London Books + Food Diary
Cheese, Virginia Woolf, baked goods, and more Woolf.
I recently returned from my first major trip since the beginning of the pandemic. My mom and I went to London and stayed in the neighbourhood where I lived and studied in 2017, enjoying the spring weather, street food, and amazing bookstores. We have joked that the two themes of the trip were food and books (how glorious) and I am carrying that direction through as the lens for this very brief travel diary.
Lunch at the London Review Book + Cakeshop: Truffle oil, lemony kale and broccoli, vegan mac n’ cheese with pickled vegetables and kale on the side, and a green tea to drink. I also picked up three books — Virginia Woolf’s Oh! To Be a Painter, Hannah Arendt’s The Freedom to Be Free, and Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow. I think I might like to live in this adorable cafe and shop.
Dinner at Pizza Express Aldwych: I don’t care what anybody says…. ultra-thin crust pizza is superior to all other forms. Pizza Express is a London tradition for my mom and I, so I took her for a birthday dinner at this outpost between Waterloo Bridge and Somerset House. Maybe not the most fashionable choice in the world, but frankly… it should be. I had a Romana style pizza with a fried egg, black olives, and spinach. We finished it off with dessert — truly one of the best chocolate cakes I have ever had, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Breakfast in our apartment: Malted wheat cereal from Waitrose with berries, Wensleydale cheese, and tea. (The same everyday from here out.)
Lunch at Southbank Food Market: Shared a Golden Boy grilled cheese with three cheeses, two chutneys, carmelised onion, and truffle oil.
Drinks at The Perseverance pub.: I had a really good white wine that I now cannot find the name of. I think it was citrus-y?
Dinner at Salaam Namaste Bloomsbury: A great Indian spot that we had been to five years ago. We got takeaway with schezwan paneer, butter chicken, and a bunch of nice little sides.
Lunch at Burgh’s House in Hampstead: Sweet potato & pea soup to die for and an equally wonderful herb scone the size of a baby. It’s an old house museum with a lovely cafe and garden. They’ve really nailed the art of the soup and scone here.
Book shopping at Keith Fawkes, an antique shop and used bookstore: I picked up used copies of Woolf’s The Years and Henry James’ Washington Square, both editions from the 1970s. I also got a fancy old cake knife and fork for £5. We then went to Waterstone’s across the road and checked off some books from my birthday list — Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia and Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.
Dinner at our apartment: Leftover Indian takeaway and some harissa-halloumi kebabs from Waitrose (if the theme of the trip was food, the subtheme was halloumi).
Snack from Cakehole market stand: Chocolate orange brownie (with a literal slice of Terry’s Chocolate Orange on top). I transcended.
Lunch at Oli Baba’s in Camden Market: more halloumi, this time in the form of french fries with za’atar yogurt, pomegranate seeds, mint, chilli flakes, and sumac. I was floating.
Stopped at Word on the Water, a bookstore on a boat near King’s Cross. I did not buy anything this time.
Gelato at Ruby Violet: I had British Blackcurrant and my mom had Italian Lemon. We ended up sharing because the two flavours went together really nicely.
Dinner: Spinach bhaji from a food stall with a Freekeh, black rice, and chickpea salad from Waitrose.
Kadak Chai from Chai Guys in Covent Garden: flavourful, cardamom-forward, and incredibly soothing.
Book shopping at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly: I got Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, a 1920s novel about an Edwardian witch, and a cheap copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. The staff here were incredibly friendly and helpful; we spent a long time chatting with them about books.
Late lunch at Miel Bakery in Fitzrovia: “indulgent” hot chocolate and an apple-rhubarb pastry. There were so many things here that looked incredible and it was difficult to choose what to go for — we went back another day for savoury options and I think that was the better move, but I also never got to try their famous cardamom buns.
Snack at Gozleme Club in St. Pancras churchyard: Some nice hot spinach and feta gozleme from a truck set up beside a Greek Revival church off of Euston.
