NEW WEST LONDON PIZZERIA: ZIA LUCIA

It might be a little early to review the new Zia Lucia that opened last Saturday night in Brook Green. But I can’t help myself! My main takeaway? You can have absolutely delicious, mouth-wateringly good pizza without having that heavy, bloated feeling afterwards. Guilt-free and yummy. Their secret is below.HHPV9700I know what you are thinking. Yes, the pizzas are that good.

Zia Lucia is the the second hatchling from a young group of vibrant, energetic Italians hailing from Venice who have known each other for years.  Zia means “aunt” and Auntie Lucia’s love of food and community inspired Gianluca and Claudio to open the first Zia Lucia in Islington last year.  An instant success, they decided to try their hand in West London and last Saturday night opened Zia Lucia on Blythe Road in Brook Green (Hammersmith).

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The queue outside the new Zia Lucia on Blythe Road in Brook Green last Saturday night. I worried that the upmarket, more residential Brook Green would be a tougher crowd to break into — and please — but based on the queue outside and the happy customers inside, there was no need.

The wood-burning ovens — respectively named Dante and Wally —  are a big hit, delivering true Italian crusts. Crispy and crunchy on the outside, doughy on the inside with melted toppings in such a wide range that it takes a while to decide what to order: artichokes, rocket, honey, figs, traditional basil and mozzarella, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, the list is endless. I don’t know where they source their goods, but while eating my pepperoni pizza with black olives and mozzarella, I was transported to Italy, where everything tastes better.

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As someone whose palate and diet has changed over the years, I can no longer eat a lot of bread, particularly white bread. As much as I love it, my gut has become more sensitive and my daily routine means little or no starch.

What Zia Lucia does with its crust is sensational. They offer 4 to 5 different crusts to choose from: traditional, wholemeal, charcoal vegetarian, gluten-free, and on the Islington menu (and if you ask at the Brook Green restaurant), a moringa green dough.

What is moringa, you ask?  At our table of six, it seems all the under 35s knew about it. The seeds, pods and leaves come from the moringa oleifera tree, or “the drumstick tree” found in Nepal and India, that Wellness Mama explains: “is touted as a superfood since it is rich in nutrients, antioxidants and other beneficial compounds”.

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This wide variety of dough is enticing to even the most allergic of eaters. At our table, we had collectively one of everything except the gluten-free. My charcoal vegetarian crust was absolutely delicious. Tasty with that charcoal edge to it, and far from bland. The tomato sauce and mozzarella were perfectly proportioned and all of our toppings were fresh and sizzling when arriving at the table.

But most important, after eating nearly all the pizza, I woke up the next morning feeling…fine! Not bloated, not heavy, not that weighed down feeling you get after eating that much dough. It was a revelation for me that I could enjoy a night out without the guilt. My husband enjoyed the wholemeal dough and our daughter had the traditional — all 2 thumbs up. Another dinner guest had the moringa dough as he’s a huge fan of the Islington branch.

The decor is light and simple, lots of exposed brick, whitewashed walls and simple wooden tables. But the ambience is warm and cozy, and they fit in quite a few covers both upstairs and down in this small townhouse space.

The antipasti starters were very good, although I’d love to see a little more variety, but again, very fresh ingredients and very healthy.  There was a good variety of beers, both local and abroad, and they offer a “spritz”, an Italian drink to start your night, of aperol and prosecco. Not my cup of tea, but they were so proud and excited to share this Italian tradition I felt bad for not trying one!

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Like all places that just open, they have to iron out some of the kinks (I think they were working through the night prior to opening, making last minute adjustments), but with the very decent price tag, divine food — particularly on a cold winter’s night — and the warm, bubbly atmosphere, I’m sure this place will be a hit.  With all the various private and public schools nearby, as well as the residential homes and many businesses, this will be a regular local hangout.

Bravo to Claudio, Gianluca, Priscilla and all the team at Zia Lucia. Looking forward to going back for a second and third and fourth visit. The neighbourhood just got that much better!

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MY FAVOURITE RESTAURANT IN LONDON

Everyone who’s visited us over the past 7 years (and many who haven’t) all know my favourite restaurant in London is Nopi. Nopi is a creation of chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, two creative and brilliant additions to London cuisine, combining Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods in their now famous delis and restaurants dotted across the city.

