After a good 48 straight hours in the house, I was more than ready to get out today, so I followed Andrew in on the tube to Spitalfields. He came to pick me up around 6 at the café where I’d been sitting with my laptop, with a hangdog look on his face, thanks to bad workplace news. Clearly, a drink and a brisk walk were in order, but first we headed over to Covent Garden. Despite the dark and cold, vendors closing up for the night, and a lot of posh chain stores, I could appreciate the architecture that went into redeveloping the marketplace near the Royal Opera House; in warmer weather, it’ll be fun to come back and browse.
Then, from across the road, a cutesy-wacky-colorful shop called Cyber Candy grabbed my attention and I knew we had to go in. Sure enough, it was the kind of place a Japanese teenage girl would love, but then again, who wouldn’t? We found everything from lollipops with crickets and mezcal worms to frosting-flavored lip balm to every Commonwealth nation’s full range of Cadbury to Hot Tamale-flavored cotton candy to Family Guy energy drink to… well, you just need to check it out. It’s quite a giggle.
On to Chinatown for a few staples. There was no looming Korean or Vietnamese supermarket, or shops with baskets of dodgy-looking fruit and moribund crabs on the sidewalk. The Chinese grocery we did find was small and tidy and complete in terms of nonperishable staples and some frozen stuff, including a few Japanese and Thai items. In addition to the dried mushrooms and fish sauce we needed, we found prawn crackers in their pre-fried form, for 55 p. “They’re so cheap, get two boxes!” Andrew suggested; I assured him that one box was plenty and would last us for years. I hesitated on the mushrooms because the price wasn’t marked, but the mushrooms, fish sauce, prawn crackers, and rice vinegar all came to less than £5, so they couldn’t have been too bad.
Rounding the corner onto Gerrard Street, another, smaller grocer had some fruit and a steamer case outside with bao in it. Not just the small bao you get with dim sum, but those massive, whole lunch-sized barbecued pork bao, I’m guessing jammed with Chinese sausage and hard-boiled egg as well as pork, that I don’t eat anymore but used to pine for. Andrew can have one on our next trip. And then, oh my – we walked the most beautiful Chinatown high street I have ever seen in my life. Andrew shrugged and said, “As you can see, they’re all pretty much of a muchness.” Well, if that’s the case, my goodness! It was like Disneyland. So clean, such spiffy, modern restaurants. Each window was hung with glistening, lacquered roast ducks more beautiful than the last. (Mmm, duck… can you see another post coming?) Sure, there’s evidence of a few girly bars, but not enough – at least at 7:30 at night – to add much seediness. It helps that there’s a lovely French Catholic church right off the main drag. The loveliest ducks of all were, as a savvy friend told me, in the Four Seasons. Again, we’ll be back.
I’ve been in Chinatowns in Boston, San Francisco, and New York (forget about Washington, DC – that’s practically nonexistent), and all have dwindled from a drain of restaurants and shops to the suburbs, following their clientele and cheaper real estate. There must be some serious money keeping London’s Chinatown alive. Maybe related to Britain’s ties with Hong Kong? That said, where does the Chinese community actually live?
Moving on, though, because I really did want to get to Kopi Tiam for dinner, we looped back around to Charing Cross Road and found the place. Not at all fancy, the prices were right and, on Monday night, we had no trouble getting a table (if we had, you can bet I would’ve been happy to head back to one of those places with the ducks hanging in the window!) We were a little confused because there were two completely non-overlapping menus, without any particular attempt to say why, although one – shorter, and with photos of the food – had the name of the restaurant, Malaysia Kopi Tiam, across the top. It had a number of dishes I could identify as Malay, while the other had Thai dishes, some Chinese, and a whole bunch I wasn’t sure of. We went for the one with the Malay dishes and lucked out. Not really knowing what we were doing, we picked Hokkien Mee, Curry Laksa with chicken, and Roti Canai, and when we asked for steamed rice the waiter pointed out we didn’t really need it, because we had two noodle dishes, and a starter that came with pancakes.
All three dishes, though we really didn’t know how to eat them and made a huge mess, were super-satisfying. The winner was the Curry Laksa: rich, spicy, and intensely warming with chili-stained coconut milk. We passed the bowl back and forth and slurped up every bit of the noodles and gravy, and our lips glowed pleasantly. The Hokkien Mee, with more Chinese flavors of soy sauce, was made with fatter homemade noodles. I liked the Roti Canai, too, though the flaky pancakes were a little bland and could have been smaller.
Warm and happy, we set off into the city in search of dessert. We wiggled through back streets in Soho and saw any number of interesting- and posh-looking restaurants that we noted for future occasions – including a Goan Indian restaurant. But we ended up at an Italian café, called Bar Italia, that apparently was one of the few of its kind remaining from an earlier time. They had a caseful of pretty cakes and tarts, and we ordered two of them, and an espresso, from the fairly surly counter staff. I started painstakingly (I’m learning, ok?) counting out £7 in change, but when I pushed it across the counter with an “OK?” so that the cashier could check my math, he curtly replied, “No, I said £10!” so I took it back and handed him a bill. A little steep, but it’s the big city, right?
Well, I had one bite of my tart, which looked like berries on top of cream, and I was incensed. The cream did not taste like cream, or even ricotta, but whatever the British equivalent of Cool-Whip is, a tasteless and waxy mess. Actually, it didn’t even taste as good as Cool-Whip. And for £4? At least Andrew liked his apple tart, and the coffee.
On the whole, despite my crankiness at the end, a nice evening, good food, companionship, and even exercise. Just as importantly, we got a lot of good information for future outings.