s greatest landmark. There was a time when I used to joke that the only way to meet up with every Indian who was visiting London was to hang around the Marble Arch branch of Marks & Spencer, next to Selfridges. Sooner or later, nearly everyone would drop by to buy something. (Less true, now that M&S has opened all over India).
Rich Indians find Oxford Street too crowded and too claustrophobic – which it is. But they will also stick to familiar territory. Bond Street perhaps or Mount Street, Brompton Road (i.e. Harrods) and Sloane Street. Few Indians who can afford to stay in Mayfair or Knightsbridge (and shop there) venture far beyond those familiar areas.
Around a couple of years ago, I decided that I was going to break those barriers. I didn’t see why one had to stay in a hotel on Park Lane, which, in any case, seems less like London and more like a road in Riyadh. I went to school in North London so that was an obvious alternative destination and the best new restaurants are in places like Shoreditch, far away from tourist London.
Unless you have relatives who live in the Indian-dominated areas of London, chances are that your tourist experience will revolve around Oxford Street and you’ll regard Selfridges as the British capital’s greatest landmark
But the more I thought about it the more I wanted the London of the movies: Big Ben, the Embankment, the South Bank and above all, the Thames. Much of this is part of tourist London but oddly enough, not the London of Indian tourists.
A few months ago, I spent as long as I could by the Thames, eating at such old favourites as Le Pont de la Tour and idling away a lazy Sunday wandering by the riverside. This time too, I shunned the usual Mayfair-Knightsbridge circuit and chose a different London.
It wasn’t just the river I wanted but stately, governmental London which has a timeless charm. I stayed at the Corinthia hotel, which is just off Whitehall, a stone’s throw from the magnificent old buildings where the British ministries are housed and just down the road from Downing Street.
The Corinthia has had a chequered history. It opened in 1895 as The Metropole hotel, was the toast of the town for decades, and then fell on hard times. The government took it over and during the Second World War, it was handed to the Intelligence Services. Apparently, the division of the Secret Service tasked with deception and with fooling the Nazis (by misleading them about the location of the invasion of France etc.) was located here.
After the war, Britain scaled down its Intelligence network and the spies moved out of the building. It was then put to a variety of uses before Corinthia, a Maltese luxury hotel mini-chain, took it over and spent millions restoring it. The idea was to recreate the golden age of London hotels at the turn of the century, an ambitious task that involved remodelling nearly all of the interiors. To the group’s credit, the Corinthia London looks like it has always been there, whereas in fact, it only opened in 2011.
The Corinthia is a street away from the river which was a huge attraction for me. But if you walk in the opposite direction, away from the Thames, Big Ben, etc., you are only a few minutes away from Trafalgar Square. I negotiated the tourist hordes and hit the National Gallery with its collection of priceless Old Masters by the likes of Velasquez, Degas, Titian, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and nearly every other great painter you can think of. Only in Britain would such a beautiful gallery, packed with such great works of art, be so well-maintained despite being entirely free. (There are no tickets; anyone can walk in.)
If you walk a little further from Trafalgar Square, you hit the bars, restaurants and theatres of Soho and Shaftesbury Avenue. I have avoided London theatre in recent years because the scene now consists largely of useless revivals and empty musicals. But I got tickets to The Ferryman, one of the most praised plays of the year. It is three hours long and deals with the troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, so it is not exactly light entertainment. But the theatre was packed and the cast received a standing ovation at the end.
In Soho, it was surprising to see how many of the older restaurants had closed and how a new generation had taken over. I went to one old favourite – the Sichuan restaurant Barshu – but it was nowhere near as good as it used to be.
And then, out of a perverse curiosity I tried the Flavour Bastard. It is a silly I-am-so-naughty name for what is actually a good restaurant. But I think the name put off London food critics so completely that the restaurant has received some of the most abusive reviews I have read. A month ago, the lawyer Sanjay Hedge tweeted one particularly negative review to me and demanded to know why Indian food critics were not as merciless when it came to judging restaurants.
I tweeted back to Sanjay that I would try it myself the next time I was in London. And either the food has improved dramatically after the reviews appeared or the critics were just wrong. The menu is rooted in Indian cuisine: there are Indian flavours and recognisable Indian dishes but they have all been given twists.
Most of what I tried wasn’t bad at all. A vada with chorizo and pecorino cheese worked well, so did a tender pork belly with pepper and cinnamon. Steak tartare is, by no means, an Indian dish but I liked the flavour. Tandoori Fried Chicken was a chicken pakora, elevated far above the Moti Mahal dish by using a Kentucky Fried Chicken style coating and by excellent frying. I think the sourness overwhelmed some dishes (an idli with kimchi) but overall, the food was good enough to make me want to go back.
The last time I was in London I had eaten by the river but this time, the concierge at the Corinthia said that he thought it was time for an aerial view. The Shard is one of those tall controversial buildings near the financial district that people love to hate because of its gleaming nouveau modernism.
Some floors of the building have been taken over by a new Shangri La hotel but some floors are devoted to standalone upmarket restaurants.
The Concierge suggested Oblix, the new venture from Arjun Waney and Rainer Becker, the men behind Zuma. I was hesitant because the reviews had been either negative or lukewarm but the Concierge said the guests he had sent had all loved it. So I let him book me in for Sunday lunch.
It proved to be a wise decision. Whatever your views on tall modern buildings in London (I am not a fan) there is no denying that the view they offer of the Thames and of London is unmatched. As it turned out, the food at Oblix, a fancy restaurant decorated in a style best described as “international hotel-modern” was good. A flavourful rib-eye, plump and juicy hand-dived scallops and the best chips I have eaten in a long time. It was not cheap but I thought it was worth it.
Among the Corinthia’s attractions is a lovingly restored restaurant dating back to The Metropole era. The huge room is an Art-deco dream with candy-striped Corinthian columns, mosaic marble floors, large hemispherical lights and vast spaces. The chef Massimo Riccioli is well-known in Rome and the food is Italian-Italian (as distinct from London-Italian). I ate a delicate tartare of sea bass and perfect veal chop.
By the time I was ready to leave London, I realised that, apart from the obligatory quick trip to Hatchards on Piccadilly, I had avoided Mayfair and Knightsbridge completely.
There are many Londons. And it’s fun to try them all.
From HT Brunch, November 19, 2017
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First Published: Nov 18, 2017 21:49 IST