Falling for Portobello Road

The scenery transformed from rolling hills and tended fields to suburb and city and back again as the train took us closer to London. Slowly, the sun rose up the sky. Streams of light filtered into the carriages, bathing half of the passengers in a warm orange glow. Quiet residential neighbourhoods gave way to the steady stream of traffic, people trusting the judgment of strangers as they threw caution to the wind, walking against the green circular light in groups of four or more. That restlessness, the overwhelming desire to beat the clock at its own game, is the heartbeat of England’s capital.

Arriving at London King’s Cross station, my stride took on the quick pace of those around me; these people with places to go and things to do. In London, there is no time for second-guessing. Thankfully, I had looked up the appropriate public transport routes the day before, and knew how to reach Portobello Road. Traveling to Trafalgar Square via the tube, even on a cloudy Tuesday the streets were still considerably crowded. Rain or shine, when London calls, you answer.

Taking the 32 bus to Westgate, I sat on the upper deck, watching the city change outside as we passed through several districts. Just past the corner of polished avenues lay buildings indistinct in their modern design. The streets, lined with slender trees, brought to mind the end scene of romance films. After half an hour, the bus reached my destination – Blenheim Crescent. From there, it was a short walk to Portobello Road. A haven of bookstores, antique shops, and restaurants (to name a few of its gems), I could have happily lost myself there for hours. But time was of the essence, and I only had three hours in the area before needing to leave to catch the train back home. As such, I prioritised my visit to a single bookstore.

The store that caught my interest is “Books for Cooks”. Located across from “Tonkotsu Ramen”, the bookstore, with its maroon painted frame and wide window looking in, called to the passerby with a kind wink. A seller of a wide range of cookbooks, the store’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it doubles as a restaurant. Located at the back of the store, the test kitchen is where the staff prepares three-course meals for its customers. At £7 per person, the food and the ambience is an absolute steal. Arriving an hour and forty-five minutes after the store opened, I was informed that all the food had sold out and they had only been able to serve one-course meals that day. All the sitting patrons, comfortably engaged in conversations with their friends, seemed perfectly at ease in the store. One of the co-owners , a man with dark hair and a kind face named  Eric Treuillé, engaged with each table, enquiring about their families and their day.

I contented myself with returning after lunch, and meandered around the area before settling on Tonkotsu Ramen. Having not eaten a single ramen dish in eight months, my taste buds yearned for the complex flavours of ramen broth and the smooth texture of its noodles. Tonkotsu Ramen did not disappoint. Ordering its eponymous dish, the broth, advertised as a ’16-hour pork broth’, was a balanced blend of savoury and sweet flavours, harmonising perfectly with the thin-cut noodles, pork belly, and seasoned egg. Bamboo shoots, spring onions, and bean sprouts topped the meal perfectly. To complement this amazing dish, I ordered pork gyoza and a Fiery Ginger and Sansho Soda. The sweet notes of the gyoza and the tangy flavour of the soda only heightened my appreciation of the ramen dish. The chef, working a mile a minute and perfectly meeting his timers, was a well-oiled machine. When my server, a lovely young lady with bright eyes and a polite smile, asked me how I was finding my meal, I easily said that it was fantastic.

Hunger satisfied; I headed back to Books for Cooks. The din of lunch rush now finished, the store was blanketed in a serene quiet. Myself and an elderly woman were its sole customers. Buttoning up his coat, the male manager appeared ready to head out for the day. He noticed us, and did not hesitate to approach. ‘Is there anything I can help you with, beautifuls?’ His voice, kind and sincere, immediately set us at ease. I told him I was browsing for very early Christmas shopping (a habit I’ve gained in the last few years), and he laughed, noting that it was never too early to shop. The woman noted that she was interested in children’s cookbooks. He directed her to the appropriate section, discussing her exact preferences for a bit before heading off.

Eyes roaming over the shelves, each section was neatly labeled – ‘Asian’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘BBQ’, ‘Baking’, ‘Vegan’, ‘Drinks’ – the store seemed to have it all. I was spoilt for choice. Noticing that I was struggling, the shop assistant, a kind Japanese girl, came up to me and asked if I needed help. Explaining my situation, she helped me search through the shelves. Happily, I left the store with two books, each wrapped in the store’s embossed wrapping paper. Promising myself to visit Books for Cooks again, I headed back to London’s King’s Cross station not wanting to go home.

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