A couple of weekends ago I went on a gastronomic adventure, the International Food Tour of Soho with the London Food Lovers. The tour explored the diverse culinary landscape of London and uncovered some the hidden food gems of the infamous foodie playground that is Soho. Our tour guide, Sarah, was an oracle on all things food and wine related. Bursting with food and historical knowledge about Soho, and impressively, a sommelier too (a specialist in serving wine and food and wine pairing).
SOHO – A LITTLE HISTORY
Soho has deep historical links to food and in 1536 it was bought by the food-minded Henry the VIII, for use as a hunting ground for himself and friends. In fact, the word Soho is an old aristocratic hunting cry. Originally an extension of the wealthy, upper-class Mayfair, until at the end of the 1700s, immigrants, largely French Huguenots, begun to move in and settle. The aristocrats, unnerved by these unfamiliar neighbours, moved away and Soho became known as the French quarter – a disreputable area full of brothels, music halls and alcohol-fuelled frivolity. However, the immigrants brought with them diverse international food, which today Soho is famed for.
REVIEW OF THE TOUR
The tour included 10 food and drink tastings from international cuisines, over 4.5 hours. It was quite a feast and I was struggling to finish the tastings just half way through the day. Here’s an overview of the stops I went to below, with a little more detail on my favourites: Kua’aina Burger, SAID Chocolate shop, Lina’s Store and Gordon’s Wine Bar:
Kua’aina Burger – Hawaiian
A | 26 Foubert’s Place, W1F 7PP
T | 020 7287 7474
W | kua-aina.co.uk
Our first food stop was a funky, yellow Hawaiian restaurant on Carnaby Street, famed for its burgers and founded in Hawaii. Kua’aina’s meat is sourced from one farmer, Andrew James, who has a farm just outside of Bristol and who is so proud of the beef he sells, that he could tell you exactly what the cow ate when it was alive and when it died.
Despite being known for ‘the best burgers in London’ we were here to try their Hawaiian breakfast pancakes, which are a big food trend right now. Before the tour I wouldn’t have touched them, but this place made me do a complete u-turn.
Hawaiian pancakes are very different to the more commonly served American pancakes. Although they look thick, they are in fact light and airy inside, like a soufflé. We were given two types to try, the signature: American-style pancake with crispy bacon and maple syrup, and Sarah’s favourite: Blueberry and banana pancake. Both were divine for different reasons. Although the bacon looks overdone in my photo, to my surprise, it wasn’t. It was both chewy and crisp at the same time. Then, there was the beautiful honey-like maple syrup – sweet but not sickly – and dangerously moreish. The blueberry and banana pancakes were topped off with fresh and juicy blueberries bursting with flavour.
If you’re thinking of trying them for the first time or are just on a quest for great pancakes this is definitely the place to go.
SAID Chocolate Shop – Roman
A | 41 Broadwick Street, W1F 9QL
T | 020 7437 1584
W | said.it/en
I’ve always loved a hot chocolate drink. But then I tasted SAID Italian hot chocolate and a whole new love affair began. Italian hot chocolate is like drinking liquid chocolate, velvety and warming – a far cry from powdered variety. Here, it comes in three different varieties, milk, dark and hazelnut.
Originally from Rome and one of the oldest established chocolate factories, SAID has a heritage to be proud of, which leads me on to what I loved about this little place… The owners aren’t trying to be millionaires, they only sell their chocolate in their own shops, despite requests from the likes of M&S and Fortnum and Masons to stock their products. They continue to hand-make the chocolate in the authentic way, rather than changing the process to work for mass production. And the proof is in the chocolate, which tastes (without exaggeration) unbelievable.
I tried several different chunks of their chocolate and one my favourites was of the dark variety, which was impressively creamy and rich, but not at all bitter. Great for use in a moelleux sauce or paired with a sweet cheese like a Gorgonzola.
There was even a bar with pink Himalayan rock salt. I loved it because of the reaction it has on your tongue, first the sweet flavour explodes and that makes you salivate and then it jumps to a salty release and it makes you salivate again. The salt isn’t too powerful either it’s just enough to set your taste buds tingling!
And a further bonus, SAID chocolate is free from palm oil and emulsifiers and each variety has a high cocoa level – typically 70% and over.
Lina Stores Ltd, Italian
A | 18 Brewer Street, W1F OSH
T | 020 7437 6482
W | Linastores.co.uk
As one of the first Italian Delis in Soho, Lina Stores made a name for itself serving fresh pasta and fresh Italian sausage every day. Today it’s a fab little spot to pick up homemade, Italian fast food, cooked on the premise with high-quality ingredients – it’s not expensive at all either (just a couple of pounds for freshly made pasta). Ideal for a cheap and tasty lunch. It’s also one of only a handful of local businesses that can proudly cite over 70 years of continued presence in Soho.
All the food is truly authentic and just what you’d really get if you were in Italy – right down to the salt used- as the team only cooks with Italian salt.
