going crazy in west london, easter saturday
I lost my way getting to our agreed meeting place. I asked two East End guys where the Well and Bucket was and they jokingly asked if I had brought my ID and then pointed the pub out. It was across the street. Gotta love geezers. Oh boy indeed Patty. I found a spare seat amongst the heaving Friday night crew. The music was blaring and I knew instinctively this was not my type of place. However I enquired as to the oysters that were available and was told there were none. So, despite having rung ahead to check, the evening was now starting a slow meltdown. Patty arrived and we looked at each other in greeting with a slight mutual eye roll. Two water signs; fish out of their waters. Patty went to the bar and inexplicably came back with a drink she didn’t want. Still not sure how her order for white wine was turned into red wine but I put it down to the eye wateringly high volume of music, slightly drunk people speaking loudly, melee. We sipped our drinks quietly, unable to converse and got out our phones to execute Plan B. Having said that, for a lively pub Friday, the Well and Bucket is actually a cool place. Just not on our agenda.
Patty found some other joint that professed oysters, so we squeezed out and left the decibel driven pub and breathed deeply the relatively fresh, if not highly publicised currently polluted, London air and started walking. She rang Berner’s Tavern and notwithstanding having landed themselves a prize slot under ‘The best ten oyster bars in London’ informed her that they didn’t have any oysters. Mystified we looked up and down the street, talking in increasingly breathless tones, with the slight hint of desperation creeping in. It was Friday night, we are in a part of the city we do not recognise and we want oysters! We remember that we are pretty close to Spitalfields so we decide a visit to Wright Brothers’ new establishment would be the best choice. Patty phoned again to make a reservation. There followed another slight moment of minor peril when she started shaking her head but then a smile and a firm thank you confirmed we had secured our place. Just one more thing before the review. We had to manoeuvre our way down Brick Lane, which is a wonderfully cute and evocative place, but is teeming with touts from all the Indian restaurants, of which there are many. We hobbled down the cobbles and were bombarded with offers of the best Indian food and free wine. There came a point when we almost gave in. We love Indian food and it smelt delicious and we were both getting hangry. We remained resolute and finally hit Whitechapel Road. Another doom laden moment passed when we realised we had overshot our turn off by about fifteen minutes’ walk. All the while we talked, about perhaps being flexible with the parameters of this blog, as in, if we can’t always find oysters, can the therapy side of it kick in a bit more. We spoke with a homeless man and found he had hit bad times when his father died and the repro furniture business he had left his son, died along with him. We hailed a cab. Five minutes later we finally reached our destination. Wright Brothers’ Spitalfields branch. It opened last December and I had been planning to attend the opening but for whatever reason, didn’t make it. We had been told to expect to be seated with a barrel as our table, which had still sounded like a good option. But on arrival we were greeted by the very friendly Brenda who said there was room at the bar. Deep exhale. The restaurant backs onto the end of the market and has neon signs denoting live oysters, lobster, crab. The place is full but not overpowering in any way. We perch ourselves like two little birds on the high stools and smile. Our previous experience with Wright Brothers was their Soho branch and it was a highlight of last summer for us. We were introduced to Hugo, the oyster specialist, who did a rundown of the varities on offer and we settled on a mixed plate of six different types, two of each; five rock oysters, list to follow, and one farmed variety. We ordered a drink and watched with delight as this dedicated and diligent man opened the oysters in front of us. He was so impressively adept he wasn’t wearing protective gloves. What is striking about this company is the exemplary standard of staff they employ. The enthusiasm for their work and their fare is infectious. We took photos, we took notes - that ended up smudging when the paper was covered in oyster liquor and lemon juice. This is the list as best as I can decipher my scrawl; jersey royale, lindisfarne, galway, guillardeau, fines de claire speciale, frenchman street. Dear God, they were sublime. Each and every one different and delicious. We had been given the lowdown before we jumped in and Hugo’s descriptions were spot on. Although he said the Jersey’s had the aftertaste of cucumber, I have always thought it was celery, but we were in agreement of their utter tastiness. All too soon there was an empty platter in front of us. With very little prompting, we went in for round two and shared a brown crab. It was simply served with lemon and a little bit of mayonnaise on the side and some scrumptious bread that seemed to be in endless supply as we had taken quite a liking to it. Next thing we were invited to this restaurant’s hidden treasure. Downstairs they have a holding room for as many as seven thousand oysters. It reminded me of an industrial strength water feature, with sprays, trickles, bubbles, pipes and gauges and in amongst that, nestled to keep them clean and fresh, sat 6000 of our favourite morsels. It is Hugo’s job to keep the temperature steady and the salination at the right level. Not only is this guy a master of oysters, he is also now a chemist, engineer and nursemaid. We spoke with the manager Marcin. We complimented him on the staff, the ambience and the total package that is Wright Brothers. Patty and I have promised ourselves another treat at their Borough Market place soon. They offer excellent value for money and the produce is superior to many other places we have been. This company simply has got it all Wright!
