72 Hours in London

I’ve recently come back from 8 days in Europe, for what will likely be one of my last work-sponsored trips for a while. The company I work at organises events in 10 cities each Spring and, this year I pulled the lucky (or short, depending on how you feel about long haul flights in economy) straw of covering London and Oslo. So off I went.

Flying in to London is always emotional for me. Whether it’s touching down on British tarmac or queuing for the Heathrow Express, there comes a point in my journey when I invariably find myself overwhelmed with feelings more weighty than nostalgia. We moved away from England when I was 12 years old; I moved away a second time when I was 24. Yet after all these years, an increasingly American accent and an address in Sydney, it’s still the UK that feels like “home”.

Pulling in to Paddington Station

I’ve gone back to London almost every year for the past five years, almost always for work or in transit to some place more exciting. Two of my best friends still live there and I’m never wanting for people to catch up with or things to do. Each time I go back though, I realise how little I really know of London. It’s one of those cities that’s both vast and deep. It has the historical monuments, the architectural marvels, the sprawling parks, the perfectly manicured gardens, the museums, the galleries, the restaurants, the shops, the people…you could spend a decade in this city and not scratch the surface. I’m not sure I could say that about any other place.

Sister Cities?

I suppose though, in some ways, London is a bit like Tokyo: it’s a city straddling the old and the new. It’s trying its best to meet the modern-day demands of a booming urban population against the backdrop (and with the infrastructure) of a practically ancient city. Hey, Tokyo is arguably winning this race, but that’s a debate for another day.

Also like Tokyo, London is a walking city. Sure, there’s the tube, but you have to walk to it and in it and out of it. The whole thing can take a while. Unlike New York and Sydney (two other cities that tend to get slapped with the “walking city” moniker), London doesn’t offer many alternatives. Cabs are painfully expensive (although that’s changing with Uber and Hailo) and car owners are kept at bay with congestion charges and non-existent parking. Like many European cities, it’s easy to rack up 10,000 steps in London, and its residents are happy to embrace all the walking and bake it into their travel time. I’m always reminded of my European friends’ penchant for walking when a casual stroll turns into a 2 hour jaunt across the city. Not something you’d do in the US.

A new favourite

On this trip, I stayed in two neighbourhoods I’d previously spent little time in: Belsize Park and Waterloo. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the former. Belsize Park is a gem of an area in North West London, conveniently sandwiched by Hampstead Village in the North and elegant Primrose Hill in the South.
Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning
Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning
I was staying with a friend who’s recently moved to Belsize and, walking around, it felt like I’d been transported to a picture postcard. Beautiful stucco-fronted Victorian buildings sit along leafy streets; flower stalls and butchers add a charming old-timey feel, and boutique shops and artisanal cafés bring the whole thing to life. One of my favourite things about Belsize Park was the utter lack of tourists. It’s hard to get away from the crowds in London without feeling like, well you’ve left all the good stuff behind too, but Belsize Park does a stellar job of juggling both. It’s lively and vibrant, yet it retains that cute, village feel.

The other thing I loved about the area was the Heath. I went for an early jog and was consumed by the stunning views of London in the hazy morning light. My (iPhone) camera died, of course, so I later went back for a stroll and some less romantic pics.

Hampstead Heath at midday

I was also impressed by the food on offer. Tuesday night, my friend Neha and I walked over to Hampstead for dinner at Jin Kichi. This tiny, unimposing Japanese izakaya serves up some of the tastiest yakitori and sashimi I’ve ever had. We sat at the bar of course, enabling us to take in all the action and soak in the sights and smells that make the meal so much more of a sensory experience. One bite of the asparagus yakitori and I felt I’d been transported back to Japan! Jin Kichi is a cozy, intimate spot so if you do plan to visit, make sure to book ahead. Its Yelp, TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon ratings can’t hurt its popularity either.

Jin Kichi on Urbanspoon

London and New York

London has always been an international city. Mobs of tourists, hordes of European students, wealthy expats, hopeful immigrants, migrant workers — take your pick, the city has them all. Step out into its busy streets and odds are you’ll hear more than two languages and encounter at least three accents before you reach the tube. What always amazes me, however, is how all of London’s international residents manage to retain their identities while living in what was once the quintessential British city.

Mid-afternoon in Hyde Park
Mid-afternoon stroll in Hyde Park

Move to New York and you’ll become a New Yorker (and in turn, an American). Before long, you’ll be walking faster, planning Super Bowl parties, running after cabs in heels, and contemplating your Halloween outfit months in advance. You’ll “do brunch” and you’ll probably celebrate Thanksgiving (you’ll also have to break it to at least one American that Thanksgiving isn’t a universal thing) and you may well end up leaving your adopted country surprisingly infrequently.

Live in London, on the other hand, and you could be exactly who you were when you arrived. You could live in the French neighbourhood, hang out with only French people and visit your French family on a monthly basis. I once had a Moroccan colleague who, after five years in London, had never heard of Guy Fawkes. When I asked why he thought fireworks went up every November 5th, he remarked that it was “some British thing”. To lean on a cliché, if New York is the melting pot, London is the tossed salad — a giant bowl of ingredients, mixed but distinct.

Highs and Lows

London’s diverse population makes for uniquely interesting conversations. Nowhere else in the world have I sat at a dinner table and debated Greece’s economy with a Greek, learned about the Bosnian war from a Sarajevan and planned a Croatian holiday with input from a Dubrovnik native. If your preference is to talk European politics and history, rather than real estate and hot restaurants, this may well be your city.

