Back in the 80s we’d come to London from Soviet Moscow for much-needed respites from the dreary, oppressive city that we called home for most of that decade. We stayed at the Waldorf Astoria on the Strand near Covent Garden, among the West End theatres and eateries. The streets were colorful, vibrant and the shops and restaurants sold things you might actually want to buy. Some of my favorite memories of those trips include trying prosciutto and melon for the first time at a little trattoria on one of the cobblestone streets, full English breakfasts in the hotel dining room, and searing hot fried mushrooms dancing on my tongue.
When I moved here four years ago Covent Garden was one of the first places I wanted to re-visit, but it wasn’t the bohemian marketplace I remembered. Instead chains had taken over the tiny shops and the market stalls were full of tourist tat. Hordes of teenagers roamed the covered square munching on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cones and pork pies. I looked for the little space that had sold me my thick tights that would get me through the brutal Moscow winter and silk vests that in hindsight we’re a terrible “don’t” but I loved them nonetheless. None of that individuality remained.
However, in the intervening years a bit of a renaissance has hit the neighborhood, particularly when it comes to dining. The Hawksmoor (read my review of it here: http://chefsallyjane.com/2012/01/25/lobster-roll-fantasy-at-the-hawksmoor/), Polpo, Mishkins, just to name a few, have all opened outposts. And now, an old New York favorite of mine, Balthazar, has come to town! The restaurant hasn’t opened yet (it will do so on Monday) but their bakery next door is up and running in the shadow of Covent Garden’s covered market.
It’s glorious – like stepping into a true Parisian boulangerie with a gorgeous floral painted ceiling and chandelier. The walls are filled with loaves of bread (there were samples of each of them for us to try and god do I wish I was eating lots of bread these days), windows spilling over with picture postcard patisseries, and a counter with platters of really interesting looking and special salads. My darling husband and I had just had a big Valentine’s Day lunch (more on that in my next post) so we showed a little restraint and each picked on item to bring home as a snack. A raspberry cheesecake for my love and a raspberry macaroon with lemon cream, raspberry jelly and white chocolate for me.
Our box of treats was eaten within five minutes of getting home and I’m ready to get back on the tube and go get more. My macaroon was just about the best dessert I’ve ever eaten. Seriously! It was bursting with raspberry flavor, the lemon cream sharp and sweet and the white chocolate a thin layer of crunch in the middle. The macaroons themselves were perfectly cooked, their texture the perfect gooey, crunchy mix that’s so hard to get right. My husband has a soft spot for cheesecake and said this one was absolutely delicious.
So, while the masses clog up the reservations line at Balthazar, until the hype subsides you just might want to visit their bakery and pick up a few treats to take home with you. I will be one of those doggedly trying for a table so I can eat their frisee and lardon salad and then a steak with frites (and I’ll report back to all of you promptly). My beloved Manhattan institution comes to London – Covent Garden is back!
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