It took me until September to finally get a proper summer holiday this year. Usually this wouldn’t matter so much, thanks to balmy London evenings, social occasion-packed weekends and Guardian readers’ favourite pastime – wild swimming, also known as paddling around in stagnant inner-city water. But a combination of this summer’s abysmal weather and the knock-on burnout from what can only be described as a relentless year, left me seeking that holiday feeling wherever I turned.
I finally got to spend 10 days lying by the Adriatic, soaking up the last of the summer sun and generally relaxing in ways I hadn’t been able to since early 2020. My sister finished her chemotherapy just before we left the UK, and watching her finally have the energy to spend endless hours swimming around hidden coves, and smiling genuinely for the first time since she was diagnosed, was a truly incomparable experience. It was like letting out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding in, and I felt the heavy hand finally ease its metaphorical hold on my chest.
While this feeling and it’s subsequent incomparable, incandescent joy cannot be replicated by any number of murky ponds, sticky beer gardens or piss-stained fields, I did seek out a few pockets in London over the early summer months that can whisk you away for a time, even if momentarily. My first international destination was the Caribbean by way of Hackney Wick. Legendary TV personality and chef Andi Oliver has opened Wadadli Kitchen – a dual purpose, year long-pop up hidden along the canal adjacent to Crate Brewery. Inspired by the Grenadian Ital Oil Down, upstairs at Wadadli Kitchen serves just two dishes; seafood boil and vegan boil. Both are served straight out of the pot and onto your table (palm leaves serve as “plates”), lathered in a scotch bonnet butter and set atop a healthy layer of flaky roti.
This is food to eat with your hands. It’s almost intoxicatingly animalistic to rip open crustaceans, lifting them hungrily to your mouth, sucking juices off your fingers and leaving sauce from one side of your face to the other. It helps, as well, that the food is damn good. There is a subtle kick from the scotch bonnet and a deeply savoury tone. At the end of it all our table looked like some kind of deep sea massacre – prawn heads discarded, crab legs relieved of every last inch of meat, mussel shells tossed aside. It was such an anti-London experience, where so many restaurants are focused on appearances, dress codes and putting on an air of considered nonchalance. When washed down with some of Oliver’s infamous rum punch, you could be forgiven for thinking you were a million miles away. Just don’t drink too much – there is an axe-throwing spot next door and I’m sure a few wayward cocktails would send one flying straight into someone’s roti.
Then it was off to the fish bars of Barcelona, via New York City at Bar Flounder in Netil Market. The brainchild of fishmonger Fin and Flounder (my favourite in the city, although I am a little biased – they got me through lockdown), the casual setup can be found in Netil Market, just around the corner from Broadway Market. Grab some turbot tenders – drowned in tangy, buttery, lightly spiced buffalo sauce, they are a masterpiece of a mouthful. Crisp batter makes way for the fleshy, meaty fish, while the buffalo sauce is an absolute kicker. You could just about eat it on its own with a spoon. The prawn burger is a classic, and everything you would want from this seafood mash-up – impossibly juicy patty, rubbery American cheese, luscious chipotle Mayo. I hoovered mine up in three messy mouthfuls. The salmon tartare comes in a ripped-open bag of Torres truffle crisps; I’m not really sure I need to say more here. There are others – I’ll be returning for the seafood rice – just don’t forget the vermouth. It is quite literally on tap, and softened with soda for suitable daytime drinking. Pulling up a hard-earned pew here is pretty close to a perfect lunchtime, and on a sunny day, doesn’t feel quite so far from the shores of the Balearic.
Then go onwards to Mexico at Sonora Tacos. It’s a great trip actually – just next door to the Bar Flounder, you’ll save thousands in both air miles and dollars. Recently reopened after a short hiatus, the taqueria is owned by Mexican-born Michelle Salazar and partner Sam Napier, and is inspired by the food of the country’s northwest. It serves up some of the best tacos I’ve had outside of Mexico – both the fillings and the tortillas themselves, which inspired quick-fire sellouts every time they were listed for sale during lockdown. Grab whatever drink they’re serving that day – it could be a michelada (a beer-heavy take on a Bloody Mary) or a horchata (a rice or coconut-based drink topped with cinnamon) and head over to London Fields. It’s not quite the lime-scented coastline of north Mexico but your taste buds could pretend it is for a short moment.
Finally, pop off to Paris courtesy of Top Cuvée’s new venture: Cave Cuvée on Bethnal Green Road. The Eurostar is lovely but it has nothing on the central line depositing you, slightly sweaty, just a 10-minute walk from the bar and shop (or, alternatively, wander over from Netil Market itself and take yourself via Columbia Road for a quick Italian sojourn at Campania). Designed to evoke the sexy, underground atmosphere of Paris’ many wine bars, Cave Cuvée somehow manages to make a remarkable menu with the help of just two simple hobs. I cannot fathom how they produced such meltingly rich ham hock for the terrine, or what skill it requires to braise beans ’til they’re silken via such compact means. But this experience is all part of the holiday; food of wondrous origin, deceptively simple and seemingly conjured up through sheer belief. Bethnal Green might be the last place you’d expect to find a slice of Paris and yet here it is.
Some of London’s best dining experiences exist outside of typical bricks-and-mortar restaurant settings, and get nowhere near the same amount of press – instead relying on word of mouth and the power of social media. But what is most special about street food joints and pop-up spots is the intangible joy of discovery. It offers the same feeling of stumbling upon a great restaurant down a cobblestoned lane while lost in some European city, or having one of the best meals of your life roadside in Bangkok. It allows for unparalleled inspiration, chefs being free of the rigid requirements imposed by menus and owners and increasingly impossible-to-meet bottom lines. London is one of the most exciting places to eat in the world, and no more so in your local market or from your local street food vendor. Bon voyage!
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