An evening with the guys, steaks, and good times.

Monday’s a big day for me.  I’ll be going in for some surgery.  Nothing major, I swear.  But, it will involve a couple of days in residence in the hospital.  So, with my wife out of town with the girls for the weekend, it seemed like a perfect night to have the guys over.  The kids went to one of the other houses, where we shared a babysitter, and the night began..

Earlier that day, I hit the Rastelli’s Market just down the road.  I was pleased to find some gorgeous USDA Prime NY Strips at a pretty reasonable price.  If you’re a South Jersey person, Rastelli’s really has a great selection of all sorts of stuff.  The prepared foods are quite good as well.  Behind the butcher counter, I met years of experience, and a willingness to get everything just right to afford us the perfect evening.  Not long after, I left with 7 of those Prime NY Strips, cut 1.5″ thick.  We paired the steaks up with some roasted baby red potatoes and sautéed haricots verts.  My friend John brought some fantastic bread too.  On to the recipes & methods.

Roasted Baby Red Potatoes

These are quite possibly the easiest potatoes in the world to make.  Impossible to screw this up.  This serves 8 people.

  • 3 pounds of baby red potatoes
  • 1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil (be sure to get the stuff made from real virgins)
  • 6 cloves of finely minced garlic
  • Kosher salt & ground black pepper – just eyeball it, put in as much as you feel comfortable with
  • Leaves from one sprig of rosemary

Cut the spuds in half, or quarters if you’ve got some big babies in there.. Put everything in a large bowl and toss.  Or do as I did – put the lid on and shake it like crazy.  Dump this out onto a sheet pan (or again, as I did – a foil-lined sheet pan) and chuck it in a 400F oven for an hour.  The potatoes were done early, so I just hit the warming button and left them in the oven.  You could use pretty much any small, thin-skinned potato as well, but I like the flavor of the red potato here.  Like I said, this is impossible to screw up.

Sautéed Haricots Verts

Again, ridiculously easy.  This will also serve 6-8 people.

  • 1 pound Haricots Verts, stem side trimmed, washed, etc.
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Red pepper flakes

Boil some water.  Salt the water generously.  Prepare a big bowl with salted ice water nearby.  Par-cook the beans for about 90 seconds, then rescue them from the boiling water (I used a frying spider like this to do the job), depositing them in the ice bath to stop the cooking process.  When the beans are cooled, extract them from the cold water.  I did this step a few hours ahead, so I put them in a sealed bowl in the fridge.  If you’re doing it right then, just put them aside.

Get your sauté pan ready.  Coat the bottom in the EVOO.  Add the garlic, some salt and a pinch of the red pepper flakes.  Very slowly and gently, heat up that oil to infuse the flavors of the garlic and red pepper.  Turn up the heat to medium, add the beans and finish them off.  How long?  Do you like your beans crunchy or like baby food?  It’s all up to you.

Grilled NY Strips – Reverse Sear Method

This was the part that drew shock & awe from the guys.  Conventional wisdom says you sear a steak and finish it over indirect heat, like in the oven.  This flips that model upside-down.  Why?  Science.  That’s why.  Think about what happens when you do a roast in the oven.  You cook that roast to medium-rare or medium, and when you cut into it, it’s pretty much top-to-bottom pink, right?  Think about the last time you had a steak cooked by conventional means.  You had a crust on the outside, and a ring of well-done just underneath, followed by your center that’s medium-rare or medium.  What if you could get rid of most or all of the ring of well-done meat?  That’s what the reverse sear is all about.  Want to read more?  Go check out /r/steak on Reddit.  Lots of reverse searers and sous-viders there.

So, on to how to do this.  I put the steaks on a rack, holding them above a sheet pan.  I salted each side very generously with Kosher salt.  I left them out on the counter like this for an hour.  An hour?  In the creepy-crawly bacterial danger zone?  Relax, skippy.  You’re going to blast these things with fire in a little while.  Bacteria growth, if any, will be on the surface, and will be quite handily eradicated after you introduce them to some fire.

I did our steaks on the grill.  We’ve got a Weber Genesis E-330, LP model.  I switched on the far right burner, and deposited our steaks on the far left of the grill and closed the lid.  How high should the burner be?  Depends on how cold it is outside.  Last night, it was about 45F, so I did medium-high.  You want the ambient temp inside the grill around 200-250F.  Relax, this will be a while.  If you’ve got a probe thermometer, probe the meat and set the alarm for 115F (assuming you want medium-rare).  Basically, you’re going to pull about 10-15F below where you want to finish.  For me, this took about 45 minutes to reach this temp.  I pulled the steaks, and covered them in foil, and took them inside to rest for 10 minutes.

During that rest, I cranked up all of the burners to high and kept the lid down.  By the time the rest was over, the grill was about 650F.  During the summer, I can get it to well over 700F.  Steaks go back on and get flipped every 30 seconds until you’re happy.  To impress, add a turn, giving you nice cross-hatch grill marks.  The steaks got about 4 minutes total sear time, roughly 2 minutes per side, leaving them at 125-130F, perfect medium-rare.  Off the grill, onto the plates.

