In London, Sating a Hunger for Bargains and Good Food  

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1/2/2006 9:33 pm

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3/5/2006 9:27 pm

In London, Sating a Hunger for Bargains and Good Food


January 1, 2006

Journeys

In London, Sating a Hunger for Bargains and Good Food

By JENNIFER CONLIN

SIPPING a chilled glass of Sancerre at the Sea Grill counter at Harrods, I watched patiently as the wild bass I had just chosen from the nearby fresh fish counter was expertly sliced open by the chef. Twenty minutes later, having made friends with the elegant Burberry-clad woman from Barcelona seated next to me, I was happy I had taken the waiter's advice to have it grilled, rather than steamed or pan-fried. My fish arrived lightly crisp on the outside and beautifully flaky on the inside, stuffed with lemon slices and thyme.

"Whenever I come to London this is always my first stop," said my Spanish neighbor, savoring a taste of her bouillabaisse. "And then ... I shop!"

Unlikely as it may seem, Harrods and a handful of other large department stores in London have made eating as important a part of one's retail experience as bargain-hunting. Once a haven for women of a certain age taking a chicken salad break before heading back to the dressing rooms, these store restaurants and food halls have now become destinations themselves. They are particularly popular during the January sales, when a respite is needed from the crowds taking full advantage of the deep discounts.

One such restaurant, the Fifth Floor, on the top level of Harvey Nichols, has even earned a solid review in Zagat's London guide as a place "where a chic crowd can always count on a good modern British meal." It now attracts a healthy crowd of business executives, who during sale time can't resist checking out the prices on the Paul Smith suits downstairs.

Here are some of the hottest department-store dining spots in London right now:

HARRODS

With 28 bars, cafes and restaurants spread over roughly a million square feet of store space, Harrods makes it hard to decide where to eat. A good place to start is the elegant Food Halls on the ground floor, a gastronomic haven with 12 specialty areas, including sushi, oyster and cheese bars.

Though not inexpensive, it is a treat to sit on a stool at any of the counters and watch as Knightsbridge's finest residents (and their maids) shop for that evening's dinner party. One favorite is the Rotisserie, where you can tuck into a flame-roasted half chicken, piece of duck or herb-crusted lamb - and marvel at the Royal Doulton tiles that line the walls of the meat and fish hall.

Those seeking a more elegant lunch should head to the top of the store and secure a table at the Georgian Restaurant, where the focal points are an Art Nouveau skylight and the all-you-can-eat carvery - roasts with all the trimmings, salads and an array of decadent deserts. An à la carte menu is also available. At afternoon tea, the presence of a piano player only adds to the traditional ambience.

Serious shoppers can get ahead of the crowds by having a croissant and café crème at Ladurée or a panettone and cappuccino at the Pizzeria, both open from 8 a.m. (noon on Sunday). Position yourself well at an elevator and you might beat the other competitive shoppers to the ladies' shoe department on the first floor - the most cut-throat spot during discount time.

The Harrods winter sale runs through Jan. 28. Harrods is at 87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge.

HARVEY NICHOLS

To see London's fashionista crowd in full parade, simply ride the escalator through Harvey Nicks (as locals call it), where posy men and women can be seen checking out each others' Prada bags, Gucci sunglasses and Juicy Couture jeans as they glide through the store. Everyone who is anyone in trendy London regularly lunches at the cafe on the top floor, adjacent to the sushi bar and extensive food market.

Lunch in the cafe, with its industrial ceiling of metal and glass, and its outdoor terrace in good weather, can be quick (Caesar salad with teriyaki salmon or char-grilled chicken) or more leisurely (spicy braised lamb tagine with saffron rice).

Next door to the cafe, set off from the rest of the top floor, is the Fifth Floor Restaurant and Bar, which is open not only for lunch, but also for dinner after the rest of the store has closed. The walls and ceiling of the oval restaurant are covered in glass tubes with fiber-optic lighting that change color from day to evening, creating a dramatic effect for diners.

Starters include terrine of wood pigeon, and a tart of wild mushrooms. Hearty main dishes like Welsh lamb are available, as well as organic salmon and a crab risotto.

The newest shopping treat at Harvey Nicks is the recently opened circular Fragrance Bar on the fourth floor. With more than 50 fragrances and small dipsticks, you can create your own scent by mixing a bit of vanilla and musk.

SELFRIDGES

With its big glass escalator that zooms shoppers up the middle of the store with lively background pop music, Selfridges offers the most exciting shopping experience on Oxford Street. With 22 bars and restaurants, one never has to go far to find lunch.

For a quick meal head to the ground-floor food hall. The Oyster Bar offers diners a half-dozen Scottish oysters.

Nearby is the Brass Rail, the most popular restaurant in the entire store. Local business workers flock here for their famous ox tongue, pastrami, and salt beef sandwiches, which can be ordered in different sizes, depending on your appetite.

Upstairs off the women's wear department, which stocks such trendy brands as DKNY, Miu Miu and Paul & Joe, is the Lab Cafe, where you can create your own salad or opt for the daily special or a basket of dim sum.

For a more formal meal, climb the spiral staircase from the designer accessories department on the ground floor to the Gallery, next to the Moët Champagne Bar. English-food fans can dine on calves liver and a dark chocolate tart with malt whiskey cream. This is the perfect place during sale time to watch the most serious shoppers fight below over Channel, Gucci, Mulberry and Marc Jacobs' merchandise.

Design fans should not leave the store without visiting the White Room, in the basement. There, one finds a big selection of art, design and lifestyle books.

PETER JONES

By far the most traditional of the London department stores, Peter Jones has recently undergone a major renovation, with its six-story center atrium making this previously sedate-looking store startlingly cutting edge.

Anyone shopping with young children will feel particularly comfortable at the Top Floor cafeteria, the post-errand spot for London's Yummy Mummies and their offspring, who congregate here most mornings for a coffee and scone or croissant stuffed with eggs and salmon. By noon, however, most of the Bugaboo set has left and the restaurant becomes a great place to enjoy a quick salad or hot meal and take in the spectacular view, which includes the Victoria & Albert museum, the London Oratory and Royal Albert Hall, among many other monuments all cleverly identified for tourists on a large map that spans a nearby wall.

For an adult-only environment, there's the Brasserie on the second floor, which does not "encourage" children. Just off the women's designer section, next to Jaeger and Paul Costelloe, it provides a modern setting (blood-red leather chairs and black granite tables) overlooking Tiffany's just below in Sloane Square.

The most popular item on the menu is the Chelsea salad - apricots, Italian blue cheese and pine nuts on a bed of gem lettuce, with an orange juice and olive oil dressing. Hungrier shoppers prefer the confit of duck or the classically English dish of braised pigs trotter. The adjoining bar is often stocked with men waiting for their wives in the nearby dressing rooms.

Fabric lovers take note - the soft furnishings department on the ground floor is one of the best in all of London and a mecca for interior designers during sale time. Here you will find roll after roll of the store's own fabrics, and examples from Nina Campbell, Osborne & Little, Jane Churchill, Liberty and Designers Guild fabrics.

(sigh) Harrods is ABSOLUTELY one of my FAVORITE places. Even their sushi bar is divine!

Anyone interested in taking a long weekend with me?



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