London also wins when it comes to location. The fact that you can jet off to a different European city every weekend isn’t news. It’s been more than 10 years since RyanAir and EasyJet transformed the European travel market with their cheap, no frills services, but the trend is going strong. Wine in Bordeaux, chocolate in Bruges, skiing in Geneva… there’s culture, history, architecture, literature, natural beauty, food and it’s all just a short hop away.

The downside (and there always is one), is that living in London means you have to contend with the constant crowds, the heaving tube, the mediocre food (sorry, the bar is still low) and, of course, the exorbitant prices. (I’m not going to pick on the weather because I grew up on, and secretly adore, grey skies.) London has always been an expensive city but over the past decade or so, unbridled demand from overseas investors has driven the property market through the roof and sadly pushed locals farther afield. To make it worse, London salaries, for the most part, haven’t kept pace with the increased cost of living, making it harder to enjoy all of the perks and quirks that the city puts on offer.

One of the best things about London is its permanence; come what may, this bastion of culture and history and tradition will stand strong: steadfast, unyielding, unchanged. At times though, it feels like this is the exact thing holding it back. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Zenkichi, Brooklyn, NY

Urban jungle getting you down?  Elbows sore from fighting through the Manhattan sea of humanity?  Just wanna see some trees?  Fear not, for Brooklyn is but a hop, skip and an L train ride away.

Last Friday, with friends visiting from London and Philly, we headed over to Williamsburg for a propuh night out.  First stop: the Gutter.  If you’re tired of paying an arm and a leg to listen to cheesy house music and eat artery clogging pizza at Chelsea Piers, the Gutter is a refreshing change of pace.  Eight lanes, $3 shoes and just $45 to rent a lane for a an entire hour on weekends.  We snacked on disco fries (yum) and drank beer while indulging our my poor bowling skills. A few pitchers later, we began walking over to Zenkichi.

The quiet, tree-lined streets we’d crossed earlier were now swaying to the rhythm of canvas-toting, sandal-wearing Brooklyn hipsters.  We passed bars, clubs and even the occasional all-night bookstore (what?) before arriving at our destination – a giant warehouse, boarded up with what looked like planks of wood.  Welcome to Zenkichi.

Opened in 2006 by a homesick Tokyo native, Zenkichi describes itself as “a modern Japanese brasserie providing an authentic dining experience of popular Tokyo establishments”.  I’ve never been to Tokyo, so I’m not the best person to opine on its authenticity, but if the ambience is anything to go by, you’ll feel as far away from the urban jungle as possible with a 20 minute train ride.

The entryway is dark and cave-like, the hostess is Japanese.  She politely enquires if any one in our 10 person party is pregnant or under 14 (children are not welcome) and then introduces us to our waitress, who smiles and begins guiding us carefully up a lantern-lit staircase.  The walkways are strewn with pebbles, sectioned off by mirrors and punctuated, of course, by bamboo stalks.  The dim lighting, abundant foliage and babbling of moving water will lull you into a dream-like state, making you think, for an instant that you’re in some sort of secret lair – a maze leading to a Bond movie rendezvous.  Our table, like everyone else’s was cloaked in bamboo curtains, secluded but by no means isolated.  A tiny button at the end of the table could summon our waitress should we need her. Exciting, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you google “Zenkichi” you will find that a lot of foodbloggers, magazines and food critics have written about the place.  It’s a favorite amongst Japanese food purists and amateurs alike.  I will not, for that reason, spend a lot of words on the food, but I will strongly recommend getting the omakase, the chef’s tasting menu. Thrust upon us for being such a large group, the omakase costs $55 and comprises eight unique courses – absolutely fantastic value.

Over the course of 2 hours, we slurped oysters (fresh and delicious), munched on vegetable tempura, sampled the signature Zenkichi salad and tucked into the silky richness of the famous miso-glazed cod.  Being a traditional Japanese brasserie, Zenkichi does not serve any sushi which can be a tad disappointing if you’re looking for your Saturday night sushi fix. That said, the variety of dishes was impressive and while portions were small, the meal overall was very filling.  Some dishes, such as the duck (too tough) and the yellowtail sashimi on rice (I needs more vinegar!) were mediocre but, overall, the food was very good.

Course II (a): Asparagus Appetizers
Course II (b) Kumamoto Oysters
Course II (c): Maguro Tuna
Course II (d): Hiramasa Tartare

The slew of sakes, variously described as “earthy”, “rich” and “fruity”, perfectly complemented the dishes and the  desserts (try the black sesame mousse) were interesting enough for us to sample despite being stuffed.   We also received a tray of complementary truffles as a “second dessert” which we were all too full to partake in.

Black sesame mousse – a little too frozen to really be a \”mousse\”

Summary & Verdict:
Zenkichi was really interesting and different and cool.  It’s a great place to take your out-of-town friends because it has that “wow” factor people come to New York for, as well as the authenticity that every foodie likes to brag about.  The stellar ambience however, perhaps unfairly, generates sky high expectations for the food.  While nothing is terrible, some of Zenkichi’s dishes are mediocre and the Omakase, I thought, could be more creative.  Maybe I need to develop my Japanese purist palate since a lot of foodbloggers absolutely gush over this place but, for now, I’m reluctant to give it the same sort of rock solid recommendation as some of the ol’ favorites.

Details: http://www.yelp.com/biz/zenkichi-brooklyn

Damage: $98 including tax and tip, for the Omakase ($55) and a lot of sake.

Zenkichi on Urbanspoon