Dinner at Tacqueria in Camberwell/Exmouth Market: Great margaritas and beautifully plated tacos. I had the soft shell crab tempura tacos that came in a really nice pickled jalapeño sauce.
Unhinged dessert from Tinseltown: When I was eight-years-old and a very picky eater, my family visited cousins in London and my brother and I became obsessed with the Oreo milkshakes at Tinseltown, a weird and kind of dingy chain of diners that are miraculously still in business. This is the only food-related opinion from that era that is still valid — their Oreo milkshakes are in fact incomparable and I don’t know why. They just are. No toppings or extras, because why mess with such a good thing? I love having weirdly specific food obsessions, and a lot of them seem traceable to London, actually.
We went to Rodmell, Sussex to see Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s cottage Monks’ House and ate lunch at The Abergavenny Arms. Local pub food in the country has, I have often found, been unreasonably great. I had a beetroot tart topped with warm goats cheese and balsamic, with a side salad and fries. I would replicate this on my own if cheese didn’t cost an arm and a leg in Canada.
Exhausted after almost missing our train back to London, we got takeout from the local Italian spot, Ciao Bella (an old favourite that is always busy, even on a rainy Wednesday night). I had spaghetti in white wine sauce with mussels that was surprisingly affordable and unsurprisingly delicious.
Book shopping back at London Review Bookshop (Joanna Walsh’s My Life as a Godard Movie, Richard Ayoade’s Ayoade on Top, and Lola Olufemi’s Experiments in Imagining Otherwise) and Waterstone’s on Gower St. (a used copy of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan and a hot-off-the-press edition of Margo Jefferson’s new Constructing a Nervous System).
Lunch at Bloomsbury Farmer’s Market, a Thursday tradition from when I lived in London. We both got paella from my favourite stand, though by the time we were there they had run out of the vegan kind and so I got seafood, which contained entire crustaceans that were honestly a bit much. We ate outside in Gordon Square and tried not to make a mess.
Chai lattés from Redemption Coffee Roasters, which is supposedly the best coffee in London and also does a lot of work with and for people who are incarcerated. We don’t drink coffee though, and the chai latté was pretty mediocre with a strong liquorice aftertaste.
Dinner at Banh Mi Bay in Clerkenwell: Definitely a more plain banh mi than others that I’ve had. They had good service and a friendly atmosphere though.
Dessert from Cakehole: In the absence of chocolate orange brownies at the Bloomsbury market stand, we got a slice of chocolate cake to celebrate our April/May birthdays and ate it with raspberries while watching Derry Girls.
Lunch part I from Miel Bakery: We picked up a tomato basil focaccia from Miel that blew my mind. Some focaccia can be too bready and dry, but this had tomato sauce in the middle of the doughy center. We brought it with us to Hampstead, where we hiked the Heath to Kenwood House and ate it on the lawn while intermittently napping and looking at dogs. Heavenly.
Lunch part II at Burgh’s House: Homemade pink lemonade and another herb scone, enjoyed on a bench below a trellis and surrounded by wisteria and other fragrant plants. My friend Tasha joined us here too. I did not want to leave.
Dinner at Kolamba in Soho: Usually the idea of eating dinner in Soho on a Friday night would be ill-advised, but we wanted to treat ourselves on the last night and try something new. This Sri Lankan spot was delicious, although they did strongly encourage us to order way more than two (very hungry) people could possibly hope to eat, and the cost really added up. We gorged ourselves on pappadums, hopper, beetroot curry, jackfruit and cinnamon curry, dhal, and fried cashew curry. I also had a really good “Rosa Spritz” made with berry bitters, lemonade, mint, and lime. I recommend this spot, but be cautious as you order… I have always thought myself to have a bottomless appetite, but on this occasion, I did in fact find the bottom.
Book shopping at the airport: James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit were BOGO.