When I first arrived here in 2010, there was a buzz about Ottolenghi. Everyone told me I must get the new cookbook of the same name.  Combining roasted aubergine (eggplant) with saffron yoghurt, basil leaves and pomegranate seeds introduced a burst of flavours I would never have put together.  Or cauliflower and cumin fritters with a lime yoghurt. Manuri cheese grilled and served with courgettes (zucchini) and chargrilled asparagus.  These new taste sensations excited the palate with exotic foods and flavours.

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I heard about the deli in Notting Hill/Westbourne Grove first but when someone told me about Nopi, my friend Shannon and I started meeting there at 5:30 for a pre-ballet dinner at the ROH.

It’s tucked away in Mayfair but close to Piccadilly Circus so easy to get to. For me, there’s so much to like about a restaurant but to be really good, it needs to tick all the boxes. Great atmosphere and vibe. Tick. Excellent service and professional and polite staff. Tick.   Not too far away and convenient. Tick. Doesn’t break the bank. Tick. And of course, the food. Big big tick. Added bonus: healthy. Another tick.

They do small plates or “tapas” of multiple mouth-watering creations: a variety garden vegetables and fruits, figs with cheese and honey, cheese with apricots, various meats, poultry and fish, and those delicious courgette fritters with lime yoghurt are divine.  Recently, they’ve added a starter of burnt spring onion dip with seeded dukkah and every time I’ve gone, we are practically licking the bowl. The fish like sea bass or plaice is perfectly cooked and combined with flavours of burnt butter, nori and ginger or calabrese peppers.  My dinner companion recently had smoked beef with pickled Jerusalem artichokes and it’s far more appetising than it sounds.  And an absolute must is the truffled polenta chips with parmesan and aioli — we order them every time and they melt in your mouth with a unique combination of subtle and strong flavours.

Desserts are something to look forward to, and I hate dessert. But the creativity they pour into them can’t be missed.  The coffee and pecan financiers with maple cream are sublime, as is the apple and gingerbread trifle with Calvados and celery sorbet.

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But beyond the food, the look and feel of the restaurant is cool, nice, sophisticated, fun, and cozy. Doesn’t take itself too seriously, doesn’t need to be pretentious, just relies on the good food and professional staff. The white-washed brick walls, warm lighting, blond wood, sparse decorations and clean lines combine modern with traditional in a welcoming way.

But what really sets Nopi apart is the seemingly two restaurants in one. Upstairs is booked tables of 2, 4 and 6 with a lovely bar at the back.  For Friday and Saturday nights, you often have to book several weeks — sometimes months — in advance.  A little more formal and fancy, feeling special as others line up at the bar or door waiting for a table.

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However, the downstairs has a completely different feel with it’s two large communal tables, seating 14 at each table, right next to the open plan kitchen.  It’s down here that I’ve found myself – on nights fully booked upstairs – with an out of town friend, eating and drinking and catching up, while listening into or joining into conversations around the table.  Everyone has their space and respects privacy, but there’s a camaraderie amongst the diners who know they’ve dropped in on a little secret that others don’t know about.  We’ve met some businessmen from Australia at that table, a few American women for a pre-theatre meal, a young couple on a date, and more.

One time I was there with a State-side friend, staying quite a long time while she would order one or two dishes, as this was her first visit, and then order one or two more. At one point, chef Ramael Scully just started bringing over different small dishes for us to try as he could tell she was not sure how to navigate so many choices. That personal touch has made the downstairs difficult to find seats in now, and you must book in advance.

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They love to put different and new wines on their list and for a long time they had a wonderful Sancerre which I’m disappointed is no longer there, but they continue to surprise with off-the-beaten path choices, and the staff are all very knowledgeable with the menu.  For a long time, the manager Fergus set the tone for his “regulars” – recently I was meeting out-of-towners there, arrived early and sat at the bar where he sent over glasses of prosecco and some nibbles.  I am sorry to find he has gone back to his beloved Ireland, and although he is irreplaceable, I hope they find someone with his same combination of friendliness, professionalism, high-standards and attention to detail.

So when in London, do yourself a favour and head over to Nopi. It will be well worth the trip. Lastly, don’t forget to check out the bathrooms. I can’t say why, but needless to say, they are very fun and somewhat trippy. On my very first time to Nopi, I had a bit too much to drink and when I got in loo, I couldn’t find my way out! But, can’t give it away, you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.

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BRITS VS YANKS: Government (Shutdown)

As we look across the pond at the government shut-down in the US, I suspect many here are wondering how the heck this could happen (and trust me, many back home are thinking the same thing). As similar as our democratic systems are, it points to the striking differences between how our governments operate. Whose is better?

