Postcard from London: Cakes, Tapas, Pubs

I’ve been back in London since the first of the year.* Returning has reinvigorated me to make some headway on the list of pubs, restaurants, cafés, and patisseries that I want to visit while I'm here.

Hummingbird Bakery
Hummingbird Bakery first caught my attention last year when I went on a cupcake binge. The company has a beautiful web site where it declares itself an American-style bakery specializing in cupcakes in the heart of London, now with two locations -- the first in Notting Hill and the second on Old Brompton, a stone’s throw from the South Kensington tube station.

I set out for the Old Brompton Road spot about a week ago and vowed to finally check out the Natural History Museum while I was in the general area.

After about an hour of wandering around the museum halls, staring down the likes of taxidermy dodo birds, a plaster replica skeleton of a now-extinct giant sloth from South America, and a robotic tyrannosaurus rex, it was cake time.

The best way to get to Old Brompton Road is to start at South Kensington tube station and exit to the street level. It’s a confusing subway stop because there are underground tunnels to lead you to the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, a few other tourist spots, and another major road. I ended up doing a few laps up and down Brompton Road before realizing Old Brompton was on the other side of the station.

The Hummingbird Bakery is an adorably quaint and girlie little spot, with dark velvet arm chairs and a bar overlooking the street scene. The decor has a kind of pink-and-red, always-ready-for-Valentine’s-Day feel to it. There’s a coffee menu, a display of cupcakes, and some cakes sold by the slice set off the side.

But the selection completely left me disappointed. The cupcakes were vanilla or chocolate, with vanilla or chocolate frosting, or red velvet cupcake. The cakes by the slice didn’t really appeal to me much either, though I eventually seized upon a huge hunk of carrot cake to take home (about £3, or $6USD).

And again, I was disappointed. The size was well worth the money: three layers of cake, a thick coating of icing on top and along one side, and chockful of walnuts. But the cake itself was pretty lackluster. It felt very heavy in my stomach, the result of using too much vegetable oil in the cake batter. The frosting was a mild butter cream rather than cream cheese. And in one of my forkfuls, I chomped down on a pebble-sized piece of walnut shell, an offense I find worse than finding sand in my shellfish or a hair in my lunch.

Pretty as those little cupcakes might be, I have to say skip Hummingbird. The space is exquisite, but the desserts are dull in choice, and the carrot cake was less than mediocre.

The Driver Bar
I pass this spacious gastropub on Wharfdale Road sometimes on one of my bus routes. It’s just north of Kings Cross station. Boyfriend and I stopped in one night on our way home for a pint and some dinner. The menu on the door seemed well within our price range for an unplanned dinner out (mains in the £9 to £12 range), and there were enough people in the joint enjoying their food that it seemed like a fair gamble.

The beer selection was what you’d expect to find in a typical English pub: nothing too fancy, nothing too foreign (Heineken, Staropramen), a few bitters, and at least one thing I was willing to drink, in this case, Staropramen.

We ordered a mixed mezze plate from the starters menu, mostly because I’ve been addicted to haloumi as of late—a salty un-aged cheese that originated in Cyrpus and that grills rather than melt when heated—and a main course of roasted lamb with carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and au jus. On the platter, I dove into the pita bread, using it to scoop up hummus, which was all right, and babaganoush, which was very good although not very garlic-heavy. The lamb was extraordinary, tender and juicy with those well roasted winter vegetables. The low point of the meal, aside from the pints of Staropramen, was the kofte on the mezze plate. If I recall, the restaurant didn’t even call it kofte, but I can’t imagine what else it might have been. There were two dense hunks of meat that looked like three or four meatballs fused together, and they tasted the same way body odor smells. I left those to the side and eat up the olives, dips, grilled haloumi and pita sans B.O. balls.

The whole meal, drinks included, was less about £23. Given the exchange rate, that bill might sound high, but by London standards, it’s a good deal for high quality food, good portions, and at least some consideration of plating. Plus, the room is modern and at the same time very much a pub, a vibe that I definitely felt comfortable in. The music was above average—indie rock for the most part. And the location seems to keep big crowds away while drawing knowledgeable locals. All in all, I’d go back for the food, but not for drinks alone.

Islignton Tapas Bar
Around Angel tube station is an area called Islington. It’s young and lively, though I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call it hip, though probably three or four years ago, it hit its stride and became overrun with a broader crowd thereafter. There are a few restaurants and bars on my list in that neighborhood (a Swedish restaurant called Upper Clas that has reindeer heart on its starter menu, for one, a very chic café-restaurant called Fig & Olive, Zigni House for Eritrean food, and a few others), but the latest venture in Islington was to a tapas spot.

Back in November, Boyfriend and I went to Barcelona. We had such a fantastic time in Spain that it’s fair to say we’ve been in mourning since we left. The fix was the tapas bar. We didn’t take advantage of the cheap £12 bottle of Rioja, or the £9 per person paella, but we did enjoy two small glasses of the wine, which was very bright and fruity, and a handful of small dishes. The restaurant serves tapas as if they were small plates, sending orders to a closed kitchen and bringing out the food all at once, unlike in Barcelona were the custom was half the food was kept directly in front of you, served at your beck-and-call, and the hot dishes were pulled from the kitchen as they were ready—never arriving at the table all at once.

We had a very ordinary order of white bread, served with garlic-infused olive oil and a less than thrilling tomato spread. Next time, I’d skip that. Another dish I’d skip in the future was fried calamari, bracelet-sized squid rings that were chewy and flavorless. Patatas bravas weren’t exactly authentic, but they were tasty, and a small tasting-size portion of paella with chorizo made me realize that it would be worth the 45-minute wait in the future to get a full dinner size portion. A room-temperature frittata had my full attention, as its subtle flavors melded well with the soft and almost creamy texture.

Although Islington Tapas Bar is big enough to not have to wait for a table at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, it seems to be a bit too roomy for the servers. We waited a decent amount of time for our food and had to furiously flag down different waiters to ask for water and the bill. Normally I would chalk up this kind of service to the Euro attitude of eating out, but this particular evening it was noticeably worse, though not bad enough to keep me from returning.

* In case you’ve missed the backstory: I’m living in the U.K. for about a year, beginning September 2007, while Boyfriend completes a master’s degree. Luckily, my company has an office in London, which has allowed me to keep my job. I was in New York for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.