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The Best London Restaurants Locals Don't Want You to Know
It's been almost two years since I was last in London and I miss it terribly. I really miss the food - yes, there is such a thing as good food in London. I know you may not believe me, so I decided to review some of my favorite restaurants in London that are unlikely to be in any guides. When I first moved to London in 2005, I fully expected to starve from the lack of good food. The British are known for their dulled down flavors and preference for bitter foods. Even the powerful flavors of the Indian cuisine is known to be severely lacking.
As it turns out, not everyone succumbs to turning down the flavor to satisfy the typical English palate. During my years in London, I dedicated one meal a day to hunting down my favorite local restaurants that kept their meals full of fresh and vibrant flavor. Since I've been in London for so long, I decided to separate my favorite restaurants by location. I lived in west London almost my entire time there, so that is where I will start.
This is the first. The restaurant that started it all for me. In my books, one of the best London restaurants ever. One sunny afternoon, a friend and I stumbled upon this quaint little restaurant in Hammersmith just after looking at a new flat we were thinking of renting. At first glance, there was nothing particularly amazing about the place. In fact, it looked as though the food would be average at best, but there was a small sign announcing a pretty great lunch special. We were about half an hour late, but decided to ask if we could get the deal anyway.
When we poked our heads in we were greeted with a small piece of Italy. The space was small and painted with a soft yellow. Italian paintings hung on the walls and classic Italian music was playing. An older woman was cleaning up a table and a single patron sat at a table by the window. We asked about the deal and the older woman looked at her watch, shrugged and enthusiastically waved us in.
She offered us a small drink on the house and promptly gave us the menus. Looking around us, we were pleasantly surprised. A small table held a variety of spice-infused oils and a selection of wines filled the wall by the front table. Stairs led down to the kitchen and toilets. Perhaps only 15 guests could fit comfortably in the restaurant.
We both ordered a bottle of wine and bruschetta for starters. My friend ordered a spinach and ricotta cannelloni and I got penne arrabiata.
Apparently arrabiata means angry in Italian, and I can see why. The chef did not hold back on the chillis and the spicy Italian sausage could bring tears to your eyes in the most wonderful way possible. In contrast, the tomato sauce had a slight sweetness to it that paired wonderfully with both the spicy meat and the lovely house red. The cannelloni was amazing. My friend only allowed me a small taste before devouring it all. The spinach was so wonderfully fresh that it tasted as though it was just picked only moment before cooking. The cheese had a blend of herbs and a touch of a creamy sauce that I had not tried before.
To top it all off, our bill was just over £20 for the both of us including the wine. After that first experience, we both went back over and over again. We brought everyone we knew there whenever it was feasible. We even got to know the owners, the older woman and her husband, who were, funnily enough, a sweet Albanian couple. The chefs were also Albanian and the regular waiter was French. Who knew they could serve some of the best Italian I've ever had in that country?
I am getting hungry just thinking of this restaurant. Funnily enough, it is just one door down from Casa Mia. Only slightly more impressive from the outside, the only true hint to the delectable treasures held inside is the tinted view of a man making bread near the entrance. My friends and I decided to try this place solely because of that man.
Our first visit was on a quieter weekday afternoon. The rooms were dimly lit, with the natural light from the outside providing most of the light. We were swiftly seated and given large menus. Everything seemed to be on offer, it was hard to choose. I decided to try a simple lamb skewer with grilled vegetables and rice. I also added bread and hummus to my order to share. I was feeling very hungry. There were about six of us there and we all ordered a variety of foods. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to taste everything. I remember my first bite into the lamb, and it was not what I was expecting. I've had lamb plenty of times, but never like this. It was juicy and packed with flavor. The grilled vegetables went perfectly with the meat and the rice just topped it all off. The bread is was still very warm to the touch and paired wonderfully with their homemade hummus and dolma.
Walking in on a busy night, you wouldn't think that the restaurant was big, but you almost feel as though there is no end to the restaurant. That is not to say that it doesn't feel crowded. Quite the contrary. Mahdi is filled with Persian and Iranian treasures, elaborate rugs cover the floor and beautiful arches lead you to different areas of the restaurant. One room is dedicated to larger groups of people, with large round tables filling the space. The tables in the second room are very close together, giving a more family feel to the area. You cannot help but begin speaking to patrons around you.
The menu is large, with a wide selection of traditionally-made Persian and Iranian food, and all at reasonable prices. One person could easily fill up on their large portioned food for only £8, not including your drinks. Service is fast and professional, little to no conversation from the staff who patiently watch over the crowd near the back when they are not serving tables.
I admit my experiences with Persian food are limited, but I can tell you this: I have never had any Persian nearly as good as what I've had here. No matter how many times I've gone back, the food stays consistently amazing. I would give anything to be there right now. You have no idea how many times I would go out of my way after classes to get take away from here to enjoy while studying. I am not the only one who believes this either, Madhi is frequently acknowledged as being the gem of Hammersmith. Please, do me a favor and try it for yourself. You won't regret it.
Grove Park Tandoori
I probably spent hundreds of pounds at this London restaurant over the years. It is located in a quiet tourist-free area of Chiswick, right across the street from the train station. The outside and interior of the restaurant is pretty standard and straight-forward, but the amazing aromas, good food and superior customer service make up for the rest.