To start with, Brits vote for a party. Americans vote for a person (be it a Senator or Congressman or President). So in the US, you can have a ballot where you vote for your local Republican congressman because you like his/her policies, but you can tick a Democratic President on the ballot for the same reason.

As you vote for a party in the UK, once the counting is down, the party with the most votes and seats comes into power and the head of the party becomes Prime Minister.  Done and dusted. That means that for the next 5 years, the party and Prime Minister that were voted into power control the government, the policies, the budget, etc. They set the agenda. That’s it, and if you don’t like it, you can vote differently in the next elections.  (We’ll save coalition governments for another day.)

In the U.S., we have this thing called “checks and balances” or as some in D.C. call it “quagmire” :-).  Because you can vote individually and NOT down party lines means you can end up in any given election year where you’ve elected a Democratic President, the House is controlled by Dems, but the Senate is controlled by Republicans or any similar confusing permutation (to recap, our lower house or Congress is similar to your MPs, and our upper house or Senate is similar to your Lords).

So as a result of this system, where no one entity has too much power (the powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government in the US are clearly separated and defined), our Congress and Senate and President end up bickering a lot. And since they cannot agree on many things, they end up in stalemates.

Enter Government Shutdown.  Because one party (in this case the Democrats) could not agree on the budget the President and his party (the Republicans) put forth, and since the budget needs to be approved by both the House and then the Senate, the deadline came and went without consensus.

In the U.K., this just doesn’t happen.  There is little recourse if you don’t like the budget conservatives (ruling party right now) put into place, except to protest with your local reps or vote differently in the next election.  Acceptance and move on.

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However, you should see Budget Day here! It was nothing short of a royal wedding coverage. It’s absolutely fantastic (for policy wonks and geeks)! There are helicopters hovering over the black car carrying the famous “Red Box” that is attached to the UK Treasurer as he leaves 10 Downing and heads to Parliament to read out the new budget. Budget Day last fall was November 22nd and the BBC (and other networks) had a 4-hour special breaking into their regular news programming to carry the speech live and then go into extensive analysis with experts, followed by immediate feedback with citizens across the country.  Four hours! Live TV! On the national budget!!

But this doesn’t happen in the U.S.  The two sides go into their corners and negotiations are heated. The shutdown this time has become even more politicised than before. Thanks to this President, it’s vicious and nasty. The message you hear when you call the White House says calls cannot be answered because the Democrats are holding government funding “hostage”. (Listen here). And this irresponsible and erroneous ad has been approved of by the President, contrary to what the White House press secretary recently said.

Many are affected by the shutdown, but the scaremongering the President has attached to “our nation’s security” and not being able to “pay the troops” is overblown and misunderstood. This piece by Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling explains exactly what happens in a government shutdown to the military and why. As he’s been in command when this has happened before, I suspect he has a better handle on it than the President.

And the issues they are squabbling over are extensive but at this point it boils down to DACA (Dreamers, the children who came illegally to the US to stay and work or study and allowed to stay b/c of a law Obama put into place in 2012), border security, children health insurance, and spending and investment.  This has happened in the past (Monica ended up roaming the halls of a fairly empty West Wing during the Clinton White House because of a government shutdown, and we all know how that ended). But in every instance, it takes compromise on both sides of the negotiation.

This President touts himself as being a tough negotiator, a “dealmaker”.  In this case, I’m glad the Democrats are digging their heels in, but getting to this point doesn’t help anyone, and I fear the President and his pride will be determined to win this. And the American people are already turned off by Washington. 80% of Americans polled in 2017 say they disapprove of the way Congress handles their job (Gallup). No surprise there.

I’m not sure which is better. I do like being able to vote for the individual rather than the party. I do like the theory of checks and balances but it just doesn’t seem to work well in practice.

Alternatively, I’m not sure having a fait accompli is good either. However, without the option to change policies halfway through an administration, I think it becomes that much more incumbent for the sitting administration to get things right.  If they don’t, they’ll be voted out at the next chance. They have one shot and have to make it work.  Let’s hope the Dems and Reps in Washington can do the same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A GREAT WAY TO END THE WEEK: LITTLE BIRD CAFE

After a long, cold, dreary week, there is nothing nicer than a warm, cozy neighbourhood place to relax in. Little Bird opened right across from the Chiswick Overground Station in July 2016 and we’d been meaning to come for a while yet life always gets in the way. But last night I walked along the river in biting cold and wind to meet my husband there for an early dinner. The thought of warmth, good food and drinks made it an easy 12 minute walk from near Kew Bridge and the fairy lights and steamy windows beckoned.

