There have been two terror attacks in London since we’ve been here. The Westminster attack, four days after we arrived, involved a spot we’re often at—in fact, a spot we’d crossed just an hour before. This weekend’s London Bridge attack, four days before our departure, culminated at Borough Market, a place we visited a few times, and where I bought fish, bread and cheese just the evening before. I note this not to insert my unharmed self into what has been unimaginable tragedy for a number of people and continuing trauma for many others but to build to an inadequate but genuine tribute to London.
We have been living here for the last three months, not on the fringes but in the very heart of this great city. We’ve been working, we’ve been going to the theatre, we’ve been exploring the city’s many parks and museums with our children. It’s not that we’ve become residents in just three months but we’ve felt very at home here. And so while I can’t truthfully say that I have felt the attacks on the city as a personal affront (this is not “my city”), I can tell you that I have felt the cosmopolitan embrace of London which is doubtless a large part of what makes it an affront to the shrunken world-views of fundamentalists who wish to reduce everyone’s worlds to zones of fear.
London is a multicultural city in a way that no major American city is. Granted I’ve only lived three months here as a fairly privileged visitor, but I’ve not felt “visible” in the way I feel in pretty much every American city. For one thing, it’s far more international—you can go a long time without hearing English accents and I’ve heard more South Asian languages spoken here than anywhere in India, except maybe Bombay. For another, it feels far less de facto segregated. You can see this not just in the places where people gather but also on the stage—in the casual diversity of casts and in reviews that barely remark them—and in restaurant culture: “ethnic” food is not marginal to London’s food culture as it is to New York’s, which is probably the only similarly cosmopolitan anglophone city. You can, of course, also see it in the fact that the mayor’s last name is Khan.
So it’s not merely that the cliche of London’s unflappability is true—though it is: these things happen and could happen in a hundred crowded, iconic places in the city, but life just goes on; it’s also that the city’s refusal to give in to fear is also marked by its cosmopolitan nature. Walking home in the hours after the Westminster attack, an unshaven brown man, I felt unremarkable; I did not feel the sense of surveillance I often feel in the US even when brown terrorists have not recently killed people. Taking the tube on Sunday morning, just hours after the London Bridge/Borough Market attack, I felt little tension, saw no shrinking away from visibly Muslim men and women. And as far I know there were no cases of hate crimes or speech directed at brown people in the aftermath of either attack.
I’m sure I’m guilty here of some extrapolating from limited experience. And in any case, I don’t mean to suggest that London is a perfect city or not riven by racial problems or racist histories of its own (its museums are certainly very good at eliding/avoiding colonial history and postcolonial tension); and I am aware that London is not England. I just want to repeat that I’ve felt at home here in a way that I’ve not in any major American city I’ve visited or lived in, certainly not in such a short amount of time. We will miss it a lot.
Anyway, in the spirit of getting on with it, here is a review of Padella, a popular Italian restaurant attached to the Borough Market, which I have no doubt will shortly also be carrying on with business as usual.
London Bridge is the most convenient tube station for the Borough Market and if you do a good job of following the signs from the platform you can pop out literally outside Padella. It is difficult to miss it once you’re there. Even if you somehow contrive to miss the large, cheerful black and white awning that proclaims the name just look for the long line of people. Yes, Padella also suffers from the disease of a “no reservations” policy. Thankfully, the line moves pretty quickly. Once you go in you will see that it also suffers from the disease of cramped, uncomfortable seating. In the main street-level dining room everyone perches on stools—whether at the counter in front of the chefs making the food or at counter at the window where you get to display your food to the suckers still in line (just as others had displayed theirs to you, giving you reason to continue to stand in line). There’s another dining room in the basement with tables and even chairs with back on them but upstairs, with light streaming in from the window, is very much the place to be.
The menu is not vey large: on our visit, six antipasti, eight pasta dishes and three desserts. Prices are low as well. If you skip dessert you can get out for quite a bit less than £10/head—and you wouldn’t be eating badly if you did that: indeed, our favourite pasta only cost £4 and it was a substantial portion (this despite the fact that Padella also suffers from the third disease of being a “small plates” restaurant).
What we ate:
- Padella sourdough bread & San Rocco olive oil: Excellent bread with excellent olive oil; this was £2.
- Wiltshire Burrata with San Rocco olive oil: Even more excellent burrata; this was £5.
- Cannon & Cannon Cornish seaweed salame: Excellent salami from the well-known purveyor of British charcuterie (see my stop at their stand in my recent report on Borough Market food); this was £6.
- Gnocchi with sage & nutmeg butter: This was our pick of the pasta dishes and this was the one that cost just £4.
- Tagliarini with Dorset crab, chilli & lemon: The pasta was quite good but the crab didn’t make much of an impression—perhaps because this wasn’t served at proper temperature. At £11.5 this was the most expensive thing we ate.
- Pappardelle with 8 hour dexter beef shin ragu: The pappardelle was excellent; the ragu was also very good but also testament to just how good Marcella Hazan’s recipe is. Not sure what “dexter beef” is. This was £9
We were too full for dessert. For pictures of the restaurant and the food please launch the slideshow below. For more on the service, overall experience and value please scroll down to the bottom.
Service was very friendly but rather ragged. The antipasti—none of which involved cooking—came out quickly but then the pasta took forever, with our server coming by a few times to in turns promise imminent arrival and apologize for the delay. The tagliarini, when it arrived, seemed, as I noted, like it might have sat forgotten for some time after it was prepared. On the whole, even though we really liked the gnocchi, I’d say the items which involved shopping rather than cooking were the highlights. The atmosphere is pleasant, however, and the prices are low. We got out for a total of £41 or so after tip and that’s pretty good by London standards, especially for a place this popular. If we were here another month or two I’d probably come back one more time. It’s certainly a good place to go if you’re in London and jonesing for good, affordable Italian food.
Well, we leave London for Scotland tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful three months even with the attacks bookending them. We hope to come back again as a family once the boys are a little older; I’ll probably be back by myself in a year or two for a shorter trip. Though it’s farewell to London for us—well, we come back for one more night before returning to the US—I still have a lot of restaurant reports to come, and so it’s not quite a farewell on the blog.