Adventures in dining: Highlights of trips to London, Dublin and Chicago — including a visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant

A large restaurant

The Michelin-starred River Cafe on the Thames in London. (Richard Bryant)

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Editor’s note: In place of her review of a local restaurant, this week Caroline Lee writes about recent trips and the food that was enjoyed.

Husband Eric was on a mission. Eager to push his frequent-flyer status to the next level, he had booked three trips between last Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

This was going to change our holiday plans, for sure. But, stay at home or take a few great trips? You only live once.

We like to travel overseas this time of year. With the weather usually in the 40s and 50s, it’s perfect for doing a lot of walking in a sweater and light coat.

And now the strong dollar made overseas prices a lot more reasonable. Euros and British pounds are closer to parity with dollars.

Thanksgiving was going to be at our house this year, until Eric found tickets for London the Friday after. Mary was kind enough to take over hosting duties, and we left the next day.

We stayed at the Paddington Hilton, a historic old hotel right above the train station. From here, Underground lines take us anywhere we want to go in London.

Eric navigates the trains easily, and on Saturday we were soon headed for Covent Garden and London’s theatre district, the West End. The trains were packed, and so were the restaurants.

We headed to Brown’s, in the former Westminster Law Courts. Built in 1908, it’s a spacious, handsome stone building with soaring ceilings and windows you could drive a Mini Cooper through. It’s repurposed beautifully into a gracious restaurant space.

Brown’s is part of a chain of 26 restaurants, owned by Brown’s Brasserie & Bar. Eight locations are in London. This is the best one.

The restaurant was filled to the gills, and soon we were back out into the drizzly evening, hoods up, looking for dinner.

We wove through Covent Garden, Leicester Square, and into Picadilly, reading menus as we went. Either a restaurant was full, or the menu wasn’t to our liking.

Great steaks

We got lucky at Steak and Company, on Haymarket in Picadilly Circus where warm light spilled out from the high windows of the corner building, black-painted on the first floor like an old-fashioned English pub.

The young woman at the door first said no, then — wait. There was a table, if we didn’t mind along the banquette way in the back. It turned out to be our lucky night.

This location is one of four in London’s West End. Their beef comes from South America and the prices looked good to us — a 10-ounce filet was £45 ($54), about the same as at a high-end steakhouse around here.

Though crowded, we got good service. And they had great steaks. I had a 10-ounce boneless ribeye (about $31) that was juicy perfection. The stumpy french fries were delicious, super crispy and like mashed potatoes inside. Eric had the filet.

When we went back to the hotel Eric made a reservation online for Brown’s for the next day. Note to self: be sure to make restaurant reservations in London at Christmastime.

In the morning we visited the Tate Modern to see the Cezanne exhibit, which we compared and contrasted to the same show we saw in Chicago this past summer (favorable), and bought Christmas cards in the gift shop.

We visited the Waterstones bookshop on Picadilly, Europe’s largest bookstore and a regular stop on our visits to London. I left happy, with three new books.

At Waitrose supermarket, I purchased brown sugar cubes for coffee and found whole vanilla beans for cheap (I bought two) and got a very cool reusable shopping bag for 70 pence.

The Sainsbury Local in Paddington station has the best prices for big Cadbury Dairy Milk bars, less than two dollars each. I stocked up.
We made it to Brown’s for an early dinner, where I enjoyed fish and chips and Eric ordered slow-cooked pork belly from the Sunday Roast menu. It was so tender and rich, he said, served with apricot and thyme stuffing, apple butter, crackling and gravy. He saved room for profiteroles with caramel sauce.

The River Cafe

The highlight of our trip was lunch Monday at the River Café on the Thames at Hammersmith. An Italian restaurant opened in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, it earned its Michelin star in 1997. This was our first meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant and Eric had made the reservation weeks in advance.

Ruth Rogers was born in New York State and lived in Woodstock, and studied at Bennington College for a year then went to England. She married, found success with her restaurant and never looked back.

