Staying closer to home

London No trains for us today! We did some wandering around London and suddenly realized that we have been here so often over the past decades that we can recognize — and mourn — the changes that we recognize. We can now be old and crabby in at least two countries.

We started in Covent Garden, which was thronged as usual. Good old English brands like Shake Shack, Le Pain Quotidien and Laduree dominate the food area, and the crowds investigated every little shop.

One of our favorite places there is the Transport Museum, which has a great shop filled with merchandise related to the Underground. For years, I’ve bought postcards of vintage tube posters, which I rotate in a display at home. But this year, there was something really new. Some bright light has realized the charm and sentimental value of the upholstery used on the seats, which varies by tube line, and has created wonderful items that showcase those patterns and colors. I couldn’t resist some socks, though the sofa was very tempting.

Then we walked toward Leicester Square, and saw the updates there. The Odeon is no longer under scaffolding, and has Batman standing guard to protect it. The grassy areas seem to be getting smaller, and Mr. Bean sits while Shakespeare still stands. Another hive of activity, including a wedding party where two guests posed for my camera. They were a bit tipsy, but oh so well dressed.

Our lunch objective was to eat in Chinatown, just around the corner. Don will of course cover that in detail.

And then we made our way to Carnaby Street, I suppose just so we could tsk at the way it has changed from the alternative style center of the 60’s to an American mall where everyone can dress exactly like everyone else — everywhere in the world. Sigh. Cue the old folks who were actually around in the 60’s…

The only half-timbered building we saw today was the lovely faux front of Liberty’s, as we worked our way down elegant Regent Street. We did resist the lure of most of the shops, as, sadly, most of the brands are either from America or readily available in New York. But you can’t beat the look of London and the energy of the tourist hordes. Glad we could join them.

Don’s Food Corner

Chinese food seems as central to the British soul as fish and chips — or Indian food. Both China, more specifically Hong Kong, was long a part of the British Empire, as was India. And the food from those colonial outposts got imported with seemingly little intervention.

Contrast that with American Chinese food. So many of the American favorites in Chinese restaurants have no counterpart in China — like General Tso chicken, sesame chicken, Mongolian beef, beef and broccoli, chop suey, and the most ubiquitous part of every Chinese meal in America, the fortune cookie. But American Chinese food arrived not so much via colonization, but rather with immigrants looking for ways to appeal to American palates. The British version of Chinese food seems a bit more authentic.

This is based solely on a single five-day visit to Hong Kong, but I’ll make the gross generalization nevertheless. I remember the first time I had Chinese food in London. It was so “weird,” so unlike the Chinese food I knew at home. Today’s very fine Chinese lunch was less of a shock, but it was closer to what we experienced in Hong Kong rather than anything I’ve had in America.

First of all, there were no General Tso chicken or Mongolian beef on the menu. And no bottle of soy sauce on the table.

We started with wonton soup. A very delicate broth with some very large wontons stuffed with flavorful chicken. Then came a scrumptious array of steamed dumplings — shrimp, scallops and pork. (We dug in before remembering to take the picture.) This restaurant actually specialized in dim sum, but we ventured off of that part of the menu.

That was followed by scallops with cashew nuts. The dish had an unusually light and velvety sauce.

We also tried a lettuce-wrap minced chicken and vegetable dish. There was corn in the vegetable part of the preparation, which I don’t think would have been originally Chinese. But the corn added further crunch to the chicken — all of which was napped with some very intense plum sauce before getting wrapped in lettuce leaves. We’ve had this dish many times in America, but not quite like this.

It was a great meal, although I kind of missed the fortune cookie.

We plan to try Indian food on Sunday. We’ll see how it compares to our experiences in India two years ago — and to what we encounter today in New York.

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