Azadeh Moaveni’s report from the Poland-Ukraine border for London Review of Books is, in my view, essential reading. So much is typically lost in war reportage with its emphasis so squarely on military strategy, land won and lost, diplomacy, and economics; in contrast, Moaveni’s view from the ground foregrounds the challenges facing Ukrainian women refugees who need access to childcare, contraception, abortion, and safety from human trafficking, as well as the feminist organisations in Poland that are struggling both against the humanitarian crisis and their own government’s sanctions on reproductive and sexual freedom.
In the short article “How Christian Nationalism Perverted the Judicial System and Gutted Our Rights,” Kathleen Stewart tackles the leaked Roe v. Wade decision draft by examining the legal ‘logic’ underlying the move to undermine the right to bodily autonomy. Stewart notes that some of the legal history used to justify scrapping Roe comes from the thirteenth century and it argues that because women did not historically have equal rights, there is no basis for an entitlement to them now — a line of thinking first solidified with the heinous 1857 Dred Scott decision that denied the equal rights of Black Americans. There has been a lot written about reproductive justice in the past weeks, but I found the attention to the legal rhetoric here crucial; we have to ask what this kind of logic and abuse of power means for future decisions and how courts have become an overdetermined site for allotting emancipation and freedom.
So many stupid Tweets and memes from white liberal feminists are seeing current events in the U.S. as a chance to fête the prescience of The Handmaid’s Tale. In case you need a refresher as to why this comparison is offensive and inane, I liked this essay from The White Review a couple of years ago on how Atwood appropriates the histories of racialised groups for her own white-washed story, while also failing to robustly critique patriarchal power. Atwood didn’t predict the future — she mined the all-too-real past.
Florence + the Machine dropped a new album, Dance Fever, last Friday morning. I enjoyed the singles “King,” “Free,” and “Heaven is Here” that were released earlier, but I now also very much dig the spooky, tortured, joyous, choral, percussive, big sound of tracks like “The Bomb,” “Cassandra,” and “Back in Town.” I want — quite appropriately — to aggressively dance to “Choreomania,” a song that is named for a medieval phenomenon in which women would sometimes publicly dance themselves to the point of fatal exhaustion. I think the strongest of the bunch, however, might be the closer “Morning Elvis,” in which Florence vulnerably confesses being torn between quitting after every tour, peeling herself from the floor to face the audience, and also not wanting or being able to do anything else but write and perform — an urgency heightened by the cloistered early years of the pandemic. I love her admission of feeling perpetually “scared” but finding hope in ultimately being “spared” from the objects of her terror. She excels so beautifully at writing those kinds of parallels, smartly putting into language the covert and entangled sensations of desire, despair, and relief.
On that note, last week I saw Sarah Polley speak about her new book Run Towards the Danger. I have not yet read the book but my mom and I got her copy signed, and we spoke with Sarah for a few minutes about her adaptation of the Miriam Toews novel Women Talking, a book that I have been doing academic research on for about two years now. She seems to be one of those rare people who manage to be terribly accomplished, smart, and thoughtful, as well as exceptionally kind, generous, and unpretentious. It was an altogether lovely talk and interaction.
I finished Season 3 of Derry Girls rather tearfully. RIP to one of the best shows of the past few years. Thank goodness it is so endlessly re-watchable. I’m now working my way through the new season of Russian Doll, which is a little bit too talky and random sometimes, but on the whole, it’s good stuff (I’m channelling Natasha Lyonne here).
Last week, I finished Elif Batuman’s Either/Or, a sequel to The Idiot that launches today. No spoilers, but I am hoping to write something long and maybe embarrassingly personal about it if any magazines are silly enough to let me do so (they probably won’t be). I will say however that it is not quite as good as The Idiot, which feels like a much tighter book. I’m finishing Rachel Cusk’s Outline for school, and will hopefully dip into the Arendt that I bought in London (and that feels incredibly timely).