Wagamama

During our stay in Oxford, we ended up taking the train down to London again, as we had the opportunity to visit Canada House, part of the High Commission of Canada in London. As it was located right in Trafalgar Square, it was a great opportunity for us to visit attractions that we’d missed out on during our stay in London. We visited the National Portrait Gallery, which houses the portraits of what seems like every notable British person ever. It’s an interesting lens through which to view British history, and like the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, admission is free.

Before all this, though, we stopped by Wagamama for a quick lunch. I was wary of Wagamama, as I had been of most Asian restaurants in London. Wagamama reminded me of The Noodle Box in Vancouver, a very Westernized “Asian” restaurant serving a mix of dishes from different Asian cuisines.

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I had the Cha Han (£7.80), fried rice with chicken and prawns, mangetout (snow peas), mushrooms, sweetcorn and spring onions, served with a side of miso soup and pickles. The miso soup was the usual predictably salty fare, with tiny tofu cubes and some seaweed. The rice itself was, strangely enough, too oily yet too dry at the same time, but also a tiny bit undercooked. I added some soy sauce to moisten it, which helped. I liked how the veggies were in smaller pieces, as it made them easier to eat, especially in the case of the snow peas. The chicken was sufficiently moist, and the prawns had a nice snap to them. Overall, though, it wasn’t a particularly memorable meal.

DSCN0977Dolph’s Chili Men (£10.95) included prawns, zucchini, red onions, peppers, mushrooms, and mangetout in a spicy tomato chili sauce, on soba noodles. With that variety of ingredients, it sounded delicious, but it fell short of the description. The noodles were quite limp and not chewy enough, while the sauce was one-dimensional, simply being spicy with no other real flavours.

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Shawarma opted for the Chili Ramen (£9.65), noodles in a spicy chicken soup topped with grilled chicken, red and spring onions, beansprouts and chilies, garnished with coriander and lime. Like Dolph’s noodles above, Shawarma found her ramen lacking, as there was not much in the way of flavour. While the chilies added some spice, the broth was mostly thin and bland. The noodles were disappointingly mushy, not chewy as ramen should be. She also thought that the dish was quite overpriced, as it really was nothing special.

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Pickles had the Pad Thai (£9.55), with egg, beansprouts, leek, red and spring onions, Chinese chives, garlic, ginger and chilies, fried shallots, and peanuts. Despite the plethora of ingredients, she wasn’t very impressed, having had many a good pad thai in her day. She commented that this version lacked flavour, and that it would have benefitted from more sauce.

Overall, we were underwhelmed by our lunch at Wagamama. Hailing from Vancouver, where there are so many excellent examples of Asian cuisine, I suppose I had some unrealistically high standards when it comes to Asian food, especially since I was lucky enough to grow up with my mother’s cooking. Wagamama is fine for a quick lunch, but it’s nothing I would heartily recommend to someone.

DSCN0989After lunch, our group ventured to Canada House, where we were given a tour of the rooms and provided with a quick history of the building. Following this, we ventured across Trafalgar Square to visit the National Portrait Gallery. Trafalgar Square was even more packed than usual, due to a Scotland vs. England soccer (or, as the British say, football) game taking place that day. Scotsmen in kilts filled the square, downing countless beers (and leaving ten thousand empty cans to be disposed of the next day). Before I visited the U.K., I’d always thought of “British” as more or less a single identity, but now I realize how wrong that is. I learned to clearly distinguish between “English” and “British”, as the latter includes the Scottish and the Welsh in addition to the English. One regret I have about my trip was that I didn’t get to spend much time in the English countryside other than passing through it on my way to and from London.

In any case, I suppose lunch at Wagamama was a fond memory for us, but it definitely paled in comparison to more exciting aspects of the day, including experiencing firsthand the boisterousness of drunken Scotsmen. Ah, London.

