Dispatches from London
They used to say that the "sun never sets on the British Empire", which of course hasn't been true for decades. After a recent trip to London I must comment on an equally antiquated misconception regarding English food. An old joke has it that English accents were developed because the Britons were trying to find ways to talk while preventing British food from entering their mouths. At one time true? Perhaps. But it couldn't be further from the truth in modern Britain. In fact, one would have a hard time arguing that London isn't one of the top food cities in the world. Naysayers would claim that this amazing "food revolution" is the result of transplants cooking foreign food (ie. French, Indian, Japanese), and that English food is as bland and uninteresting as ever. Having just returned from the UK, where I made it a point to explore "New English Cooking" in all its forms, innovative and delicious takes on traditional English food are flourishing today throughout the UK. Here is a short listing of my must-visit restaurants serving inspired cuisine.
The Fat Duck Labelled the 'Best Restaurant in the World' by Restaurant Magazine (albeit an English publication), Heston Blumenthal's Michelin 3-star establishment invites comparisons to other food destinations (think El Bulli) that play with the chemistry of cooking. Located in a 450-year-old former pub in the quaint village of Bray, about an hour outside London, The Fat Duck experience is difficult to put into words. Borrowing from the experience a chef colleague of mine had at El Bulli, Ferran Adria's landmark restaurant in Roses Spain, he said: "I can totally respect the experience, but I'd never want to cook that way." It is eating as an intellectual exercise, designed to have you question the very nature of the foods you've grown-up eating. Blumenthal adheres to the principles of 'molecular gastronomy', according to which the quality of the diner's experience can be enhanced considerably when the physical and chemical processes that take place in cooking are understood. Thus the menu reads like a child's worst culinary nightmare: 'snail prridge', 'sardine on toast sorbet', 'salmon poached with liquorice', 'nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream', but plays-out in a much more satisfying way. In fact the snail porridge was a revelation, tasting like the best onion soup you've ever had. However, the sardine sorbet and salmon poached in liquorice were interesting but not nearly as delectible. All in all, if you love food, you'd be short-changing yourself by not sampling this type of food experience at least once. It can be a lot of fun, a fancy restaurant run by Willy Wonka, and by all accounts it is where "eating as entertainment" is headed. (If you don't feel like travelling to Spain or the UK, Alinea in Chicago is getting rave reviews in doing similar culinary experimentation.)
St. John If The Fat Duck is Willy Wonka cooking, the St. John is Sweeney Todd. Located in the heart of London's meatpacking district, and to borrow from the title of its creator's (Fergus Henderson) cookbook, St. John is "Nose to Tail Eating". Renowned for their use of the whole animal, you won't find any chicken breasts on the menu, St. John is an offal lover's paradise. The setting is stark white and bare, the walls are simple adorned with coat hooks. It gives the impression of eating in some Orwellian asylum. But that is the point. St. John is a 'temple of the hog' (or cow, or lamb, etc.), where the raw material is the star. You'll find no herb sprig or micro green garnish, in fact you don't even usually get a sauce unless it's part of a braise. What you will get is impeccably sourced and prepared New English food: 'middlewhite & chicory', 'smoked eel, bacon & mash', 'Braised Ox Kidneys & Swede'. Not to mention amazing classic desserts (just think a lot of puddings). St. John is Chez Panisse from a working-class, British perspective.
The Anchor & Hope I had been hearing a lot about gastropubs before I travelled to the UK. It seems recently that any new restaurant to open in the states with good, simple, often locally sourced food and a list of boutique beers is labelled a gastropub. Now after visiting one of London's most popular gastropubs, the Anchor & Hope, it could easily have been labelled "favorite neighborhood joint in a good food city". While that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue like gastropub, what I'm trying to say is The Anchor & Hope reminded me of a lot of independent, casual, restaurants in the US. Dark wood, no pretense, a solid wine list with a few good beers on tap. The menu is printed daily, and has some fanciful European-inspired dishes 'torchon of foie gras with prunes' as well as English staples 'steak & kidney pie'. It was the kind of place I could see myself visiting every week. And you could sense the community that had developed there. It was like a great neighborhood restaurant in New York or San Francisco.