Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Spitalfields Market in London’s East End

August 14, 2010
spitalfields images

Spent a few days in London mid June –  a trip I try to manage every few months.  Between Ryan Air flights from Tours to Stansted and the EuroStar train, the voyage is rapid, convenient and inexpensive (when booked in advance). London’s enormous size, combined with its dense history, vibrant contemporary culture and the most international flavor of any capital I know – offer infinite fields of discovery and this time, on advice from an artist friend,  I set off to explore around Old Spitalfields Market, – London’s trendy-with-grit fashion/foodie/flea market hub. Liverpool Station is a convenient Tube stop.

Straddling ‘The City’ financial center and a former a meat market, a blokish vibe persists. Smoker’s ledges outside pubs are lined with ‘suits’ savoring a midday pint. Addresses like like Artillery Lane and Gun Street, a cluster of bespoke tailors and macho retro shop signs reinforce the impression. Petticoat Lane, a former market for women’s underwear, which prudish Victorians attempted to rename Middlesex Street in 1830, evens the score somewhat.

Stalls in the refurbished Spitalfields Victorian covered market are open every day but Saturday, with Sunday being the busiest. The antiques market is Thursday. Friday when I wandered through, it was a mix of fashion and artisan accessories vendors, plus a cluster of recording/record dealers. I’m not a fan of real estate based projects, as they can’t help becoming touristy and sanitized but the market and surrounding complex of restaurants and shops have revitalized the area.

In a listed 18th century building at 56 Artillery Lane, Alex Sainsbury, 41 year old son of the supermarket scion and art patron, recently opened a non profit exhibition, performance and and arts residency space called Raven Row that is garnering attention among art cognoscenti. Tracy Emin has a studio off neighboring Brick street, renowned for art shows and dance clubs.

Whitechapel Gallery, which has staged landmark exhibitions since 1901, has a show up July 8 – September of work by New York Painter Alice Neel, best known for portraits of artists and writers. When abstraction and male painters were darlings of the critics in the mid 20th century, Neel’s work was critically overlooked but loyal fans are delighted she’s getting her due in Lucien Freud’s home town. The gallery is open Tuesday to Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free admission.

Brick Lane, the epicenter of Banglatown is thick with Bangladeshi curry restaurants. Papodoms at #94 –, has a banner promoting its status as Best Curry Chef Award Winner at 2006, 2008 & 2009 Brick Lane Curry Festival. A modernist cylindrical steel minaret topped with an illuminated crescent moon marks an important mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and further up the road at #159, there’s a steady line for Bagels at the Beigel Bake Shop and a concentration of vintage clothing boutiques.

A must stop is Labor and Wait at 18, Cheshire Street. seller of  “a wide range of timeless, functional products for daily life”. The shop defines what I love best about British utilitarian home and garden design.  Bold, no nonsense and durable. I want one of everything but if obliged to edit, will settle for a tin of twine, a man’s bridle leather belt at 55 pounds, (a handsome substitute for the calfskin Hermès model priced at 420 pounds on New Bond Street.) Their sleek beech handle pig and goat hair bristle computer brush shows how technology benefits from nature’s helping hand. I’m a firm believer that brushes are suited for all manner of tasks and one can never have enough varieties at hand.

While fusion and ethnic eatery options abound, I’d been advised to sample the fresh & flavorful, yet uncompromisingly pork and tripe-centric British cuisine served at St John Bread & Wine, a gastronomic equivalent of Labor and Wait. A menu sheet is printed up daily.  June 18th’s extensive offerings included  Peas & Ticklemore, Crispy Pig’s Cheek, Potted Rabbit, Pigeon & Broad Beans and Ox Heart, Watercress & Pickled Walnut. The restaurant, bakery and wine shop is one of two London eateries owned by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver. Henderson, the culinary half of the team has authored two cookbooks, including Nose to Tail Eating , which Anthony Bourdain praises as ‘A cult classic from my favorite chef and favorite restaurant in the world’.  He clearly grew up on lamb kidneys and ox tongue. To test whether vegetarians can also be satisfied, I ordered Beetroot Tops & Goat Curd, followed by Bread Pudding and Butterscotch Sauce, both of which were excellent. The salad is served on a slice of fried bread (no worry it’s olive oil), which took me back to British boarding school breakfasts of blood pudding and bread fried in drippings but the food here is all about reinventing the past and confounding expectation. A celebration of native ingredients and heritage recipes with a fresh twist. Gulliver handles the wine importation and the list favors French producers, with a predilection for Loire Valley and ‘natural’ table wines. The warm bread pudding, which included a decadent scoop of vanilla ice cream, was such a Proustian pleasure I was tempted to lick the plate.

Luckily I didn’t, as the owners happened to be eating at the next table. Curious about the woman who’d asked to see their cook books and snapped a few photos, they decided to invite me for a coffee. I hadn’t noticed them and declined the offer, until the waitress informed me it might be awkward since they were at my left elbow. Their meal was a business meeting with investors to discuss a new venture. A departure for them but right up my alley – a 15 room hotel off Leicester Square in a somewhat improbable neighborhood by Chinatown. It’s to be called St John’s and will feature a restaurant in the spirit of the group but with it’s own distinct personality. A hotel that seems destined to become a London Hideaway.

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