Wagamama
14 Irving Street
London, United Kingdom WC2H 7AF

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Spaghetti House

One lovely morning in London, Pickles, Chantallyhoo and I decided to head off to Harrod’s. Not to shop, obviously, but just to visit one of London’s most famous landmarks. In all honesty, I found shopping in London to be quite expensive, although I was excited about the number of shops that aren’t available in Vancouver, including River Island and Uniqlo. Harrod’s was an interesting experience to be sure, and the three of us made a few purchases at the gift shop, where the prices are much more on par with what the average tourist can afford to spend.

After our little adventure, it was time for lunch. We walked around looking for a McDonald’s or a Pret a Manger or even a Starbucks, but for some reason, we were unable to find anything even remotely fast food-like. Since we still needed to eat, we wandered into Spaghetti House, where we were promptly seated and received our food quite quickly.

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I had the Penne Arrabiata (£8.75), with spicy tomato sauce, crushed red chilies, and cherry tomatoes. It was a rather sticky and muggy London day, and this was served piping hot. While that’s usually a good thing, for some reason my pasta stayed hot to the end, and verged on being uncomfortable to eat. I personally would have preferred the pasta itself to be a little bit softer, as I felt it was a tad undercooked, but the tomatoes added a perfect sweetness, while the chilies had that promised dimension of spiciness. Ultimately, this was a filling bowl of pasta, and I would probably order this again, if it hadn’t been inexplicably hot.

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Chantallyhoo went with a classic in the Spaghetti Bolognese (£9.95). She quite enjoyed her pasta, remarking that the noodles themselves were quite chewy, with a bouncy, toothsome texture. She found the sauce a bit watery, but that it didn’t detract from her overall enjoyment of her meal. Overall, she thought that it was a filling and comforting bowl of pasta.

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Pickles had the Margherita Pizza (£7.95). She didn’t have much to say about her pizza, saying that it tasted quite average. She found that the flavours were balanced but that the pizza itself was nothing special. I think that’s a good summary of our experience here overall. I quite enjoyed my lunch, but mostly due to the conversation rather than the food itself. If I were in the area again, I would probably want to try something else.

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After lunch, the three of us ventured to the Natural History Museum. Like the British Museum, the Natural History Museum is publicly funded, and, therefore, free for the general public, although donations are welcome. That being said, the line to get in was quite long, but well worth it. Vancouver isn’t exactly a hotspot for museums, and we had a lovely afternoon just admiring fossils, samples of various minerals, and such.

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Even if you’re not interested in natural history (although how anyone wouldn’t be interested in dinosaurs and mineral formations is beyond me), the building itself was astoundingly beautiful. In some ways, it reminded me of New York’s Grand Central Station, and in other ways it reminded me of Hogwarts. I suppose I’m just trying to point out the grandeur of the architecture. The wide open space provided a perfect backdrop for the larger-than-life displays, and navigating the area was easier than you’d think, with helpful maps and signs in clearly designated locations. The gift shop was definitely more geared towards children, with arrays of stuffed animals and other toys, although that didn’t stop us from picking up our own souvenirs. I only wished we’d arrived earlier so we could have spent more time poring over more exhibits.

Out of the tourist spots that I visited in London, the Natural History Museum was one of my favourites. As much as I love discussing literature and British imperial history, spending the day amongst fossils and other ancient objects was a welcome and much-needed break. Although the Natural History Museum hadn’t been on my list of sights to see in London, I’m glad that I got to spend an afternoon here.

Spaghetti House
77 Knightsbridge
London, UK  SW1X 7RB

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Busaba Eathai

Despite my incessant raving about Japanese food on this blog, I would have to say that Thai food is also one of my favourite cuisines. I only discovered the magic of Thai food about a year ago, which is when my uncle visited us in Vancouver and we had dinner at Bob Likes Thai Food. From then on, I’ve been enamoured of Thai food, and regularly try out new places in Vancouver, although none have surpassed Bob.

While I was in London, this same uncle happened to be in town for work, and of course we decided to meet up. It was strange to see him in a city that neither of us call home, but after nearly a month without any direct contact with family, it was comforting to see a face that was so much like my dad’s.