Because you’ve already rested the meat, they won’t bleed out the moment you cut them, so you can dig right in.  Be warned on a couple of points here…

  1. You need thicker steaks to pull this off.  If you go with the standard ¾ inch type steaks you generally see in the market, the method doesn’t work.  Why?  During the sear, you’ll overcook the middle.  Minimum of 1 inch.  1 ½ or more is better for this method.
  2. Be prepared for horrified looks from your guests.  When you pull the steaks to rest them, they will look like sad little lumps of meat.  That’s ok.  Just tell your diners to relax and believe.  Last night, I had 6 skeptics that thought I’d ruined good steak, only to completely reverse that opinion mere minutes later. :-)

My sole regret was forgetting to get a picture of the completed steaks.  What can I say?  We were hungry.  We paired the above with a bottle of Phantom, from Bogle Vineyards.  Rastelli’s was doing tastings the other day, and it caught me by surprise, so I bought 2 bottles.  At $18 each, they were better than lots of $50 bottles I’ve had.

Grilled Meatloaf – Yum.

My wife & I were pondering options for lunch today.  On the weekends, we tend to eat the larger meal for lunch and a smaller dinner.  Today, we settled on meatloaf, garlic mashed red potatoes and peas.  Rather than our usual broil & bake process, I decided to do the meatloaf on the grill, as it was a lovely day outside.

We shamelessly lifted this recipe from the nice folks at Cooks Country, and re-adapted this slightly.  Ordinarily, we make this as described below, using very lean ground beef with ground pork.  Today, we just had beef on hand, so we went all beef, but used higher-fat content on the ground beef to make up for the lack of pork.

Make the glaze first…

  • 1 cup ketchup
  • ¼ cup packed brown sugar (light or dark, whatever you like)
  • 2 ½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon hot sauce

Put all that in a small saucepan.  Mix, and heat to combine & thicken over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Put some glaze to the side to use while cooking.  You should be fine reserving about ¼ cup to glaze with.  What hot sauce?  Whatever you want.  You can’t go wrong with Frank’s RedHot.  This time, I used the Tobasco Chipotle sauce for a slight amount of heat, and more smokey flavor.  I’ve also read tales of people using Sriracha as well.  I also used dark brown sugar today, and really liked the overall flavor.

On to the meatloaf…

  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2/3 cup Saltine crackers, crushed (about 17 crackers)
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 pound 90/10 ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 2 large whole eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • ¾ teaspoon ground black pepper

Put the oil in the pan, heat it up over medium heat, add the onion.  In about 8 minutes, you’ll have nice, golden brown & delicious onions.  Add the garlic, keep it on the heat for another 30 seconds.  Done?  Into a large bowl with that veg.

Dump your crackers and milk in the food processor and unleash the blades upon them until it’s a smooth mixture.  Add the meat and pulse to combine nicely.. That should be about 10 1-second pulses.  Dump the resulting meat-goo into the bowl with the veggies.  Add the rest of the ingredients and mix it all up.  Get in there with your hands and work that meatloaf.  Get everything nice & combined, but don’t over-work too badly, ok?

Here’s where we diverge from Bridget Lancaster’s officially sanctioned cooking method..  Instead of forming a single loaf on a foil-lined sheet pan, we’re going to cut the mix in half, making two smaller loaves.  This cooking method is similar to the also popular Weber recipe for grilled meatloaf.

Setup the grill for indirect cooking.  You want to get that grill stable at about 350F. For me, I’m cooking on a Weber Genesis E-330, and I’ve got the optional smoker box kit installed.  So, I kick on the right and center burners, and keep them just about 1/3 of the way between low & medium on the dials.  For a bit of extra flavor, I dropped in a wood chunk.  Today, I went for Hickory, since it pairs so nicely with beef.  Before long, the grill was ready, and blue smoke was rising from the smoker box.  Success was mine for the taking.  I lightly oiled up the grill and with a couple of spatulas, I deposited the meatloaves on the far left side, where the burner was completely turned off.  Down went the cover, and I set a timer for 30 minutes to check on progress.  At the 30 minute mark, we were at an internal temp of 120F.  I was looking for 155F, so we carried on.  While I had the grill open, I applied a coating of the glaze that I’d reserved earlier.  At the 45 minute mark, they were at 155F, and it was time to pull them.  It would have probably only been 40 minutes, but I don’t currently have a probe thermometer, and was relying on our instant-read, so I had to keep popping the top to get a reading.

As an aside, if any of the super nice people over at iDevices happen to be reading this, I’d sing of your glory and valor forever if you’d send me an iGrill2. :-)  I’d love to get my hands on one with 3 probes and an ambient temp probe as well.  But I digress, and that’s enough begging for today.

