Sunday, July 8, 2012

Retroactive recap of Taste of London

I'm sitting here watching the rain out our window while The Irishman contendedly flicks back and forth between the British Grand Prix and the Wimbledon's men final, and I realized I never blogged about Taste of London. Since the crap weather is very similar to that which we enjoyed the night we went, I figured I'd use the opportunity to give you a retroactive recap.

We went to Taste of London for our 4-year anniversary, figuring it would be a great treat and fun food-related outing that we wouldn't necessarily have done without a special occasion to warrant it. Held in Regents Park, it bills itself as the world's greatest food fair.

In some ways, yes, it was a spectacular event of food, wine, beer and liquor, with some of the biggest chefs cooking highlights from their restaurants' menus. We went to around 10 different stands to try dishes from the likes Gordon Ramsay, Theo Randall, Michel Roux and Jamie Oliver. Our standout favorite dish was braised slow-cooked ox cheek from the Hinds Head Pub in Bray, owned by Heston Blumenthal.

Our worst dish/waste of time and money went to the crispy salt and pepper squid from Maze – I've had better versions of this Asian classic at the BYOB Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road, and for a fraction of the price.

Runner up favorite went to the scallop served in tomato and caper sauce with lentils from Theo Randall at the Intercontinental, whose restaurant I wish to visit immediately. Their booth was awesome, frantic pace and amazing atmosphere; I mean look at these people trying to get the food out to the roaring crowds!

In terms of drinks, one of my favorites, Chapel Down Winery, had a booth serving all of their wines and oysters (yum!). There were also brewery stands, Grey Goose Vodka, and a few other bars and labels. We tried some French and Italian wines from two independent distributors, and also stopped by the Savoy Hotel stand. They had recreated their Art Deco style bar in their tent, and were serving specially themed cocktails for the occasion. One of their bartenders was wearing a customized dinner jacket that said "Drink My Encantador" and of course I had to ask; he is a finalist in Bacardi's Legacy Cocktail competition with his drink the Encantador. That's the cocktail I had, and I can vouch for its deliciousness.

Our final drink was a cucumber and rose petal granitas with Hendricks gin from Bocca di Lupo. Refreshing and fragrant. PS I also had pasta from Bocca di Lupo and it was out of this world.

But Taste of London wasn't all fun and delicious games. We went because we got half-price tickets on Groupon; full price would have set you back over £25 per person, and that doesn't include food. To eat, you have to purchase "crowns", the Taste of London currency. Two crowns equals £1, so you have to do some math every time you walk up to a booth and a dish is 4 crowns, 9 crowns, etc. Halfway through your night, you realize that you've spent all of your crowns, are still hungry, and want another glass of wine – and that's where the trouble starts. 

You buy the crowns in larger amounts (ie, 20 crowns for £10) and then go off on your merry eating way. But very quietly bars stop serving at 8:45, and you only really find that out when you're done with your food. So then you start running around trying to use up your crowns, but you've eaten too much and don't want any more food. But the crowns aren't good anywhere else so you don't want to waste any more money than you've already spent. In our case, we used the rest of our crowns (4 leftovers) to buy a Lindt chocolate bar.

And the layout of the fair leaves much to be desired. There are a few concentric rings of tents but it's really confusing; we had to use our map the whole night to figure out our route to and from specific food destinations. Which is fine, except that the map isn't very helpful. At all. 

Of course, the weather had a lot to do with it. We went on a cold damp Friday (well, which one this summer hasn't been like that?) and needed wellies because of the mud. Walkways were put down so you don't completely sink in mud, but because of the conditions there wasn't really anywhere to relax. Had the sun been out and it been dry, you could have plopped down on the grass and really enjoyed the evening. Instead, you scurried from booth to booth for food and huddled against the wind. I can't even remember how many times my glass of wine nearly flew through the air when I accidentally left it on a table for a minute.

So final verdict: a great experience, a great activity, but poorly executed and very expensive. We've always wanted to go, and are glad we did, but I don't think we'd rush back. To be honest, the best part about the event is that we now have a list of 5 restaurants we really want to try this year and they aren't the 5 we thought we'd love. I'd say that's the best part of Taste of London – trying a little bit of the best food in the city, and making a list of where to eat next.

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