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We started off our afternoon by visiting Westminster Abbey. I thought I’d become desensitized to churches and cathedrals of all kinds, but I was wrong. Although it lacks the majestic Gothic beauty of the Notre Dame and the simplistic elegance of the Basilica de Sacré-Coeur, I thought Westminster Abbey was impressive simply due to its size. It reminded me of a scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, which is the last book in The Chronicles of Narnia. In the series’s finale, Lucy and Peter and the others find themselves in a magical, idealized version of Narnia, which appears to grow larger and larger as they venture further in. That’s a bit of a digression, but that’s how Westminster Abbey felt to me. It was also exciting to see the tombs of what seemed like every famous British person ever, from Queen Elizabeth I to Charles Dickens. Of course, in more recent news, the abbey was also the site of Prince William’s 2011 marriage to Kate Middleton.

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Once we were done exploring the abbey, we stepped out into the muggy, sticky London weather. After taking a few tourist photos with Big Ben, we headed for an early dinner at a Thai restaurant that my uncle had visited numerous times before on previous visits to London. I was happy to be able to indulge in tasty Thai food, as my last experience with Thai cuisine in London had been nothing but disappointing.

Busaba Eathai offers a clean and spacious atmosphere for dining, with two arrangements of seats available. The first is a square wooden table with a wooden bench on each side, which is perfect for large groups. I also saw several of these tables seating two pairs of couples at opposite corners, which is a good option for maximizing the restaurant’s space while minimizing the awkwardness felt when sharing a table with strangers. The second type of seats, which we chose, were window seats that looked out onto a not-too-interesting London street. I liked our seats, which allowed us to have a quiet conversation while enjoying our food.

DSCN0765We decided to share three dishes, the first being the Tom Yam Talay (£6.90), a spicy, sour soup with prawns, squid, fish cakes, and vermicelli noodles. The soup had that strong lemongrass flavour that I always associate with Thai soups, being more sour and tangy than spicy. I loved that they weren’t skimpy with the seafood, and that the prawns were large and juicy. Considering the atmosphere of the restaurant and the quality of the food, I also thought that the prices were decent, especially considering that the restaurant was located near some tourist hotspots, especially the National Gallery.

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Next, we made a very predictable choice in ordering the Pad Thai (£8.20). The rice noodles were accompanied by the requisite prawns, tofu, egg, ground peanuts, bean sprouts, and a wedge of lime. Fortunately for us, this was deliciously tart, tasting of real tamarind sauce as opposed to ketchup. As with the soup, the shrimp tasted fresh, retaining their natural snap and sweetness. The noodles were toothsome, and the other ingredients all tasted as they should. It wasn’t a life-changing plate of noodles, but it was certainly memorable.

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Lastly, we indulged in more carbs with the Crab Meat Egg Fried Rice (£7.20). I suppose if I had to pick a disappointing dish out of this meal, it would be this one, but only because the other dishes were excellent. There was nothing inherently wrong with this dish, as the rice was slightly moist, and the crab meat added an unexpected dimension of flavour. It simply didn’t have any special appeal, and tasted like any other version of fried rice. I’ve found this to be the case with fried rice at many Thai restaurants, and maybe it’s my fault for continuing to order it despite this. Still, for the price we paid, this was a decently sized portion, and quite satisfying, although ultimately unmemorable.

Overall, I had a great time catching up with my uncle over the food at Busaba Eathai. It was by far the most satisfying experience I had with Thai cuisine in the UK, as it tasted quite similar to the Thai food available in Vancouver. Although I personally have never been to Thailand and therefore cannot vouch for the actual authenticity of the food here, my uncle enjoyed our meal as well, and he’s been to Thailand numerous times and knows much more about Thai cuisine than I do. In any case, if you’re ever in London and have an intense craving for Thai food, I would heartily recommend the dishes that I tried.