After pulling the loaves at 155F, I put them on a foil-lined sheet pan, applied another coat of the glaze, and then it was off to the broiler.  I put the spurs to them for about 5 minutes, to make a nicely caramelized and delicious crust on top.  We pulled, rested a bit, sliced and served with the remaining glaze.  I think next time I would broil first without the glaze on, then go to the grill.  But, that’s just a minor difference, really.

It was absolutely delicious.  I could see making meatloaf sandwiches out of this recipe too. Yum part two, revenge of the taste buds…

Remembrance.

Watching my friend John’s Daily Vlog from yesterday got me thinking about this.

It was a Tuesday morning, just like any other before it.  It’s not a day I talk about very much.  It’s a day that I really gained an understanding of my own mortality, and how quickly and easily it could slip away, had circumstances been the tiniest bit different.

Back in 2001, I was working for a network equipment manufacturer, covering ISPs and Telcos.  Sometimes, I did meetings direct with these carriers, trying to convince them to buy, other times, I’d do a ride-along to go with them to visit their customers, since after all, when their customers would buy, it meant my customer had to buy from me.

I had a meeting on my calendar already for Tuesday, September 11, 2001, but it was right near home in NJ.  Late in the previous week, I got a call from one of my customers, who wanted me to come along to a meeting at a new account he was trying to crack.  The meeting was to be at the customer’s offices, on the 90-something-th floor of 1WTC (that’s the “North Tower” for those who don’t know).  His plan was for us to meet up around 9 up in the cafeteria off the 44th floor Sky Lobby, chat for a bit, then do a 10 am meeting, which would culminate in a ride back down to the ground, and then back up in the express elevator to 106, where we’d take the customer to Windows on the World for lunch.  As much as I loved getting up to that place, I was already booked, so I turned down the meeting, and we’d agreed to reschedule.

Since my meeting was near home, and not until later in the morning, I took the opportunity to sleep in a bit, and take my time getting ready.  Around 8:45 am, my phone rang.  It was a guy I’d done some work with in the past, who knew I was a regular in the NYC area.  He told me that he’d just seen the news, and asked if I’d seen anything.  Not knowing what he was talking about, I flipped on the news, and of course, we were all confused, wondering what was going on.  We hung up, and I kept on watching the news.  As the details began to unfold, it slowly dawned on me that had I accepted that meeting, I’d either be in line at the 1WTC visitor desk, or 44 floors up in the building that American’s Flight 11 had just flown into.  Had the meeting been an hour earlier, I’d have been right around where it impacted.  Just as I’d come to this realization, United Flight 175 flew into 2WTC as I was watching the news live.

Instantly, we all flipped from confused and sad about an accident to the stark realization of what was going on.  This was not an accident.  Moments later, my phone started blowing up.  Friends and family were calling me to see if I was alright.  I was completely freaked out.  I changed my VM message to say I was at home, not in the city and was fine.  I shut my phone off for the better part of a day, and just stayed glued to the news.  Then we all walked around in kind of a fog for days, maybe weeks.

Several of my co-workers were in the city that day, and happily, they all are fine.  One guy was sitting in traffic on the Pulaski Skyway, headed for the Holland Tunnel, and saw the whole thing happen start to finish.  A few were in the office we had on Broad Street. One was on the PATH train that turned around and left the WTC.  It turned out that it was the last PATH out of town that day.  The folks in the office described the sound of the buildings coming down as the loudest noises they’d ever heard, followed moments later by a cloud of dust, 25 stories tall rolling down Broad Street.

Eventually, services got restored, and people were allowed back into the city.  I volunteered with the Red Cross one day, handing out water to people who were digging.  I’m convinced I saw part of someone’s arm or leg.  Pretty damn unsettling stuff.  Years later, the PATH started to run downtown to the WTC site again.  It still freaks me out a bit to come back through those tubes into the bottom of what used to be a thriving concourse with shops and people everywhere, and is now, 13 years later, still a huge construction site.

Occasionally, I ponder how different my life could have been had I taken that meeting.  I may have never met my wife, gotten married, become a father, any number of things.  Each day is a gift.  We would all do well to remember that, myself included.

Today’s Lunch, Pork Tenderloin

On the weekends, we usually cook for lunch, and then do smaller, leftover-ish things later in the day if we get hungry again.  So, it’s another lovely day, and we’re off to the grill.  Today?  Pork tenderloin.  It’s just the 4 of us, so I only did one of the two tenderloins that came in the pack we bought.  The other is in the freezer.

I made up a little mojo/marinade type thing using a rub that I’ve had hanging around a while.  It’s the “Jack’s Old South” rub from Food Network.  Here’s the recipe for the rub…

  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup sweet paprika
  • ¼ cup kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil

I was originally going to make a paste using apple juice and smear it on, much like a rub, but decided to give the pork a bath in it, so I added a bit more apple juice.  Just mix it up until it looks right to you. You’ll need about 4-6 ounces of liquid In there to do an adequate job. Trim up the tenderloin, put it in a gallon sealable plastic bag, and add the mixture.  Smoosh it around to coat, remove as much air as you possibly can and seal it up.  Minimum bath in this stuff should be 4 hours.  24 would be better.  Put it in the fridge for this time.  About 30 minutes before you throw it on the fire, pull it out of the fridge.