We’re heading east tonight to the Well and Bucket. The reviews are wonderful, if you’re going for a craft beer. One of the reviewers wrote ‘what’s not to like, unless you’ve come for oysters’. Oh boy. Let’s brace ourselves, Shirley, and see if they can come up with a clean, crisp and cold glass of something grape-like and wet to go with our oysters. There’s more to come…
It was the first time Patty and I have been together for over a month so Patty chose Newman Street Tavern. The downstairs is a lovely pub and upstairs a fairly reasonable gastropub. The staff were very friendly and I arrived ahead of Patty and was given a very good seat with a commanding view of the restaurant. It was a funky and fun décor with enviable tableware. Patty and I both were very taken with the bread plates. On the menu for this evening: West Merseas, Sizes 2 and 3. Hmmmm….we asked and the number 3s are the smaller of the two. We ordered half a dozen of each. They arrived promptly. They were very pretty and beautifully opened. Very tidy and clean. The number 2s (childish snigger) were indeed about twice the size than the number 3s and they both looked inviting. I started with the smaller ones. They were my type of oyster. An instant salty hit followed by a long, slightly metallic aftertaste. I had a sip of wine and chewed on some bread before proceeding. The larger ones were completely different. Although the same species, and apart from the size, they looked identical, but the flavour was distinctly different. These were subtle, soft and with no discernable follow through. I preferred the more flavoursome smaller variety while Patty enjoyed the bigger ones. Oyster enjoyment is very subjective. Anyway, we demolished the lot and chattered about our adventures - mine in Portugal and hers in the US – and again were bemused how our lives seem parallel and more often than not, certain areas are mirrored images. We compared notes and commiserated and congratulated each other in equal measure. Our current life wish lists are almost identical. Life, what a crazy ride it is sometimes. Patty regaled me with one particular tale that cannot be shared here but sister, you have my admiration at your audacity. I realise we are already a quarter of the way through the year. Hold onto your hats ladies and gentlemen!
Bahia Beach Bar in Lagos. I turned up at lunchtime and enquire if my oyster order has arrived? I am assured it has. And crab? No they sold out yesterday. I sit outside, the sun beating down for the first day since I arrived in Portugal. I watch the waves crashing onto the shore and wonder at how all the ocean stays where it is - well, mostly - and then think I should know the physics relating to this and what a dumb thing to even think about. Then I decide the ocean is like a big swimming pool and the waves are just the overspill when someone jumps in. Or something like that. I settle in with my Winnie the Pooh style ignorance and a green wine. The wind is steady and strong but I am protected by glass windows, so I am in the elements but not being overly tormented by them. My face, just as a sunflower, turns instinctively towards the warm, yellow orb and I close my eyes and feel totally peaceful. In due course my dozen oysters are served. They are local, they look luscious and I look lovingly at them in anticipation. I take one of the lemon quarters from the plate and squeeze it onto the first oyster. I watched as it cringed with the acidity. I use this a measure of its freshness; being alive they will contract. And that is a good thing, right? Jump cut. Over the past few months I have attended several courses on meditation ; specifically Buddhist. As with all religions, terms and conditions apply. According to my recent dabblings, each of these single beings has an intrinsic value. For a fleeting moment I felt bad and sad and recalled the day long course on Karma. What do I do? Of course, I ate them all. And of course, they were delicious, tasty, utterly fulfilling and satisfy a deep need I feel when I crave them. They are packed with nutrients and zinc. They, by their very thriving, attest to the freshness of water in which they live, and thereby have contributed to the success of human evolution. Ah, now as I write this, I have the perfect foil. Did Jesus not offer the thousands on the mountain bread and fish? And He turned water into wine. I resolve with renewed strength not to buy into the guilt of any religion.
