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Archive for June 19th, 2007

Columbia Road Flower Market

During a quick spell of bright sunshine on Sunday (it rained all weekend otherwise), Jon and I caught the 55 bus from Old Street tube station to reach the Columbia Road flower market. We decided it was time to try again to make our roofdeck an inviting place to sit, which means getting plants.  (Our effort last year didn’t amount to much beyond three shriveled hydrangea bushes and a sickly wisteria vine).

Every Sunday beginning at 8 am, several dozen sellers of flora and flora accoutrements sell their wares along Columbia Road, which is in an east London neighborhood that has a lot in common with the Lower East Side.

Crowded doesn’t begin to describe the jostling masses of people at the market, but (1) there’s no beating the market’s selection and prices; and (2) listening to all the cockney accents shouting out competing deals to potential customers is priceless.

It was at the market that Jon first fell in love with calling a £5 bill a “fivah.” The m.o. when you show up at the market is to move from stall to stall, checking out the inventory, listening to the deals offered (“I’ll give you three for a fivah, three for a fivah”), and then gesturing that you’ll accept one of the deals. The seller/auctioneer then acknowledges your win by throwing your plants at you. If you don’t seem the type who’s likely to catch the plants in time (i.e., you look like me), the seller tosses your plants to a sidekick who stands among potential customers, and the sidekick will then hand you the plants in exchange for your cash. It’s a fast-moving, entertaining system.

In addition to potted plants and herbs, the market vendors sell cut flowers, which are gorgeous and incredibly cheap. Every time I go to the flower market, I think about how I’d love to buy dinner party flowers at the market, but who has dinner parties on a Sunday night?

If you show up at the market near closing time (2 pm), the deals on the cut flowers get to be particularly good, but like any good deal, showing up late risks an unappealing selection of leftovers. Dilemmas, dilemmas.

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The Albion gastropub, Thornhill Road, London N1

Just a few weeks ago, in early April, the Albion gastropub reopened after an extensive renovation. The Daily Candy, whose restaurant alerts I normally ignore, associated chef Richard Turner’s creds with Tapas Brindisa, a restaurant I like very much. Throw in the Albion’s location around the corner from my flat (journey time door-to-door: 5 minutes’ walk) and of course I checked it out.

Five out of the seven times I’ve eaten at the Albion since it reopened, I was in heaven. The service was a little unorganized (e.g., every time I called to book a table, I was told the restaurant was full, but then I’d show up as a walk-in and end up being seated almost immediately), but always friendly. So despite service slowness, the pros far outweighed the cons: The pub dining room and bar are cozy and welcoming; the large outdoor garden is a perfect place for large groups of friends to meet and hang out; and the prices are reasonable (10-15 GBP per main course and most bottles of wine for under 30 GBP). Best of all, though the food was simple, it was made with care.

Potted Duck at the Albion gastropub, Islington, N1

Among my favorites is the potted duck appetizer (photo above). I joked with my photographer friend Julie Kubal (who took all the photos in this post) that there’s no way to make potted duck a visually-appealing dish, but Julie proved me wrong.

Potted duck, in case you were wondering, is duck cooked in a lot of its own fat – confit’ed – until it’s soft enough to be a spread. I love schmearing the potted duck onto a crispy, hot slice of toasted baguette. In moving to the UK, I may have irretrievably lost bagels and cream cheese, but I won potted duck. It’s not a bad trade.

Gloucester Old Spot (pork belly) at the Albion gastropub, Islington, London N1

For my main course, I’m a big fan of the spring vegetable pot pie and the Gloucester Old Spot (photo above), which is a poetic-sounding way of saying I like to eat pork belly. Lately, though (as in: the last two times I was there), the slab of Gloucester Old Spot that arrives on my plate has been hard-as-a-rock on top and mushy on the bottom. It used to come lightly browned and crisped on top and juicy and meaty on the bottom. So are things sliding down hill, or have I just hit two bad nights by accident?Albion fries chips, Islington, London N1

And worst of all is the downhill trend in the quality of the small details like the chips. Just a month ago, the triple-fried chips were excellent – golden and ultra crunchy. To the extent the world is divided into crust lovers and middle lovers, I fall into the former category, so the crispier the better.

Alas, on my last two visits, the chips were soggy – definitely not triple fried or even double fried – and mealy in a way that I thought only frozen pre-bagged chips could be.Service during my last two visits, while never particularly good at the beginning, was also on a slide.

On one Saturday evening, the server brought out a wrong dish and kept insisting that it was our fault the dish was incorrect. It was an unpleasant conversation and the gist appeared to be that because the server had already brought out the dish, we should just accept it and eat it.

On another recent occasion, our table of six waited a half hour for a server to take our order, despite its being a quiet (empty) Wednesday evening.

Overall, I’ll give the Albion another try or two to see if things shape up, but I don’t understand how a place could start out so well and be already headed downhill.
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