Don’t like the rub I mentioned above? Use whatever rub you like. I might try this next time with the rub my butcher makes.

Charcoal grill?  Setup for 2-zone cooking. Gas? Turn on all the burners and heat your grill up to medium high heat.  Cook it for about 2 minutes on each of the 4 sides, then shut off the burner that’s under the pork, or move to a part of a charcoal grill that doesn’t have direct heat going.  Close the lid, and check it every few minutes.  In 8-10 minutes, you should be all done.  Remember, trichinosis is at an all-time low for all of known history.  You do not need to cook your pork until it’s a crispy, dry mess, crying uncle.  140-145F is plenty good enough.

We served this up with a pasta salad, and leftover corn from yesterday’s tacos, and it was good.

Would I change anything? While I found it nicely spiced, as did my wife, the kids thought the spice level was a bit high. They’re a little wimpy with that stuff, so next time, I might do a bit less rub in the mixture.

Chile-Lime Skirt Steak Tacos

We were going to make Friday night Taco Night, but then realized that Alex had his gymnastics class, so it had to wait for Saturday’s lunch.  Glad we waited, the extra time in the marinade was good…  Sorry, no pictures this time.  It’s still good.  Go make this.

So, tacos.  Brown up some ground beef, toss in that seasoning packet you bought in the supermarket with some water, wait, and then stuff a sort-of-not-too-nasty hard shell with meat, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, & the kitchen sink, take a bite and need to change your shirt.  Right?  You couldn’t be more wrong.  That’s a terribly over-Americanized version of the taco, humble street food of Latin America.  We will not be doing that today.

Buy 1 ½ lbs of skirt steak.  You can use flank too if you’ve got that on hand, or can’t find skirt.  I’ve got a butcher down the road from us, and they rule.  Hi Jeff & Terry.  While I was there, I ordered up a brisket to be BBQ’d and ready for us to consume during an upcoming gathering of friends & family.  Yum in advance.

Prepare your steak.  Sometimes, skirt will still have a membrane on it.  Get rid of as much of it as you can.  While you’re at it, trim the skirt a bit too.  Leave some fat on there – fat will melt and is flavor.  But, you probably aren’t interested in having a giant hunk of fat hanging around either..  Now might also be a good time to cut it into manageable lengths to fit your grill, since you’re getting all knifey with the steak already.

Make yourself a marinade.  The only thing you may have trouble with is the chile powders.  In your average American supermarket, you can get “chili powder”, and it’s a hodgepodge of stuff that’s not just ground up chiles.  Get thee to thine nearest Mexican grocery for some ancho and chipotle chile powders.  Here comes the marinade.  Throw all this stuff in the nearest bowl and mix it up with a whisk until it’s all combined.

  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
  • ½ teaspoon chipotle chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Done whisking?  Put the skirt steak in a sealable plastic bag.  Dump the marinade in on top of the steak.  Remove as much air as you can from the bag and seal it up.  Smoosh it all around in there a bit to coat the steak with all that chile-infused goodness.  Don’t freak out – this isn’t spicy.  Yes, you’ve got a fair bit of chile powder in there, but when you’re done cooking, it’s going to be nicely spiced, and not hot & overpowering.  Trust me here.  Even if you’re not into spicy, put all of that stuff in there.  How long do you marinade for?  That’s up to you.  Some people like to go an hour, but I ended up going for about 18.  I put this all together at about 6pm Friday, and cooked it up a bit before Noon on Saturday.  Some marinades overpower when you go that long, but this one did not.  If you’re doing a short marinade, do it outside the fridge.  I did mine in the fridge.  Either way, for about an hour before you’re cooking, get that thing out of the cold.  Don’t worry, you won’t die.  You’re about to put this steak above 500+F heat.  That will slay anything that manages to grow in an hour.

Go and make a fire in your usual way.  You want to setup your grill for direct grilling with high heat.  Skirt likes to cook fast, so you want to hit it with a thermonuclear blast of heat for a short time.

Got your grill all prepped, cleaned, oiled and up to about 500-600F?  You’re ready.  Pull the steak out of the marinade and unroll it onto a baking sheet or something big & flat.  After you get the steak on, hand this to someone to wash and bring back to you, or have a second one ready for the cooked meat.  For my grill, I got it up to 600F and then did 2.5 minutes on each side before pulling it.  At 500F, it’s probably more like 3.  If you’re Alton Brown or just love his methods, well, just do what he does.  Not having charcoal (I know, sacrilege, right? It’s ok, I’ve got a smoker try built into our Weber gas grill), I just keep it all up top on the grates.

