The London Food Renaissance
British food has a pretty dismal reputation — bland meat pies, greasy fish and chips, unfamiliar animal parts — but let me assure you that this is no longer the case. The second part of my European travels landed me in London, a city whose food scene I had high hopes for, but entered into with a bit of wariness nonetheless.
I quickly learned upon arriving in London, that my wariness was premature and that, in fact, the food culture here is alive and thriving and quite possibly the most exciting of any in the world at the moment. This being my first trip to the U.K., I wanted to get a good sampling of both traditional English food and its modern counterparts. Thanks to the recommendations of local friends, who sent me everywhere from pubs that have been in existence since the 14th century to restaurants that have only been around a short while, I think I managed to taste the spectrum of old and new. I have to say that, overall, my tour of London eateries left me quite impressed, particularly in terms of the variety of foods offered and by the conscientiousness of so many of the local food producers.
My traditional dining fare started in an obvious location — with perfect, crispy fish and chips at The Rock & Sole Plaice in the Covent Garden neighborhood. The thick pieces of cod were moist and flaky on the inside while the crust retained its crunch and remained miraculously greaseless throughout the meal. The chips were fat and thick, much meatier and dense than most American fries, and utterly addicting, particularly when doused in good malt vinegar. Other traditional dishes I sampled included a steak and ale pie (eaten at an ancient, village pub) that was filled with tender strips of beef, a deep rich broth and a flaky, airy crust that practically dissolved without any chewing. Matched with a good, local ale, this dish could not have been more traditional, nor more satisfying. Then there was the creamy fish pie, loaded with chunks of fresh haddock, tender leeks and a golden, mashed potato crust that was packed with flavor. This dish was definitely on the rich side, but still somehow managed to not be overwhelmingly heavy. What I found most surprising about each of these dishes, all samplings of old English tradition, was how flavorful and delicious they all were– nothing like I expected and certainly much different than the preconceived ideas that I had brought across the pond with me.
The modern, or at least less traditional, food that I ate in London is what really thrilled me on this trip, however. A rainy afternoon at the Borough food market brought on a variety of delights ranging from fresh, briny Irish oysters to West African chicken curry, humongous scallops quickly roasted in their shell with bacon and butter, a rainbow of organic produce, incomparable sharp, crumbly English cheeses, sausages made from every animal conceivable and a chorizo, arugula and pequillo pepper sandwich on a crispy-tender roll that was the epitome of simple perfection.
The two more formal meals I had, both decadent, extended lunches, couldn’t be more different from each other, nor could they be more different from anything I’ve encountered in the U.S. The first of these was at the legendary restaurant, The Fat Duck, in Bray, just outside of London. A meal deserving of a blog post all it’s own, I’ll just offer a little teaser here in saying that never has there been a more wholly conceived, whimsically playful and delicious meal. From edible gold watches to bacon and egg ice cream, this was a meal that stands alone.
The second amazing lunch I had in London was at a haute-Polish restaurant called Baltic. To think of Eastern European food as something fresh and exciting seems an oxymoron, but the food at Baltic is just that. Remaining true to tradition, the menu features standards such as pickled herring, beet borscht and meat or potato pierogies, but each was an updated version of their classic counterpart, unexpectedly light and full of flavor and depth. It was a far cry from what one might expect from this type of cuisine. My favorites in this meal were the herring on a vinegary potato and pea salad, the miniscule, meltingly tender veal and pork dumplings and the bison grass vodka that was smooth and aromatic and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
Overall, I’d have to say that my culinary adventures in England strongly surpassed those I had in Paris. While the food in Paris was delicious and satisfying, it did not exceed my expectations. On the other hand, the food in London was far better than I could have ever anticipated and it surprised and delighted me to no end. I am already planning a trip back to London so that I can explore its diverse food scene in much more depth.