Inside, the restaurant reminded me of New Orleans for some reason. Jazzy strains of Amy Winehouse and Stevie Wonder, potted plants of all sizes and varieties (succulents, cacti, and palms) and white painted brick walls complemented with dark wood and lots of wicker and candles leant to the ‘Nawlins’ atmosphere. Lots of cushiony, deep couches in muted tones of olive and aqua were tucked away in nooks and crannies with tables and comfy chairs. It’s very small but they cram in a welcoming bar and in warmer weather, there is outdoor seating out front and a hidden garden/patio in back.  The staff were very friendly and helpful, however they reminded us a few too many times that they needed the table back in 2 hours.  We went through the small front room which was buzzing with couples and groups clearly out for a good night and down a small hallway to a back teeny room where we were seated in a luscious velvet couch that took me a while to get in and out of.

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They are known for their drinks but I think as much so they are known for the Asian fusion “tapas” which were all delicious.  As its “dry January” all bars and restaurants find clever ways to keep drinks coming, and I started off with a “Mocktail” called Lavender Hill.  Described as fresh blueberries, lavender syrup, cranberry & fresh lemon in a violet sugar rimmed glass. It was delicious, but went down very quickly for a £4.95 drink with no alcohol. My husband had the Ginger Beer Mojito (or Nojito as it was non-alcoholic too) and he swears his was better, but we weren’t going to start a bicker over that!

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We had 5 tapas to share plus 2 sides — way to much but delicious nonetheless. My favourite Dim Sum Pork Gyoza with black soy. They were thin, tender yet crisped on the outside and succulent pork and flavours inside. This was tied with the delicious Chicken Tikka Brochette with Coriander Mayo and Flat Bread. Charred with tikka flavours locked in, and the smooth, creamy mayo — I was in heaven! The Spiced Lamb Lentil Curry was quite a large portion but very tasty — i only wish they had brought more Sesame Naan with that. My husband loved the Courgette Frites and the Edamame was messy to eat but we licked the spicy sauce they were cooked in off the pods.

Little Bird is an invention of Lorraine Angliss who owns Annie’s on Strand-on-the-Green and Rock and Rose in Richmond. Funnily enough, when we first moved to London, we rented a house just down the street from Rock and Rose and everyone kept telling us about this cool restaurant that was owned by a friend of Madonna’s and how we HAD to go there. We were never very impressed with Rock and Rose, with its bordello-styled main room and chintzy wallpaper. But we moved to Strand-on-the-Green and discovered Annie’s and absolutely loved it. Delicious food, excellent service, professional staff, and a warm, inviting neighbourhood cafe.

At Little Bird, it has the same vibe, but perhaps a little cooler, and more fun.  The only slight disappointment was the Blackened Cod Fillet — my husband said it was a bit bland. But as the sultry lounge music played, our drinks in hand and bellies full, we wondered why we don’t do this more often. Now that Little Bird is nearby, hopefully we will!

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LUMIERE LONDON!

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For anyone who happens to be in the City this weekend, you cannot miss this. I am heading down on Sunday night, but a friend went last night and thought I’d share some photos:  Lumiere London

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My husband and I saw some “Son et Lumieres” Shows in France on our honeymoon years ago, but still remember what a beautiful spectacle it is, especially as they light up beautiful, centuries old buildings. But London has added so many other aspects to this show, and modernised it in an interactive way. See the photos below. You can go to different parts of the city for different routes and exhibits. Download the app and it will guide you to the different exhibits. Enjoy!!

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LOVING LONDON: The Ever-present & Underrated High Street

It is often said London is a series of villages that merge together to form a city. Travelling around the city for work and play, as a tourist and a local, I find each little neighbourhood has its own unique identity. But all these little enclaves are centered around a High Street (or Main Street to US readers) that is the lifeblood of that area.

Many people do not stray further afield than their own ‘hood on the weekends, even though geographically (and compared to the longer distances in the US) they are sometimes only 2 or 3 miles from the next village/town. Most people in Barnes are not going to venture to Chiswick, people in Blackheath aren’t going to go to Clapham. There’s so much to do right at your doorstep, there’s no need to.