Done cooking?  Now it’s rest time for that meat, so that carry-over will finish the job, leaving you with nicely cooked beef.  How do you cut skirt so it’s tender and not all stringy/chewy?  Against the grain, so the fibers are nice & short.  Basically, cut the steak into smaller pieces, then cut it sideways.  Go watch the AB video above if you think I’m speaking Latin right now.  He shows it very nicely.  I did 3-inch sections that I sliced into 4 pieces each.  That’s a good size for tacos.

While that meat is resting, warm up your tortillas.  Soft tacos for this guy, please.  Corn or flour, whatever you like.  Some people warm up tortillas by wrapping them in plastic and nuking them for a bit.  I don’t like this method, as it leaves you with gummy, funky tortillas.  You’ve already got a nice hot grill, and you’re kind of standing around while the steak rests, so throw the tortillas on the grill a few at a time.  Watch until they just start to puff up, flip, and then stack on a plate.  You can do easily a dozen tortillas in the time your steak rests.

And now, assemble as you wish.  For me, it was a tortilla, 2-3 pieces of steak, some cheese and a bit of hot salsa or a couple of squirts of Tabasco’s Chipotle Sauce.  Want to chop up some cilantro or dice up a few tomatoes and add them? Go for it.  Perhaps a little pico de gallo instead?  Have at it, but don’t overload the taco there, bub.

We served this with some rice and corn as the side dishes.  It was fantastic.

Pork & Chorizo Burgers – Like Heaven on a Bun

Last year, I had a burger that was probably my favorite burger of all time.  It was at Brown’s, a pub chain in the UK.  Their Wild Boar & Chorizo burger.  It was divine.  Now that I’m not doing much international travel for work, I decided to go my own way and make my own version.  Today was the day.

Mere bog standard ketchup is unworthy of this fine burger.  To that end, I used some leftover meatloaf glaze, from an America’s Test Kitchen recipe.  It’s a fantastic slightly kicked up ketchup.  Here’s the sauce…

  • 1 cup ketchup (I like good old Heinz for this)
  • ¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 ½ tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • ½ tablespoon hot sauce (Pete’s, Tabasco, Sriracha, whatever you like)

Whisk it all together in a small saucepan.  Heat over medium heat until thickened.  That should take about 5 minutes.

Moving on to the burgers..  There is no shortage of recipes out there for burgers like this.  50-50 mixes, 75-25 mixes, ones that have all sorts of other stuff tossed in the burgers too.  I like to keep it simple.  So here’s the recipe…  The recipe yields 4 burgers.

  • 1 1/3  pounds of ground pork (I’d take wild boar if you can get it though!)
  • 2/3 pound of Mexican chorizo (this is important – you don’t want Spanish, you want Mexican, as it’s an uncooked sausage – for me, this was two links)
  • 4 Brioche Buns
  • Sliced Manchego Cheeze (or grated if you don’t have sliced handy!)
  • Lettuce, Tomato, Onions, Pickles as you like

Unwrap those links, slice the casings lengthwise, and remove the sausage from the casing (if you can get bulk ground chorizo, even better!).  Cut the sausage into 1 inch sections and toss in the food processor.  Pulse until the chorizo is crumbly.  In a bowl, combine the chorizo with the ground pork.  Get in there with your hands and combine the meats, but don’t over-work the mixture.  You’ve got 2 pounds of meat here, so divide that up into four 8-ounce balls, and form patties.  I like to use the divot in the middle of the patty trick to keep them from swelling up too much when you’re cooking them.  Season the patties with just a bit of kosher salt and black pepper, and apply the fire!

Cook the burgers to 145 F, keeping them juicy, and allowing carry-over to make sure they’re properly cooked.  Top with a slice or some grated manchego cheese.  Split, butter and toast those buns, assemble and prepare yourself for a mouth full of good burger.

Stuff you may want to know before you go to London.

Intro

Over the past 3 years, I’ve been to London probably 20 times.  All of those trips, save 2, were for business.  Probably 10 of those weeks were in 2013.  I’ve been there at all times of the year, seen it rainy for a week, seen it boiling hot for a week (like July, 2013, where it was 36C, or 97F for several days), seen it sunny and cool, and even seen London in the snow (quick, everyone panic!).  I get asked about going there all the time by all sorts of people.  So, I decided to just write this up and share.  Here’s an amalgamation of stuff I can share.

Important: Above All Else!

If you’re from the US, or another left-hand drive/right side of the road country, pay attention.  It is engrained in your brain to look left first when you approach a street corner, and then start to step into the street.  If you keep doing this in London, you’re going to end up a stain on the front of a vehicle.  Look right first.  It bears saying again.  Look right first.  Conveniently, they know this, so at most street corners, look down first – it’s probably painted on the ground – “Look Right”.  Sometimes, on 1-way streets, or in the middle island of a street, it may say “Look Left”, but for the most part – LOOK RIGHT first.