The River Cafe is a modern space built in the rear of a row of brick industrial buildings with patio and garden facing the Thames. Designed by Ruth’s late husband, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers, the building somehow amplifies all of London’s dreary winter light, brightening the dining room. A wall of windows faces the river, opposite a waist-high stainless steel counter behind which the chefs and staff effortlessly toil; a pink wood-burning oven dominates one end.

We were seated near the counter at a linen-covered table for four with comfortable modern chairs. Maybe it’s the brilliant topaz-blue carpet that brings in all the daylight; it dominates the otherwise muted color scheme. A young woman server brought us freshly made rosemary-scented focaccia, the best I’ve ever had, and unsalted butter.

There was a small dish of Maldon sea salt on the table, alongside one of fresh ground pepper.

It wasn’t easy to get a reservation, though the other diners looked like they did it — and everything else — effortlessly. They looked relaxed, nibbled on multiple courses and checked the time on enormous wristwatches in between sips of Italian wine.

What does it take to get a job behind the counter here? The white-coated brigade has included Jamie Oliver and April Bloomfield, among other luminaries. That day the staff worked soundlessly, seamlessly. Completed dishes set onto the counter were swiftly picked up and delivered, though no one seemed to rush.

Neither did anyone photograph their food or take selfies in this legendary restaurant. I guess it was just another lunch to them. My phone stayed in my handbag.

The Winter menu was divided between Antipasti, Primi, Secondi and Dolci sections, featuring seasonal ingredients. I ordered tagliatelle, with a smooth, vivid green sauce somehow made from pistachios, Parmesan and olive oil.

Eric chose beautiful, flaky, gently flavored sea bass. It was served with lentils, which he doesn’t care for but managed to overlook as the fish was so delicious.

He had their signature lemon tart served with a slump of cream-based sauce for dessert, tangy rather than sweet. The filling tasted strongly of the zest, made more piquant where the filling was browned.

He finished my house-made caramel sorbet as well. It had the trick of not being sweet at all and its main flavor was scorched sugar. Not in a bad way.

The tab came to about $200, including a bottle of 2021 Pieropan Soave Classico. Service was seamless; the kitchen ran like a top. It was great fun, and we enjoyed the meal.

We spent most of the last evening eating snacks in the hotel lounge, then took a quick trip on the Underground to visit the Fortnum & Mason department store in Picadilly.

The windows were decorated for Christmas in a whimsical Chef and kitty and wily mouse theme, their antics worth a look at all the windows from left to right along front of the building.

The basement food hall and main floor with ready-to-eat luxury meals and food gifts are the best parts, though we sometimes climb the ornate staircases to visit the gentlemen’s department and the Christmas shop.

We flew out the next day around noon, my suitcase heavy with groceries. I was pleased with my shopping, Eric was pleased that our transportation had included most of the underground lines and a boat ride.

First trip down.

On to Dublin

A few weeks later we headed to Dublin, the next destination on our mileage run. We were enjoying ourselves.

An early December snowstorm cut our four-night trip down to three. But we had to do the time in the seats to get the credit, so off we went.

The fully booked Shelbourne Hotel on St. Steven’s Green wasn’t ready for us when we arrived the next morning at 8 a.m. Turns out Dublin is a very busy place in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

After a quick nap and shower, we hit the streets. Our hotel’s central location allowed us to see much of the best of the city on foot. Our first stop was Hodges Figgis, the four-story independent bookstore a few short blocks away.

It was Sunday, and the streets were filled with pedestrians, the shops open until nine o’clock. And the restaurants, well, they were all booked. Tip: Make sure you have restaurant reservations if you’re in Dublin in December.

We wanted to revisit Café en Seine, where we’d shared an excellent meal a few years ago but they were fully booked. And so it went at the next restaurant we tried, and the next.

We’ve been lucky in the past, but this night, there was nothing.

An oasis from the crowds

So we ate at our hotel. The Shelbourne was busy with holiday celebrations. There was a very lively office party taking up most of the bar and the main restaurant was doing a three-course holiday menu for 99 euros, that we weren’t dressed for, or in the mood for.

There’s a small dining room next to the bar for hotel guests only. Behind a red rope, even. We thankfully fell into comfortable seats, with plenty of room and good service.