Italians tend to be very regionally proud, but Lina Stores aims to represent the best that the whole of Italy has to offer. Our tasting was described as ‘the best of Italy on a plate’ and included beautiful Buffalo milk mozzarella from Campania, prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano, stuffed chilli pepper with goat’s cheese from Calabria, a big green olive from Puglia and a wrinkly red sun-dried tomato. Aside from the olive (because I detest them) I gobbled everything and the flavour was incomparable to any supermarket’s so-called equivalent.
The Dog & Duck Pub, Classic British
A | 18 Bateman Street, W1D 3AJ
T | 020 749 0697
W | Nicholsonspubs.co.uk
I’m picky when it comes to fish and chips and in my opinion, there wasn’t anything special about the cod and chips from this pub. I’ve had better in my hometown of Brighton. Where fish and chips are concerned I would always go for a battered haddock, rather than cod since haddock has much more flavour and isn’t as overfished.
The second part of this stop was Ale tasting, we were given 3 different varieties to try in full pint glasses – but I don’t drink Ale so there’s little I can comment on here.
Govinda’s Pure Vegetarian Restaurant, Indian
A | 10 Soho Street, W1D 3DL
T | 020 7440 5229
W | iskcon-london.org
A stop unlike any of the others. Govinda’s is a purely vegetarian restaurant with all dishes freshly cooked on the premises throughout the day. All products are meat, fish and egg free with many dishes suitable for vegans too. What’s more, all staff work here as volunteers, praying silently throughout their shifts and putting love into the food they create. For our tasting, we tried a veggie samosa which was light, crisp and packed full of flavoursome vegetables, without heavy spices (as they are prohibited in the Hari Krishna diet as it is believed to agitate the mind). I’m told on week days, people are queueing out the door for lunch, as a full plate is just £7 and the refillable plate is only £14.
La Bodega Negra, Mexican
A | 16 Moor Street, W1D 5NH
T | 020 7758 4100
W | labodeganegra.com
This is the place to go if you want to try genuine Mexican food – not American Mexican. Our tasting was a pulled lamb salsa borracha taco (which comes in racks of three). The tacos were seasoned well and the lamb tender, but I’d really like to try more of the menu to see if I can be converted into a Mexican food lover.
Leong’s Legend, Taiwanese
A | 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX
T | 020 7287 0288
W | chinatownlondon.org
Leong’s Legend in Chinatown was the next stop and my least favourite from the whole day, owing to the fact that I’m not a dim sum fan, especially not soup dumplings. I tried the prawn dumpling but didn’t like the texture of the bun.
Maison Bertaux, French
A | 28 Greek Street, W1D 5DQ
T | 020 7437 6007
W | Maisonbertaux.com
Our penultimate and final tastings were combined. First we popped into Maison Bertaux, the oldest patisserie in the UK, to pick up a dessert to pair with wines at our final stop. The dessert was a ‘Tourteau fromager’ which translates as cheesecake but actually doesn’t contain an ounce cheese. It’s really closer to a panna cotta, with cooked cream, no eggs and very little sugar. If I had to have my last meal on earth, this dessert would be on the menu. Despite being full to bursting I wolfed the whole thing down.
Gordon’s Wine Bar, International Wines
A | 47 Villiers Street, WC2N 6NE
T | 020 7930 1408
W | Gordonswinebar.com
The last stop was just outside of Soho at the family-owned and run – Gordon’s – the oldest wine bar in London and this year celebrating its 125th year. Selling wines from all over the world, by the glass and seating within a caved cellar, it was a fantastic spot to end with.
Sarah brought us two different glasses of red wine to pair with the dessert and initially I couldn’t see these going well with a sweet. How wrong I was.
Before tucking into the cake my favourite wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon from India. After the cake, everything changed. The second wine from an indigenous grape that only grows in its country of origin, Portugal in the Douro Valley, came through as the better wine after tasting the dessert. It was a real surprise to see how entirely different it tasted with the dessert and Sarah explained why.
“We pair food and wine to make it taste better, just how the union of marriage is supposed to bring out the better bits of each other, the same applies to food and wine. New World wines (Argentinian, Australian, Chilean, New Zealand, South African and US wines) have been redesigned for a different lifestyle. In countries like Italy and France wine is always consumed with food, but in Britain, we drink much more without food, so now New World countries grow grapes purposely with more flavour.”
So with that in mind, if you have a bad experience with wine, try it with food and you may like it a lot more!
Another interesting fact Sarah revealed is that Chile was the first to introduce a new concept in wine-making. Instead of ageing in a barrel, the traditional way (and the method that brings out the chemicals and bad tannins) they age with wood chips in a steel cask. This new procedure is why you can feel unwell after drinking too much New World wine, but you can drink and drink and not get a headache with an Italian – fascinating right? And useful to know!
This tour was everything I hoped it would be and Sarah our guide was superb. The price was £70pp and based on the quantity of food provided it was well worth that. There are many a food tour you can book on in London, but London Food Lovers appealed to me because they only work with small restaurants that really have a heart for what they do; which is very much aligned with the ethos of my blog: to support local, independent food establishments and shy away from the big chains. I may not have liked everything I ate, but exploring such a vast range of cultures and cuisines was fun, educational and in doing so I enjoyed a dish I’d never before liked – Hawaiian Pancakes. Nom Nom!