Before you leave home – Smartphone Apps you want

I’ve got an iPhone, but I’m sure there are Android equivalents to these.  These are (in my opinion) indispensable apps to have.  Many of these chew data – be sure before you just start doing data roaming in another country.  Your carrier will often have international plans that will make it more affordable to do stuff like this.  Alternatively, if you use an unlocked phone (like I do), you can pick up a Pay as You Go (PAYG) SIM card from any of the many carriers over there.  I do T-Mobile, and use their £10 pack that gives me 200 minutes, a bunch of texts and 1G of data.  I can also call the US for 3p/min.  For an iPad, I use 3, where for £10, I get 1G of data, and 4G speeds.

  • Tube Map Pro
  • Citymapper - Bonus: works in loads of other cities too
  • Google Maps - Do you really not have this yet?
  • Hailo - For hailing a black cab, right to you, and pay with a card instead of cash!
  • Kabbee - Mini-cab (private hire car service) app
  • Uber - Car Service app, works in loads of cities

Transport From the Airport

I’m going to assume you’re flying into Heathrow (or LHR if you’re into the whole airport code thing).  Maybe you’re flying to Gatwick (LGW) or London City (LCY) too.  Some of this will still apply to you, but obviously, not many of the specifics.  Upon arrival at LHR, there are two primary methods for getting into town – public transport and a private-hire car service.

Public transport options range from the bus (which takes absolutely forever to get into town on), to the London Underground, aka The Tube (which takes slightly less than an eternity), to a combination of services like the Heathrow Connect or Heathrow Express.  For a single passenger, the Heathrow Express is a pretty decent deal.  It’s going to cost you about £20 to get an express train from LHR to Paddington Station (yes, the one the bear is named after).  After this, you can hop on the tube (Hammersmith & City, Bakerloo, Circle, or District Lines all stop there).  What’s the absolute cheapest way to get to Central London from LHR?  The Tube.  The Piccadilly Line runs all the way out to LHR, and will cost you £5.70 (as of July, 2014) to ride all the way into Zone 1 (i.e. Central London).  That ride’s going to be an hour or so, depending on where you’re going, and if you need to change trains anywhere along the way.  I did this once.  I absolutely hated it.  I made a solemn vow to never do this again.  If there are 2 or more of you, it’s almost certainly bound to be cheaper to just hire a car service to drive you to your hotel.

Often times, your hotel already works with a car service that will add the charges directly to your hotel bill.  This convenience often comes at a fairly steep price.  You’ll almost certainly get a very nice ride in a very nice car like an E-class Mercedes, but it’s probably going to run you £100+ for that nice ride.  So, what’s to do?  You’ve got options.  You can use Kabee (that app above) to book in advance, and you’ll know exactly what the cost will be.  You can also phone or email ahead to various other car services (go get your Google on already…) and set it up.  I’ve used Blackberry Cars in the past, and had reasonably good success.  I’ve also got a guy I just phone up directly and use as well.  The cost?  He charges me £40 to pickup at LHR and drive me to Central London, typically in the Covent Garden/Leicester Square/Trafalgar Square area.  I pay him in cash – so hit the ATM before you leave the airport.

Public Transport

The bulk of London’s public transport options can be paid for with a single ticket – the Oyster Card.  You want to get one right away.  There’s a £5 deposit and a minimum £5 top up, but you can get the deposit back by returning the card before you head for home.  Oyster is a touch-less system that uses RFID technology.  Be careful though – if you have other touch-less cards in the same wallet as the Oyster, and you just wave your wallet at the sensors, you can end up with “card clash”, and you don’t want that.  So, keep the Oyster apart from your regular cards.  If you’ve got a chip & pin credit card, you can use the machines to buy & top-up the cards.  If not, you’ll need to go to the assistance window, which is a pain in the rear sometimes, with long lines.  Call your bank/card issuer and see if they can hook you up with chip & pin before your trip.

London’s also a very cycle-friendly town.  You can do short-term rentals on bicycles with the Barclay’s bicycles you see all over town.  People generally refer to these as “Boris Bikes”, in honor of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, who got the scheme off the ground.

Hotels

As always, Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV).  So, take what I say with a large grain of salt.  I don’t know (or in reality, actually care) about what your hotel preferences are – this is just what I’ve seen & experienced.  :)  First off – prepare yourself – it’s expensive, no two ways about it.  Unless you want to stay way out by Heathrow and spend your life traveling back & forth to town, you’re either going to pay a lot, or have a somewhat crappy room.  Do your homework – not all hotels have AC.  If you’re used to having it, and it’s a warmer time of year, you may be in for a big surprise.  During much of the year, you don’t need AC there, which is why many less costly properties don’t have it.