Grove Park Tandoori is known for their great customer service. After only a couple of visits, you are already like a part of their family. You are greeted warmly and usually offered something small on the house while you wait.
The food is cooked traditional-style and you can taste every minute of effort and love they put in each dish. So many times I've been completely stuffed, but managed to finish my dish simply because it was so great. My favorite is always the butter chicken. Sweet, creamy and just a touch of spice. Their onion bhajis and naan bread taste fresh and homemade. I am reminded of an elder Indian woman preparing a big family meal whenever I go there.
Chiswick is known for their great restaurants and high prices. Grove Park Tandoori offers the same high quality food, but at a much more reasonable price. If you find yourself on one of the SouthWest Trains, check to see if there is a stop in Chiswick and stop by to try this amazing Indian.
On rare mornings when my flatmates and I were up and dressed before 10am, we would treat ourselves to a crepe breakfast and a "brain booster" smoothie at Crepe Parisienne in Chiswick. My first time there was with my boyfriend at the time. He worked a few doors down at the car dealership and we would go to the cafes nearby for lunch sometimes. At first, I was intimidated. There were so many choices, I didn't know what to pick! We only had 45 minutes for his lunch, so he chose a simple spinach, mushroom and carmelized onion crepe for me. The chef at the time, a genuine Frenchman, must have made the crepe four or five times before he was satisfied with the end product. He insisted that the crepe be a specific thickness, texture, size and shape. Quite the perfectionist for such a busy cafe, but oh so worth it. The crepe he served me was completely packed with freshly sauteed spinach and mushrooms with sweet onions and a touch of brie. It was just the most simple and beautiful thing I had ever tasted.
Beyond that, the greatness of Crepe Parisienne is far more than the food, but the service and people who work there. As I said before, the chef making the crepes was an actual Frenchman, but he was from Brittany, the place from which crepes originate. If you ever want someone making your crepes, is a perfectionist from Brittany because you will never find anything better. The owner busily works the cafe along with one, maybe two other girls on particularly busy days. He works the tills, serves the food and even clears up tables. He puts so much into this place and it really shows. When you go up to the till to pay for your food, he is always open to some quick small talk with a sweet smile on his face. Even more impressively, and not at all related to crepes, he speaks six languages. A feat I envy more than anything.
If you want simple, filling food, made just right in a friendly and open atmosphere, this is the place to go. If you are in London for a while, pick up one of their loyalty cards if they still have them, and get your ninth one free. They also give you a free crepe on your birthday. If not, Crepe Parisienne is another place that gives you quality food at a reasonable price. A big crepe with a smoothie costs about £10. I admit, I never had one of the sweet crepes. but I know they are just as amazing as the savory varieties.
Chocolate Café/Tea Box
This, my friend, is the half a review because the Chocolate Café closed down years ago. In its place is the Tea Box. I am still going to tell you about the Chocolate Café only because I am hoping that someone will re-open it or a similar place elsewhere by the time I am back in London.
I used to go by the Chocolate Café everyday on my way to University. I always wanted to go in there. I mean, a cafe dedicated entirely to chocolate - how could I not?? My day finally came when I was having a terrible couple of days and walked out of a mid-term exam. In tears, I called up my boyfriend at the time and told him to take me there. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, so we spent hours there ordering food and drinks.
We did not realize how large the portions were and ordered hot chocolate, tomato soup and a sandwich, thinking the soup would be just a small bowl. When it came out, we ere given huge bowls that may have fit about a quart of soup, plus small pieces of just-made buttered baguette. I ate almost the whole thing. It tasted as though they had their own secret recipe for the soup because I never tasted anything like it before. It was almost as if it had a basil puree infused with the tomato. Delicious. The hot chocolate. Yummm... it was literally hot, melted chocolate with a bit of cream. Absolutely delectable. By the time I was finished, there was a thick coating of chocolate at the bottom that I promptly went after with my spoon.
I was stuffed, but sampled the huge tomato, basil and mozzarella baguette they served. The baguette had a crisp, crunchy outside and a warm, soft inside. I love fresh bread. We saved our sandwiches for later. We then ordered cocktails. I was still upset and needed it to calm me down. They had a huge list of choclatey cocktails from which to choose. I don't remember the names of the drinks I ordered, but they were scrumptious and made with a heavy hand. After my second I was feeling pretty good again. I wish I had the chance to go there more often before it closed.
After a while, they opened the Tea Box and I was furious. I mean truly furious. How could they replace my chocolate heaven with tea?! The interior was completely redone to a more antique-quirky style with accents of green. While the food is great, it is pretty limited to scones, a few sandwiches and some breakfast and dinner foods on certain days. The tea offered seems endless. Teas of the world in all flavor combinations. You could probably go there everyday for a year and still not come close to making a dent in the teas they offer. It does not help that the stock is continuously changing.
The Tea Box holds poetry nights and storytelling for children. Although I will always miss the Chocolate Café, I am happy for the Tea Box and miss it dearly.
There are so many wonderful restaurants in London, especially in the west. I was fortunate enough to live in an area that is known for their wonderful restaurants and it is just not possible for me to elaborate on all of them. I do feel that I should at least mention them!
Boys Authentic Thai (Chiswick)
Sam's Brasserie and Bar (Chiswick)
Deliverance - not actually a restaurant, but still AMAZING (London)