London in winter. You know, I’ve been to this city many times; my first visit was back when I graduated from high school, 25 years ago. This time, however, was the first where I did not visit at high tourist season. For the first time, I enjoyed seeing all the local folks in their comfortable places, shopping, working, eating. On a January night, I sat waiting in a Boeing 767, parked at the gate at JFK Airport in NYC, while a ground crew worked to defrost the frozen water pipes that were to fill the plane with its required water. New York had been hit with another hard snowfall that very week. Just get us out of here! I held my breath before taking off. I was so looking forward to our “wild weekend” of food and drink in London, which has evolved since my first visit into a city buzzed by wine bars and tapas, artisanal cheeses, chocolates, and coffees. When my plane landed in late-morning London (lovingly photographed here by master photographer Dave), it was 50 degrees and I could exhale.

We stayed at the Crown Moran Hotel in Cricklewood, northwest London. Indeed, the hotel was outskirted from Central London, requiring us to take a bus to the subway to get to our destinations. But the bus options were many and were frequent: London’s mass transit is such a well-maintained and sensible system, proving how city dwellers need to commute, smartly. Our hotel was roomy, quiet, with an attached restaurant and an attached pub. And it was within this pub -- called The Crown -- where we were comforted by the first meal of our visit. Cozy couches, faux fireplaces, tap beers. I put my feet up and enjoyed a pint of Fuller’s London Pride, served at a warmer-than-cold temperature that was as easy to drink as warm milk. The pub’s “Winter Warmers” menu included six substantial dishes for 5 pounds each ($8). I enthusiastically ate the Cumberland Sausage, Bubble and Squeak, Parsley Gravy and French-fried Onions. It included three porky sausages, a heap of “leftover” veggies (aka “bubble and squeak”), smooth mashed potatoes with a generous sprinkling of chives, and oh-so-pleasing crunchy fried onions. Dave ate the Slow-Cooked Beef and Abbot Ale Stew with Pearl Barley and Butter Beans. Sounds great for a bar menu, right?

Inspired by this satisfyingly hearty pub food, I later made my own “Toad in the Hole,” as coached by Three Many Cooks. I did double this recipe, but left the “batter” ingredients as is. After pouring my oil in the baking pan, it was “very hot” in 5 minutes. I used sweet Italian pork sausages. I poured the batter over the heated sausages, tossed in the rosemary sprigs, and enjoyed their piney scent as the casserole baked for 30 minutes.

Now, we must not minimize the role of the “Onion Gravy” in this dish. Most notably, I need to acknowledge the importance and the power of Marmite. The writer of this recipe calls it “gold” and she is not wrong. The potent jar of Marmite is yeast extract paste, and its flavor reminds me of the alluring taste of nutritional yeast. It’s incredible. Now, a jar will remain a fixture in my pantry. My gravy was reduced and cooked in less than 2 minutes.

When the “Yorkshire pudding” was finished baking, it lifted right out of the baking pan, thanks to the pool of oil that it cooked in. Our reward was the ample pub fare, with its meaty/cheesy tang.

After an afternoon of traipsing through the British Museum, Dave and I ventured out for our Friday-night meal at Bob Bob Ricard, without a reservation. The “glamorous all-booth dining room was a kick: the staff was warm and inviting. The menu celebrates “English and Russian classics.” It’s a little goofy, but it works. We sat at and ate at the bar, and were treated with the utmost respect. It was great.

In an ode to Britain, I drank what was called a Garden Tonic: Pimm’s No. 6, elderflower cordial, lime juice, mint, bitters, tonic. Dave drank a Natalia Vodianova Clear Bloody Mary, where cleartomato waterwas used. With these drinks, we enjoyed some Bobcorn and olives, four hard-boiled quail eggs with truffle slices, and a bit of rabbit/foie gras/date terrine.

And we kept eating. I had the Chicken and Mushroom Pie with Truffle Sauce, with a side of cabbage. Dave had Bob’s Chicken Kiev with Sweet Corn and Potato Mash. For dessert, Dave had the Plate of BBR Cakes, which was a delightful tasting of cakes, pastries, etc. I indulged in the Three Scoops of Homemade Ice Cream: peanut butter & banana, salted caramel, and Valrohna chocolate. We also had to have four chocolate truffles, including mint, berry, and passionfruit. This meal was fantastic and was a perfect way to celebrate our first night in London, on this trip.

As an ode to BBR’s creativity, I later made a “Cheese and Nut Loaf,” as inspired by the February 2011 issue of Delicious magazine (recipe below). The “Nut Loaf” has been the butt of too many jokes aimed at earnest vegetarians, but I’ll tell you: this particular loaf was fantastic! Textured like beef -- with the “umami” of fresh and dried mushrooms -- the loaf was firm, but not dry. The inclusion of cottage cheese added a magical texture. The roasted nuts were such an important component of the overall flavor and texture.

Cheese and Nut Loaf
Delicious magazine, February 2011
serves 6 to 8

4 oz. brown rice
6 oz. walnuts
2 oz. cashews
2 Tbsp. butter
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1.5 oz. mushrooms, wiped clean and chopped
1 oz. dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms, soaked for 20 minutes in hot water, drained and chopped
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh marjoram or 1 tsp. dried marjoram or oregano
1 tsp. chopped fresh sage or 1/2 tsp. dried sage
4 large eggs, beaten
8 oz. cottage cheese
12 oz. grated cheese (use a mix, such as Gruyère, cheddar, mozzarella)

Preheat oven to 380 degrees. Cook the rice. Roast the walnuts and cashews in the oven for 5-7 minutes, then chop finely. After removing the nuts from the oven, increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Heat the butter in a frying pan, then cook the onion over moderate heat until translucent. Season with salt, then add the garlic, both types of chopped mushrooms and herbs. Cook until the liquid released by the mushrooms has been reduced, then mix with the cooked rice, chopped nuts, beaten eggs, cottage cheese and grated cheese. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper and additional salt, if needed.

Lightly butter a loaf tin, then line with buttered parchment paper. Fill the tin with the cheese, veg and nut mixture, then bake at 400 degrees until the top is golden and rounded (about 60 to 75 minutes; the loaf should be firm when you give the tin a shake.)

Remove from the oven, leave to rest for 10 minutes, then turn the loaf out onto a serving plate. Remove the parchment paper. Slice and serve.

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My nuts were roasted in 20 minutes. I ground them in the food processor until they were nearly a powder. My fresh mushrooms were creminis. My cheeses were Muenster and Swiss. For my herbs, I used fresh thyme, fresh marjoram, and dried sage. And yes, the scents of sage and thyme were powerful as my loaf baked, for 67 minutes. Indulge in this loaf and you won’t be disappointed -- in fact, you’ll be dazzled.