When I first started going to London, I stayed near where the bulk of my customers were located – Canary Wharf, aka the Docklands.  It’s a big hub for Financial Services companies.  I’ve stayed out there in the Marriott as well as the Four Seasons.  Both hotels are very nice.  One of my customers got a good rate at the Four Seasons (£175-200/night), so I stayed there more.  It’s a gorgeous hotel, with an impeccable staff.  Very high end.  BUT, it’s in a terribly boring part of town.  Since I last stayed there, there’s a little more nightlife in the Docklands, but it still pales in comparison to the rest of the city.  This is why I don’t stay there any more.  We ended up spending oodles of time in cabs, on boats, or in the Tube/DLR going back & forth in the evenings.

Ok, so no Canary Wharf for you, eh?  Good move.  I stay in a specific area, and have been at 3 hotels, all within a 10-minute walk of each other.

My most recent stay (July, 2014) was at the Waldorf Hilton, located on Aldwych (post code: WC2B 4DD).  This is a VERY nice hotel, and many rooms have been recently renovated, including the one we stayed in.  Reasonably good AC, decent TV for those times that you’re lounging around in the morning or before bed.  Not cheap – 4 of our 6 nights were paid with Hilton points, and the other 2 ran us £240/night.  Pretty short walk to Covent Garden tube (Piccadilly), Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo), Embankment (Circle, District, Northern), Temple (Circle, District) and Leicester Square (Northern, Piccadilly).  Across the street is the ME Hotel, which includes Radio, a VERY cool rooftop bar.

My last stay before that (December, 2013) was at The Trafalgar, located at the bottom of Trafalgar Square (SW1A 2TS).  Weird AC controls here.  Very nice location though.  For Tubes, it’s a short walk to Charing Cross and Embankment, not too far to Leicester Square and Covent Garden too.  Nice rooms, ran about £200/night.  Cool rooftop bar.

My usual is the St. Martins Lane Hotel, on St. Martins Lane.  It’s a block from Leicester Square, and a short walk to Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Embankment, and Charing Cross Tube Stations.  Very nice rooms, often with an included breakfast in the hotel restaurant.  If you catch it right when booking, you can often get it, including breakfast for under £200/night.

What’s important to know when you’re arriving early in the morning, having taken an overnight flight – check in time.  Many times, the hotels have a check-in time of 3pm, and you’re landing at 7am, followed by getting to the hotel.  So, you show up 8 or 9 am, and are hoping to get a room.  Sometimes you can, but most of the time, you can’t.  So what to do?  Often times, the hotels will offer an optional early check-in for a fee, or you just book the night before.  In other words, if you’re leaving Saturday night and getting in early Sunday, and want to guarantee a place to shower and take a nap – book for Saturday night.

Stuff to Do

Like any major city, you could spend months and fail to get all the cool stuff done.  Think about this as a highlight film.  There are a million things to do that I’m leaving out here.

London Eye

Everyone wants to ride the big ferris wheel.  Tube to Waterloo (Northern, Jubilee, Bakerloo, Waterloo & City), and then a walk to Jubilee Park, where the Eye is located.  You can (and should) book tickets in advance online.  If it’s a hot or a busy day, you want to pay a few £ more for the Fast Track tickets, which will let you skip the majority of the queue.  Great views of the city.  If it’s a hot day, the AC inside the big pods is VERY welcome.

The Shard

The Shard is the tallest building in Western Europe.  You can go all the way up to the very top to The View From the Shard, where the observation floors are 68-72, which only leaves the spire above you.  There’s nothing above you there (for now!).

Gong / Ting – in the Shangri La Hotel

Want to combine the high-floor view in the Shard with some cocktails or dinner?  Book a table in Gong for cocktails, or Ting for dinner.  Those are both in the Shangri La Hotel, in The Shard.  Both are located on the 52nd floor.  The view from Gong is absolutely fantastic.  Tables at Gong don’t come cheap – when we went it was a minimum £30/person minimum.  Ting is the restaurant.  As the names should tip you off, these are Asian-influenced places.

Pubs

These days, the majority of pubs you’ll come across are chains.  The major ones are All Bar One, Taylor-Walker and Fullers.  Of those, I tend to frequent Fullers locations.  My favorites would be the Artillery Arms, on Bunhill Row, near Old St Tube (Northern) or The Cat & The Canary, in Canary Wharf.  I also like the Henry Addington, also in Canary Wharf.

Food

London gets a bad rep for food.  It’s mostly unwarranted.  Yes, many “traditional” British dishes are bland or nasty, but there’s really no reason to eat all that stuff.  London is an extremely cosmopolitan city, and there’s something for everyone there.  Some of the places I like include Gig’s in Fitzrovia (Northern to Goodge St) – excellent Fish & Chips and Kebabs.  If Indian food is your thing, you’re in luck.  Some of the best Indian cuisine in the world is in London.  Two spots, both near Aldgate East Tube (District, Hammersmith & City) include Tayyab’s and Lahore Kebab House.  Tayyab’s has better ambiance, but I like the food at Lahore better.  Technically, Lahore is Pakistani, but it’s in the Punjabi region, so it’s close enough.  The food comes out fast & hot, and is amazingly good.  Lahore is a BYOB, and there’s an off-license (a convenience store that sells alcohol) at the corner.  Cobra is a nice beer to go with curry.  In the mood for a good burger?  London’s got you covered.  There’s Byron, who makes “proper hamburgers”, and they’re very tasty.  Back in the summer of 2013, it was all-out American burger chain war in Covent Garden, when both Five Guys and Shake Shack opened in Covent Garden.  Other popular spots include MEATLiquor and MEATMarket, among others.  One of my favorites that’s a little unusual – the Brown’s pub chain has a burger that’s a mix of Wild Boar & Chorizo, with Manchego cheese.  It’s amazingly tasty.  In the mood for Southern/BBQ?  Check out Joe’s in Covent Garden – great fried chicken and pulled pork.  High end Asian?  There’s always Sushi Samba or Roka – both excellent.