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(Chiswick High Road)

You run into people you know on the High Street, you have your local butcher or green grocer (organic foods). The fishmonger is there. And the High Street shops like Jigsaw, SweatyBetty, Monsoon all have presences around the city.  State schools are all local and therefore most of your social groups. Plus there are a lot of local, wonderful eateries and pubs as well as the bigger chains like Byron Burgers, Carluccio’s and Cote offer good options for meeting up with friends.  A friend from the States sent me an article on best London pubs in the winter, wishing she could come over, but my list would be quite different — too many to choose from just in my own area that are cozy, comfy, fun, and most important, close by (topic for a blog post!) to tuck into on a dark, winter evening.

That’s not to say that people won’t venture into other areas but it tends to be for a reason. I’ll go to Covent Garden several times a year to see the ballet at the Royal Opera House and meet up with friends for an early dinner. Or visit museums and see exhibits, catch a play, do a Fun Run, take visitors to tourist sites. Any of these things will bring us into the city. But generally speaking, it’s unlikely we’ll venture from the Chiswick, Kew, Richmond area.

I don’t know if this is similar/dissimilar to the US (?). Do people in Brooklyn go to the Upper West Side on weekends? Do people in the Village head up to the Upper East Side? If you are in Union Square, would you go to Williamsburg? I think Americans are more used to travelling further distances as is the nature of a big country. But let me know!

If you hopped in a car and headed east, it’s less than 4 miles from Chiswick High Street to Kensington High Street, but on the weekends, that could take up 45 minutes, and then you have the nightmare of looking for parking. US expansion and growth included massive parking lots to their cityscapes, but London was already formed and established and there is literally no room.  By Tube, it’s probably 1/2 hour. From Fulham to Shoreditch in East London, it’s only 8 miles, but I don’t know anyone who’d drive it.   London is just too congested to even contemplate that.

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(Camden High Street)

Perhaps that’s why the public transport is so good (compared to anywhere I’ve been in the States, it’s VERY good). The bus lanes are actually that. I made the mistake of driving in one when I first got the car — twice in two days — and I got two tickets for £160 each, thanks to a CCTV camera (they’re all over London). Never again. Plus the Tube and trains run often and regularly. Even still, it takes us longer to get from West London to a concert at the 02 Arena near Greenwich than it would to go from our house to Christchurch Meadow in Oxford.

So the Hood is very appealing — especially if you’ve been running around this 10mill strong, gritty, cavernous, cold city all week.  You can see the Greens (communal village grassy squares at the centre of commerce and churches) dotted around as you fly over the city in approach of Heathrow and they fill a vital purpose to the landscape and zeitgeist of the “Big Smoke”, adding charm and reminding us of the history.

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(Clapham High Street)

London is an expansion of little villages that started to run into each other as the city exploded over time.  In the 17th and 18th century, Kensington and Chelsea were rural farm areas, known for their markets and gardens. Notting Hill Barns in 1828 was 150 acres of dairy farm and and Portobello Farm was cornfields and meadows. Shepherd Market was a little village known for its 15 days of a May Fair (where the area Mayfair got its name) and farmers brought in cattle and sheep to trade from the fields out West (including Shepherd’s Bush). Spitalfields was named after the hospital and priory founded there in 1100’s called St. Mary’s Spittel. And was considered rural until the Great Fire of London in 1666. Anyone under 30 hangs out in the ultra-cool, hip Shoreditch in East London but it got its name from the watery marshland it used to be back in Ye Olden Days (soersditch meant Sewer’s Ditch).

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(Notting Hill then)

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(Notting Hill now)

Like New York City, all these little enclaves grew over time, but unlike New York, they were edging outwards from around 1000 AD. It’s really fascinating to go to any part of town and see old Roman Walls or great architecture and palaces from long before America was even discovered.  It’s awe-inspiring. You don’t have to walk far to run into a beautiful, well-preserved building that dates back to the 15th or 16th century.  History is palpable here.

Nowadays, each High Street defines the character and livelihood of London.  Kensington High Street is all swank and money with its glittery high-end shops, Barnes is wealth and bucolic with the lovely duck pond, Shoreditch is vibrant, cool and hip, Nottinghill is eclectic, wealthy and boho, Camden is gritty and cool and hip city, Chiswick, Clapham and Putney are wonderful combinations of city and suburb near the River, Kew is insanely cute and almost rural with Kew Gardens on the doorstep, Kentish Town, Regent’s Park, Greenwich, Bermondsey, and on and on.

Tourists don’t see enough of these areas, but spend a little time here and you discover what each neighbourhood stands for and brings to the table that is the feast of London.

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(Kensington High Street then)

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(Kensington High Street now)

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(Bucolic Barnes)

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(Colourful Notting Hill)