Eat, drink, love East London
Food, glorious food
Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30
The eats in East London are better than ever, says Aoife McElwain, who takes a foodie trip to The (Really) Big Smoke.
"Are you going to Lyle's?"
That's the question my food-loving friends asked before I set off for The (Really) Big Smoke. The aim was to eat my way around East London, home to some of the capital's coolest neighbourhoods and the focal point of Rosie Birkett and Helen Cathcart's new book: East London Food: The People, The Places, The Recipes.
The book highlights the creative food community in places like Hackney, Shoreditch and the Old Spitalfields Market, featuring a mouthwatering collection of chefs, butchers, foragers, urban beekeepers and their produce. The white-tiled, on-trend Lyle's (lyleslondon.com) is one of its centrepieces.
And yes, I was definitely going.
With head chef and co-owner James Lowe at the helm, Lyle's does tasting plates for lunch and a tasting menu for dinner in The Tea Buildings, a corner warehouse in Shoreditch. Over lunch, the London sunlight streams through tall windows in an industrial space, creating spectacular shadows on a bowl of Jersey Royal new potatoes served with herring soft roes and sorrel (£8.30/€9.90).
There's a plate of juicy snails with crispy-fried nettle, toasted barley and pheasant's egg (£8.30/€9.90) that sums up the elements of a summer stroll in the English countryside. Razor clams with fennel pollen (£9.90/€11.80), monkfish livers with blood oranges, and guinea fowl skewers with yoghurt and lemon thyme (both £6.90/€8.20) are also devoured. Every dish shines a spotlight on the simplistic beauty of seasonal ingredients, and it all lives up to the hype.
James Lowe ran the kitchen at St John Bread and Wine (stjohngroup.uk.com), just a seven-minute walk from Lyle's, before going out on his own. The influence and pared-back ethos of legendary chef, Fergus Henderson, shines through.
How could it not?
Henderson and his wife Margot opened St John's Restaurant in 1994, a driving force behind the Nose To Tail approach to cooking. St John Bread and Wine followed, as an even less formal platform for British cooking, on the edge of Old Spitalfields Market in 2003. It's unfussy and simple, and you can pop in to pick up one of their famous Eccles cakes, doughnuts or sourdough loaves from the take-away bakery.
You can also wander through Old Spitalfields Market and down Artillery Lane to one of Yotam Ottolenghi's cafés (ottolenghi.co.uk). This Israeli chef and his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi have done for rose water and za'atar what Jamie Oliver did for extra virgin olive oil. There are salads and sweets to take away, or to sit in, but its décor is starting to feel a little dated. Honey & Co (honeyandco.co.uk) on nearby Warren Street, technically in the west of the city, is today's forerunner in adapting Middle Eastern flavours for the London palate.
Back in the direction of Lyle's, Dishoom's (dishoom.com) coveted bacon naan roll (£5.50/€6.50) is served up daily from their Shoreditch location. It's one of four Dishooms in Central London celebrating the Irani cafés of Bombay.
Borough Market (boroughmarket.org.uk), near the Southbank of The Thames, is on the tourist trail but it's a quick and authentic taste of what's happening in The City. It can be intensely busy on weekends, but it's worth the squish to stuff your face with one of Bread Ahead's salted honeycomb donuts.
I grab a bundle of British asparagus to cook in my Airbnb, and pick up tubs of beetroot powder and Aleppo chilli flakes from Spice Mountain to take home. Cheesemongers Neal's Yard have a branch in the market, too, piled high with British and international cheeses, including our own Coolea and Durrus.
Also tucked away in Borough Market is Padella (padella.co). It proves to be pasta heaven, serving up freshly-made pasta in classic combos such as silky ricotta and broad beans, or spicy 'nduja with tomato sauce. It's simple, the stuff you dream of when thinking of holidays in Italy.
Padella is owned by the trusted team behind Trullo (trullorestaurant.com) on St Paul's Road in Islington. Around the corner in this North East borough is Black Axe Mangal (blackaxemangal.com), a no-reservation spot serving up Turkish food with a side of heavy metal. It's packed when we walk past on the way to Hackney, for dinner in Pidgin (pidginlondon.com).
A four-course set menu here (£37/€44) changes every week, without fail. Our highlights include the buttermilk birthday cake dessert, a vanilla sponge splashed dramatically with tangy fruit powders and milk ice-cream.
What makes the UK capital so special is its breadth of choice. Even within East London, one weekend is not enough. The rippling consequences of June's Brexit vote could take years to settle, and who knows what the impact on tourism will be in the future, but for now a plummeting pound has made our eating adventures easier on the euro. It seems a little like economic schadenfreude to be too gleeful about that, however, especially as the overwhelming majority of London's 8.5 million inhabitants voted to stay in the EU.
Then again, London has always marched to its own drum, and East London has a rhythm of its own. Lyle's is just the start of a brilliant foodie adventure.
Heathrow is convenient for East London, thanks to its Tube connection, though Stansted is very handy too (take the overground train to Hackney Central). If you're not stuck for time, take the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and the train to London from there. Head to visitlondon.com for more tips.
Where to stay
Live it up like a local with an Airbnb in East London. Look for pads in Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Hackney and Bethnal Green, checking that you're within walking distance of the Tube. Rooms start from around €40 per night on airbnb.ie as we publish. The Hoxton (thehoxton.com) is a funky hotel base in Shoreditch, too.
The first thing you should do in London is get an Oyster Card (tfl.gov.uk). You can pick one up in any train or Tube station, and top-up easily as you go. The cards are valid on the Underground, buses and overground trains (handy for East London). Children under 11 go free with a fee-paying adult.
On the Tourist Trail
Several of London's heavy-hitters are on the East side, including St Paul's Cathedral (stpauls.co.uk), the future-retro beauty of The Barbican Centre (barbican.org.uk) and The Tower of London (hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london), not to mention Shakespeare's Globe (shakespearesglobe.com).
Off the beaten track
The Geffrye Museum (geffrye-museum.co.uk) is a wonderful little museum of interior design through the ages in Hackney. If St Paul's is too crowded, try the quiet solace of the Church of St Martin-within-Ludgate (stmartin-within-ludgate.org.uk), a small and modest church in the shadow of the Cathedral.
For the kids
If you've already seen The Tower of London (London Bridge is nearby too), take in a bit of inner-city greenery at Hackney Farm (hackneycityfarm.co.uk). This petting zoo is home to geese, ducks, donkeys, and ponies and their environmental education programme includes green skills training.