Eric had turkey, bacon, cheese and cranberry aioli on a sandwich made from planks of seeded sourdough bread and french fries topped with a garlicky mayonnaise, which he liked very much.

I had fish and chips, delicious. It’s made with plaice, a flaky white fish with a flavor like cod, and it’s common in Ireland. The long, perfectly browned piece was composed of fish, crispy batter, and air in all the right proportions. We shared a bottle of Rabbit Island New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and were glad to have finally found an oasis from the crowds and noise.

As I finished dunking my fries into a miniature bottle of Heinz ketchup, Eric ordered dessert. Shelbourne’s Christmas pudding is a dark, dense cake made with molasses and bits of dried fruit, topped with a sweet creamy sauce and garnished with lingonberries.

The next day we went to Dunn’s supermarket, and the food halls at Marks & Spencer. I picked up more Cadbury chocolate and some Maldon sea salt. Eric had his eye on a gray wool fisherman’s knit sweater at The Wool House so I bought it for him as an early Christmas gift.

We passed Café en Seine just as they were opening, and took our chances. We got lucky; they could take us. I looked at the menu and realized there was nothing in the entrée section that Eric particularly liked. Oh, no, and they’d been nice enough to give us a table.

It was about this time that Eric canceled the reservation for the other restaurant on his phone, still before the reservation time, but he was going to have to pay a $40 cancellation fee. What to do?

So we did this: we had appetizers, and the food was as good as we remembered. Eric had cured salmon with crème fraiche and sliced radishes. We also shared an excellent charcuterie board. We paid for our food and headed to our next restaurant.

We were only a few minutes late for our reservation. We ordered a bottle of wine and Eric got another appetizer — seared salmon, and we shared a Margherita pizza. The crust was tough, and Eric wasn’t thrilled with the salmon, so we were glad we’d gone to Café en Seine first.

As we stood at the gate waiting to board the plane home from Dublin, we met a gentleman who was also making a trip in the name of miles. He’d been a wine importer on the West Coast and traveled to Europe frequently. Now, retired, he wasn’t going to miss out on the perks that come with loyalty and made a last-minute trip to Ireland.

And they are, to some, quite worth it. Miles multiply exponentially. Upgrades are common; the crew treats you like royalty. To me, the best part comes before flying, when you can board the plane early, ensuring the overhead bin space above your seat.

To Chicago, and a new airline status

Between Christmas and the New Year we made our last trip — this time to Chicago, where the weather was unseasonably mild. Normally, the winds whip off the lake and barrel down the streets. Hats, scarves and gloves are not only necessary but vital.

We met up with Eric’s brother and his nice wife for dinner at Hugo’s Frog Bar for steaks. It shares a kitchen with Gibson’s Steak House, and yes, you can get frog’s legs.

Breakfast was at the Original Pancake House nearby in River North. We were 723 frequent flyer miles closer to our goal.

By this point Eric crossed the line to his new status level, the highest one for the airline we fly. He was thrilled, and kept reopening the app to read the “Welcome to Your New Status” message.

On the last day of the year at the O’Hare Terminal B airport club, members were chatty and sharing their mileage-run stories. One of our neighbors was headed to the Netherlands, another to Kansas. Nearby at the bar two old friends who live in different parts of the country met up to take a trip together. All in the name of keeping, or advancing, their airline status.

So Eric made it, but I didn’t. I was a few miles short — 55, to be exact. The word at the airport club was that, no way was the airline going to give me the status even though I was so close. The consolation is that if your companion has a certain status and books the tickets, you can tag along.

So I was surprised when near the end of January a message popped up in my Gmail. “Welcome to Your New Status.” Holy cow. I called customer service, and the representative told me that if you were within a hundred miles of the goal, they give it to you.

It ended well, and Eric is plotting to be sure we have enough miles to keep our status this year.

As for me, I have some tips: make sure you have restaurant reservations in London at Christmastime. And Dublin. And if someone offers to take you to London and Dublin and Chicago within a few whirlwind weeks, go. You only live once.

Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy. Reach her at [email protected]

Categories: Food, Life and Arts

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