Busaba Eathai
35 Panton Street
London, UK SW1 Y4EA

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Blue Lagoon

Sightseeing in London can be a battle. A battle against the oppressive July heat, against the huddled masses of tourists on the Tube, against the sticky humidity that leaves you feeling like you just spent days in the jungle when you’d only showered an hour before. Sometimes when I stood in line for hours at a particularly popular tourist attraction, I became lost in thoughts about how I was just another cow in a herd of tourists, and sometimes I started devising an escape plan in case the swarms of tourists around me succumbed to Black Friday syndrome and proceeded to simply stampede their way into whatever monument/museum/palace I happened to be at, much like the wildebeests in The Lion King. Still, these morbid thoughts didn’t stop me from visiting every tourist attraction in London that I could manage, including, of course, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

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Dolph, Pickles and I arrived at Buckingham Palace by walking from Green Park station through Hyde Park. We were an hour early, but of course there were already swarms of tourists lining the gates. We managed to get decent spots near the gate to observe the changing of the guard, and the Guards band played the title song from Skyfall, which was fun. To be honest, it was a lot of waiting, but it’s not everyday that you get to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. In any case, we spent the rest of the day doing some more touristy things, including purchasing tea at Fortnum & Mason and visiting the National Gallery, which houses, among other pieces, Van Gogh’s Armchair. I’m not much of an art critic, but I have a special love of Van Gogh, so I was a happy camper. One of the best things about London is that many of the museums and galleries, including the National Gallery and the British Museum, are free, which is always a bonus when you’re on a tight budget.

DSCN0642We ended up wandering into Blue Lagoon, a small Thai restaurant nearby. It was a relatively small restaurant, and we were the only patrons when we walked in, which was relatively early, possibly around 5 PM. The three of us spent a short amount of time perusing the regular menu before deciding to order the 2 course set dinner, which was on special for £10 and included a set of three appetizers and a main dish of your choice. We then waited for our food to come, and in addition to the usual awkwardness of being the only table of patrons at a restaurant, I found the waiting process particularly awkward here. For one thing, there was a server who was leaning against a wall opposite our table for the longest time, without doing any work. We had the uncomfortable feeling that he was watching us, and while it’s generally considered a good thing for a waiter to be keeping his eye on you, it was excessive here to the point that we found it uncomfortable. In any case, onwards to the food…

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First to arrive, of course, was our plate of Appetizers: some chicken skewers, spring rolls, and toast with prawn paste. Considering that this was essentially a plate of grilled and fried foods, it was oily and satisfying. It also came out piping hot, which is great except that I hadn’t expected it and ended up burning my tongue. In any case, I found the toast with prawn paste especially interesting, since I’d never had it before–the toast was crunchy and was also topped with sesame seeds, which added a nice texture. The chicken was moist, while the spring rolls were fried up nicely, and the peanut sauce was a good balance between creamy and chunky. Greasy food is so comforting after a long day of walking.

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Our main courses arrived soon after. Pickles had chosen the Yellow Curry, which was accompanied by a bowl of rice. We were disappointed to see that the rice was short-grain, as opposed to the long-grain rice that is usually served at Thai restaurants. Pickles also found that the yellow curry wasn’t aromatic enough, and that there wasn’t enough of a signature curry flavour to it, either. I generally enjoy the strong flavour of coconut milk in yellow curries, but it wasn’t too apparent here.

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Dolph went for a classic in the Pad Thai. Out of the three of us, I think she was the most satisfied with her meal. The noodles had a very pleasing, chewy and bouncy texture. Although the prawns were more on the mushy side than having a natural snap, she thought that the plentiful amount of prawns included more than made up for it.

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I, meanwhile, opted for my usual favourite, the Green Curry, which included aubergine, chicken, and red and green peppers. I liked that it tasted strongly of coconut milk while still retaining a nice spicy aftertaste. However, soon after finishing this meal, I felt light-headed and a bit queasy. You could blame this on the heat and the fact that I’d been walking all day, but I do have strong suspicions that our meal had copious amounts of MSG, which I suppose is to be expected. Too much MSG makes me feel light-headed and thirsty, though, which is pretty much what happened here.

