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Somerset House photo credit: Jan van der Crabben

A couple of weeks ago we dashed up to the Big Smoke on a sunny Saturday to catch the last weekend of the Courtauld Institute’s Cezanne exhibition – which was stunning, btw.  And what a stunning day all round: Somerset House itself; at the far eastern end of The Strand, children frolicking under its courtyard fountains in the autumn sunshine and the chiaroscuro effect of the afternoon light on the Neo-classical quadrangle’s façades filled me with a sense of satisfaction and contentment normally only induced by a lazy luncheon with a glass of wine. Or two.

My delight had much to do with having sourced our train ride snack from the countertop cornucopia of Carluccio’s caffè.  A can of San Pellegrino Limonata for me: sharp, tart and truly lemony; very grown up and tasting nothing like pop, and a tinny of Peroni birra for he. Mine came with a foil cover to keep the sipping hole clean, which doubled up nicely as a micro-plate for our delectable little savoury biscuits: one each of parmesan/herb and walnut/rosemary flavours. Mmm – crisp and crumbly with the quality of their ingredients resonating on the palate: not much more than a morsel per piece yet intensely satisfying.

I do hope the delightful Antonio is feeling better after his recent knife mishap.  His erudite books and television works are informative and entertaining, and although he is no longer involved with the caffè chain which bears his name, it’s still a civilized pleasure to stop by and shop.  Best wishes for your recovery, Mr Carluccio!

We visited another bastion of civilization that day – the ever-urbane Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly.  A lunch date elsewhere meant foregoing the joys of the 1707 cellar wine bar, but who wants to be underground on a beautiful day anyway?  I did discover, however, what the deli counter does with the leftover fat from their Pata Negra Gran Reserva ham – they send it to the kitchen, clever devils.  I was hoping to acquire it cheaply for my own devices but at F&M they’re not fools.  Instead I came home with a goodly package of saffron  – saffron indeed – salami, and a very goodly thing it turned out to be: resembling more a lomo than a salami – no casing, the meat wasn’t chopped and fat evident only in the marbling – but all the more enjoyable for it, especially at just £3 for 100g.

 The saffron-gilded edge was beautiful to behold and its flavour subtly enhanced the top notch pork flesh.  I wish I could say more about this product but there was no information on the label and my server, although charmingly helpful, knew as much as I of its provenance.  The mystery remains…anyone out there know?

 

Courtauld Gallery

Somerset House map

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I’m slowly, surely, resolutely and absolutely regaining lost advantage.  Time was, before my extended colonial (felt more like colonic) exile, the waiting warriors of the Wong Kei on Wardour Street actually recognised me: at my appearance in the doorway their faces broke into smiles, I was greeted with hellos AND priority seating – even on Saturday nights with the 4-storey stairwell sardined floor to ceiling with bridge-and-tunnelers.

And why?  My extravagant beauty and boundless charm of course; or ponder this: maybe it was because I was a regular punter and – this is important – I always tip at the Wong Kei (nothing beats cold cash & coin at melting inscrutable hearts).  And I do believe if any waiters deserve a tip it’s these dudes: brusquely efficient, they’re too busy working to tell me their names, spiel out the specials (there are none) or inform me fatuously that they’ll be my waiter for the evening, but I have never known them to be rude.  When my teapot needs replenishing it’s done with neither wave nor word required – talk about discreet – and our food arrives hot to trot: nothing gets to hang around the dumb waiter here.
A plate of fried kwai due - fresh rice noodles - at the Wong Kei on Wardour Street
I love eating at the Wong Kei; it’s good, it’s cheap and the streetwise professionalism of the waiters is pure entertainment when one’s companions are not.  And if your Soho Saturday night is shaping up on the dull side, just try walking out of here without paying – you’ll suddenly be the (anti-)hero of your own little Jackie Chan movie, only without the humour.  Or Jackie Chan.  I saw two hicks attempt such a dirty trick one busy but not-so lucky night (for them); the mix of militaristic precision and street-brawl outrage with which the waiters shot into active response was poetry in motion – and with all their shouting it was thrilling indeed.  Actually, don’t try this; just believe me or you will regret it and I have no idea if you’ll live to tell the tale, but I rather hope you won’t.

Instead, ingénues and interested others take note of my tips for a trip to the Wong Kei:

  1. indicate how many in your party immediately on arrival
  2. obey directions and go where you’re told – upstairs for couples & groups
  3. sit where you’re told – you will probably be sharing a table with strangers
  4. first check the menu in the window then don’t dither over it inside
  5. be adventurous; if you pick something too weird (or too much!) they’ll tell you
  6. shun the set menus – they’re not as good value
  7. drink the tea: it’s free whereas the alcohol can be warm (no ice provided)
  8. don’t ask for sugar or milk, it’s embarrassing and you won’t get them
  9. ask if you must for a fork, or (preferably) learn chopsticks
  10. flip the lid & keep it open for a teapot top-up/replacement
  11. avoid the washrooms if you can on a busy night
  12. LEAVE A TIP! show your appreciation or go elsewhere

crispy ducks and Wardour Street reflected in a Chinese restaurant window, Soho

41-43 Wardour Street, London, W1D 6PY
020 7437 8408

approx £5 per head depending on appetite, obviously

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