There is a reason that I will review the Lisbon restaurant ahead of the much acclaimed Bahia Beach Bar so bear with me. I took a bus from Lagos to Lisbon to spend 24 hours in one of the continent’s most beautiful cities. I met up with an ex work colleague. Well, to be more precise, he was my boss in Africa and we have remained good friends despite the decimation of the company where we were working. I cannot recall walking up and down as many steps as I did in those few precious hours but I was delighted to see all this city of vibes has to offer. It has a slight feel of Paris about it. No surprise then when I am confronted with a small folly of an elevator that was a practice shot of the Eiffel Tower. I may have the details of that incorrect so I will amend when I get the story straight. But for now, it stays. It is a lovely city; indeed Portugal is a gorgeous country. After an afternoon of wandering we have to find a place to eat. I explain to Bill my hesitation in seeking out an oyster place but for the sake of this blog, we continue. I am, and always have been, an early eater. Lisbon, like many capitals, likes to eat late. So our choice is narrowed and we find ourselves outside a joint that looks interesting and is open and serves oysters. We are shown to a table which is set next to a church pulpit - the place is packed with religious references - and we peruse the menu. There are oysters and also a seafood platter which looks promising and includes crab, so we decide on that. Well, the plate arrived with a lovely number of healthy looking shrimp, a crab shell filled with mashed up crab meat and I am guessing mayonnaise of some sort. That exceeded our expectations, as it was billed simply as crab shell, but I suspect that is more to do with translation. And. Two. Oysters. Two. Count them. One looked juicy and succulent, the other looked like the remains of one that had been left, half-eaten, on someone else’s plate. I simply had to pull rank and go for the juicy good looking one, while leaving poor Bill with the remnants of a stranger’s lunch. I called the waitress over and pointed at the sad little shell and the international sign of dissatisfaction crossed my face. The waitress scurried away, as so many of them seem to do when we do reviews and start getting picky, and returned, free of charge, with another more decent oyster. Bill enjoyed it finally and we decided that they were delicious. The hallmarks of healthy oysters; ocean taste, meaty, salt. I began to speak of my epiphany in Lagos but more of that later. Therapy for us was the chance to discuss our antics in Africa and the near future plans for us both in our respective lives. We paid the bill and left. Not a mind blowing oyster experience but a fine night out in a wonderful location. Thank you strange and touristy Cervejaria Trindade Chiado.
So I am in Lagos, a pretty little town in the Algarve, Portugal. It is out of season and still quite cool but nevertheless I take my chances for a morning stroll to the beach. The wind gets stronger and it is getting colder but I make it to the seaside. I retreat immediately as sand is now in my silly shoes and I am cold. On the way back I notice a long boardwalk and a sign. Welcome to Bahia Beach Bar. My eyes scan the board menu and there it is! Ostras! Oysters! I dash down the winding walkway and am greeted by a friendly woman. I ask if there are any oysters and she replies no…..but she can order them in for tomorrow. So I have 24 hours to look forward to oysters followed by crab which is always fresh and tasty I am assured. Review to come. I gave up my planned trip to a winery for this!
And so it came to pass that I was indeed late for our meeting but only by minutes. I was shown to our booth and Patty was there waiting for me. I squeezed into my seat. I am, at a mere 163 cms in height, not a tall person. Neither am I overweight, however, it took a bit of pushing and shoving to get myself, my coat and my excesses of bags into position. I mentioned to Patty how ever so claustrophobic it all was but, after a bit of tangling and untangling of our legs, we were comfortable. The waiting staff were very attentive and very polite. We asked and were given a rundown of the oysters available and we settled on two Galways and three each of Loch Ryan and West Mersea. I ordered a glass of champagne and relaxed into the beginning of the weekend. Bread was already on the table and I tucked in. Prompt and lovely efficient service followed. The Galways were new to us and they were an absolute treat. They were meaty, flavoursome and went very quickly up to top of the ladder. An unexpected delight. For the next round, I went for the West Mersea. They bear the hallmarks of a typical rock oyster, in both shell size and shape and for one moment I was transported (no pun intended) back to Australia and the Sydney rocks. However this didn’t deliver. Then onto the Loch Ryan. Another new taste for us both and it was very very good as well. Patty was not sure at all about the Merseas so I made that my last choice while she had the third Loch Ryan. My second foray was more pleasant than the first and I think I may have done the oysters a disservice by greedily chowing down without giving each of them the time they required. You really need to give the palate some time to enjoy the first taste before popping in another one. However it was Friday night, after work and I was hungry. Therapy was talk of possible upcoming trips to various parts of the world - aren’t we lucky - and whether our trips would coordinate. It is always very exciting thinking of hopping on a plane and escaping the day to day. Suitably buoyed up by the holiday fantasies and realities, we decided to make it an early night. We summoned the waiter for the bill. It was a whopper! However at the bottom that dear precious disclaimer that a discretionary service charge had been added. We wondered if it was wrong to have the discretion removed and cheeky or not, we asked for a revised bill. I want to make it clear, I am not a cheapskate; I am a thoroughly disgraceful self styled spendthrift but it simply was waaay too expensive, even for London. Again there was the hushed staff scrum over by the till and then a surly, burly gentleman came over with our new bill. We paid it, thanked them and gathered our belongings and swept the curtain aside that prevents that sudden rush of biting cold London winter wind into the room. Patty and I wandered down to Regent Street and could see the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus and hopped on our various buses homeward bound. It was a good experience but costly. Maybe we need to branch out, certainly out of London, for much more reasonably priced oysters. Remember, Bentley’s, we are talking about peasant food here. How things change. Give the humble and delicious oyster back to the people. Sutton and Sons remain an excellent comparison. I appreciate we were paying Mayfair prices but really, it is a nonsense. Here endeth my rant.