Good food, good mood
I can sometimes be the undoing of some of my most loveliest designs.
I had booked an advance dinner for the two of us, on the second day of our trip on Friday. It was meant to be a surprise dinner for her to celebrate her much-belated birthday and it was at a restaurant called London Shell Co. Nothing pulse-racing until you find out that the restaurant is actually on a boat, which on some dinners, actually takes a leisurely float down Regent’s Canal from Paddington to Camden and back again. That culminated with a five course seafood menu ensured that the prospect of the idea falling flat for my wife would be just slightly better than completely unlikely.
But a month before the trip, she casually asked me if she should book a lunch at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Just so you’re wondering why we would book a lunch at a place called Dinner, I would like to draw your attention to the pathetic exchange rate of our currency and something called ‘set lunches’. I was banking on their sets being noticeably better than McDonald’s.
Sure, let’s do it. ‘What day should we do it?’ How about Friday? I was under no illusion about what kind of restaurant Dinner was. Anything presented ‘by’ someone is always going to be a little fancier and nicer. Not ‘nice’ in a ‘this salted egg fried chicken is nice’ way but nice in a ‘this place is so nice I am prepared to have your babies here now’ way. Unless the thing is presented by ‘Adrian Yap’. In which case I bid thee flee. Anyway, slotting in a ‘nice’ lunch like that before the surprise dinner I had planned, as expected, turned out to be equivalent to sending a Pokemon into a death match against Thanos. Pokemons are cute, colorful and feisty in their own right but they can’t just finger snap half a universe away. It would be an unfair bashing.
But before we get to the meal, let me just get you up on my little time machine and whoosh you to Friday morning before the day I’ve come to call ‘Ar-meat-geddon’ unfolded. We spent a very nice morning at a serene corner of Hyde Park. The sun was still shining, so the day before turned out to not just be tease but the start of what looks to be a beautiful summer. Weather like this almost seems fictional to me sometimes. I’ve been raised with a life ideology that life is just a series of trade-offs and nobody truly gets to have his cake and eat it as well. Being somebody who sweats as much as a grizzly bear (I am not even certain if they sweat but just humor me for a bit), I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with tropical weather. I love that we get a lot of sun, because cloudy weather can get me downer than a Wilco track 9, but I hate that it comes at the expense of me soaking through my trousers. So for me to be able to sit on a bench in Hyde Park, basking in the warm glow of a healthy summer sun, and be comfortably snugged in a cardigan thanks to the cool breeze with a cup of hot chocolate in my hand, feels almost unreal. Life is not supposed to be this good.
Another thing that caught my attention was just how well dogs are treated in these parts. They are allowed to roam, without fear or prejudice from master and society respectively. There are no boys hurling abuse and wanting to throw stones at them for starters. I have always been a dog lover. For about 16-years of my life, one of my closest friends was a dog. But I have been guilty of viewing their existence through a lens that has been brought on by the society I live in. These are symptoms that our community is not well, when we treat such largely-peaceful creatures so poorly. And for a long time, I have believed that we have to just turn sharp corners and negotiate our way through these obstacles. That they can’t be removed. But I was give a glimpse of what a dog’s life can actually be. My hope is that as our community heals with the change that has been brought on, that we will start seeing important people speak up against such senselessness as well. The good life a dog has in these parts would come to form one of the running narratives for this trip.
Anyway back to lunch. This was like a school of restaurant apologetics compared to the fares I am generally used to, which generally involves a pint-sized waitress/waiter with a soiled note pad rattling off recommended dishes like a Gatling gun, mostly unconcerned with what you ordered but more importantly that you did it quick. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was at the other end of that spectrum. There was a waiter who explained the structure of the menu to us. There was a sommelier who recommended wine pairings and ‘arranged’ our drinks. Yes our drinks were ‘arranged’, like how a rendezvous car is arranged for the secret service. There was a prettily folded brochure on our place mats that explained the philosophy of the restaurant. I half expected a bespectacled professor to come by and explain the five habits that led to them structuring the menu the way it was. There was an armada of cooks in the open kitchen, slipping in and out in well-oiled formations, like they were prepared to invade a small country.
Up till then, my philosophy when it comes to food was probably equivalent to a bearded Southwest biker. ‘Just make sure there is a mountain of fries and we good’. ‘Good food’ sits a lot higher up her hierarchy (my theory is that it sits somewhere between Jesus and me), hence why we’re here at Dinner, having lunch (yes this is strange to me). After being served by the clergy of restaurateurs just a moment ago, I am under no illusion that this meal will cost as much to me as my left testicle. But this meal did re-orientate my philosophy when it comes to food. It gave me a glimpse of what proper culinary pleasure could be. That two generously-breaded chicken thighs and mountain of fries is no substitute for fresh ingredients and superior techniques. I’ve been kicking a ball into the stands at the Conference but today I had a chance to lick Messi’s boots and it tasted glorious.
Everything from the gorgeous Meat Fruit starter to the generous portions of the pigeon breast and Iberico pork chop mains, right up to the delectable Tipsy Cake was absolutely fantastic. This was a meal done to perfection. Like a midfielder who completed a season with a passing rate of 100 percent.
We were contented, despite us having to pay a bill equivalent to the value of my left testicle. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not that cheap.
It was with almost-bursting bellies and full hearts that we headed to dinner hours later. I was about as ready to eat dinner as Morissey would be to play bass for The Jonas Brothers.
David Bazan has a song called ‘Lost My Shape’ where he sings ‘But now you feel like a salesman/Closing another deal/Or some drunk ship captain/Raging after the white whale‘. Upon gazing my eyes on the ship captain that was going to steer us down to Camden and back, that second line in Bazan’s song came immediately to mind. Not that I am suggesting he is as ferocious a mythical figure as Captain Ahab, but that well, he looked and sounded drunk. He was more likely to jump for shore in Camden and get lost in the revelries with his shirt unbuttoned, leaving us floating slowly out to sea to a quiet and gradual demise.
London Shell Co. makes no pretenses for what it is. This is no-frills grubby soul food made from fine ingredients and cooked with heart. It’s the kind food my wife loves and it’s on a boat. Nothing could go wrong. Of course except me suggesting we go to Dinner for lunch (yup, not gotten over that). But we made the most of our meal. The staff were personable and friendly, the food was very good and the atmosphere was fantastic throughout. But the experience was slightly ashened by our fantastic lunch. Well, at least for me. I ultimately blame the Tipsy Cake. Fantastic dessert, but the eventual death of us.
There’s an almost time jump quality to the drift down the canal. Like that scene in some movies where they show how someone has got on for a couple of years with their life after a tragic loss, through a slide collage of random things they’ve done while healing, like eating take-out dinner, sitting in business meetings and running in the park. How we went from pretty well-manicured parks with middle-class-looking patrons walking dogs and sitting on benches to admire the view, before gradually descending into the subterranean underworld that is Camden, as the graffiti increased in intensity and the revelers by the canal shore started getting shaggier, slouchier and grouchier ( I could’ve sworn one guy was ranting at a garbage can). By the time we reached the canal-end to turn the boat around, I felt almost compelled to throw a bottle of Guinness at someone because I thought that was what people did in these parts.
By the time we were dropped back in Paddington, the cold breeze buzzing mercilessly and us being a little under-prepared for it, we reflected on what was a day of uncontrolled but largely-satisfying feasting. Our bellies and hearts were full. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing? Not today. Although we would raise a thinly-veiled protest by adopting Oliver Twist’s oft-quoted refrain …
‘Please sir, we really don’t want anymore’.