Would I recommend a meal at Blue Lagoon? Probably not. Although the food was passable, it wasn’t authentic Thai food. Plus, the service was awkward to the point that it was a bit intimidating. I actually had a much more pleasant experience at another Thai restaurant nearby the next week, so I would recommend you pass on Blue Lagoon.

Blue Lagoon
23 Haymarket
London SW1Y 4DG
United Kingdom

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Misato

After our 4-day stay in Dublin, Pickles, Dolph and I returned to London and settled into our accommodations for the next three weeks. Since our breakfasts were included in the costs of the program, we only had to take care of our lunches and dinners. For me, this inevitably lead to overconsumption of my favourite Starbucks drink (the iced chai latte), as well as some cold ready-to-eat items from M&S Simply Food. London was abnormally warm during our stay, often going over 30° Celsius (or 86° Fahrenheit if you’re Celsius-illiterate like I am). Cold pasta salads from M&S were my saviour when I wasn’t in the mood for a hot meal, which was often.

Still, once in a while, you’re just in the mood for a warm dinner, so the three of us decided to go eat at Misato, a Japanese restaurant in London’s Chinatown, which Dolph had visited earlier in the week. After consuming so many prepackaged sandwiches and pasta salads, I was excited to have some warm steamed rice and yummy Japanese food.

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Pickles decided to indulge in Japanese-style comfort food with the Chicken Katsu Curry with Rice (£6). She was more than pleased with her meal, which was a better value for its price than pretty much any other meal we’d had so far in London. The chicken was crispy and well-fried, but also moist on the inside, while the rice was warm and comforting. The curry tasted mildly salty as opposed to sweet, which I found different than the other Japanese curries I’ve tried, but we still enjoyed it nevertheless. The little salad accompanying her meal was fine, but nothing memorable, and honestly, the chicken and rice were more than what we’d expected for the price.

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Meanwhile, Dolph ordered the Tempura Soba (£5.50). She regretted this afterwards, saying that she wished she’d gotten a tempura udon instead, but no matter. The three of us agreed that we all enjoyed soba served cold, as in zaru soba, but I guess that’s just personal preference. Since the tempura was served in the soup, it was naturally soggy, losing its crispiness. While the portion size was large, the broth was predominantly salty and had little else in the way of flavour. Out of the three dishes we ordered, I guess I would have to say that this was the least satisfying, although it might be just our personal preferences.

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Lastly, I had the Grilled Mackerel with Rice (£4.50). Since about a week earlier, I’d had an intense craving for grilled mackerel, which my mom cooks up for me on a regular basis at home. I’ve noticed that a lot of people I know tend to shy away from mackerel, probably because of its intense fishiness, but that’s exactly what I love about mackerel–besides, why eat fish if you’re afraid of the fishiness?  In any case, I had to order the mackerel once I saw it on the menu, and I was both pleased with the huge portion size as well as the price, which was only £1 more expensive than that Starbucks chai latte I mentioned earlier. In any case, the mackerel was obviously a bit oily, as it was fried, but it was both salty and satisfyingly fishy, as mackerel should be. It was also easy to eat, as there were no noticeable bones, and the lemon slice helped to alleviate some of the fishiness. The salad was more or less the same as the one included with the chicken katsu curry. Although this made me miss home more than ever, I still was comforted by the idea that I could find something similar to my mom’s home-cooked meals in London’s Chinatown, of all places.

Overall, I was really happy with our meal here. Out of the restaurants I ate at during my three week stay in London, I would have to say that the prices at Misato were the best fit for my broke-student/broke-tourist budget. I know that the cost of living in Vancouver is quite high and often a source of stress for me and my fellow Vancouverites, but sometimes the food prices in London just baffled me, especially once I learned to intuitively apply the correct conversion rate. Of course, London is a huge city with many different types of cuisine to offer, but if you’re on a budget and near Piccadilly Circus, I would highly recommend Misato, which is not only a frugal option but a tasty one as well.

Misato
11 Wardour Street
London W1D 6PG
United Kingdom

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