Museums

London is chock full of history and museums. There’s the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern, among others.  Some slightly different ones we’ve checked out and enjoyed include the Churchill War Rooms (Westminster Tube) – where Winston Churchill and his cabinet lived & ran World War II from, or the Geffrye Museum (Hoxton on the Overground).  The Geffrye is a very interesting museum.  It’s the museum of the living room.  It features 16 living rooms, all done up in period style dating from the 1600s through about 2000.

Harry Potter Stuff

Into Harry Potter?  There’s tons to see & do.  You can book a tour of the Warner Brothers studio where the films were made.  It’s accessible by train, followed by a short cab ride.  In Central London, still plenty to see.  Looking for Platform 9 3/4?  Go to Kings Cross/St. Pancras Station (Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan).  Outside, there’s a whole setup, including a luggage trolley that’s chopped and attached to a brick wall, and a whole setup.  Want to see the site of the Leaky Cauldron, including the alley that the bad guy doing his Lost smoke monster impression flew up? Go to the corner of Great Newport Street and Charing Cross Road.  On Great Newport Street, there’s a small alley there between a couple of buildings..

Castles, etc.

There’s standard stuff like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.  But there’s other cool stuff you can do as well.  Like you can go out to Windsor Castle, in Windsor.  You can get a train from Paddington or Waterloo.  I’d recommend Paddington, since that goes to Windsor Central Station, which drops you right next to the castle.  You’ll have to change trains at Slough, but it’s not a big deal change.  Another option is Hampton Court Palace, which is reachable via a 35-ish minute train ride from Waterloo.

Stonehenge

You can take a trip out to Stonehenge via bus that leaves from Victoria, and often involves a visit to Bath.  I’ve heard from a number of people who’ve been to Stonehenge that it’s not nearly as impressive in person as you’d hope it would be.  It’s been described to me as “a bunch of rocks in a field next to a car park.”  If you’re really dying to do it, go for it.  You can also rent a car and drive there in about an hour or so.

Shopping

London has a TON of amazing places to shop.  Be warned – it’s not cheap.  The dollar isn’t terribly strong against the GBP.  Right now, it’s about $1.70 = £1.  That’s not so bad, but consider that numerical prices are pretty similar.  In other words, a lunch that’s $10 in the US is probably about £10.  That’s a 70% uptick in price.  Be prepared.  London isn’t the best for women’s fashion, unless you’re at one of the big stores like Harrod’s or Selfridge’s.  For men, there’s a ton of great clothing stores.  If you’re up for spending on custom, bespoke men’s clothing, you want to go to Savile Row. There’s no place finer on earth for bespoke tailoring.  If you’d like to check out the oldest Toy Store in the world, go see Hamley’s on Regent Street.  It’s been operating in that same location for over 250 years.  That’s right, a toy store older than the USA.  Are you an Apple Store junkie?  Go to their Covent Garden location.  It’s easily the most beautiful Apple Store I’ve ever seen.  Not the standard white, glass and light wood.  It’s utterly gorgeous.  Why are you still reading about it?  Go already!

Men’s Grooming & Shaving

Those who know me well know that I’m an old-school shaving junkie.  I’ve long since tossed cartridge razors in the trash.  They’re terribly expensive and just do a lousy job.  Gillette’s famous “lift & cut” action is little more than pulling hairs up to cut them off, leaving you red, irritated and susceptible to problems like razor burn and ingrown hairs.  A single double-edge blade is a much better shaver.  One sharp blade is far better than 4 or 5 mostly dull ones, any time.  Plus, real shaving cream & soap, whipped with a brush in a bowl or mug is far better for your face than aerosol-propelled goop.  With all that in mind, take a stroll through St. James.  You can hit all the big names, like Geo. F. Trumper, Truefitt & Hill, DR Harris, Floris, or my favorite, Taylor of Old Bond Street.  In addition to high-quality shaving products, one can get a traditional hot-towel straight razor shave from many of those companies as well.  At Taylor’s, I’ve seen two gentlemen (Neil and Kierry), who have always given me very good service and a high quality shave.  I wasn’t wow’d by the experience at Truefitt & Hill, so I wouldn’t go back.

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