There's Something To Be Said About the Food in London
Reflections on a UK stop after a stint in Italy
In London right now, the best restaurants take ingredients seriously, but almost no one takes English food traditions very seriously.
Not only is there the kind of immigrant populations and the food of those various populations that bring wildly divergent cooking to almost every block, but it’s also not even clear that the people who’d want to do traditional local cooking agree on exactly what that is, or maybe there’s not that much of a market for eel or shepherd’s pie. It’s as if the wars and hardships and changes suffered by the British not only paused traditional cuisines but muted them.
Thus the most authentic cuisines in London are either from former colonies, or somewhere else entirely, or of the take-great-ingredients-and-don’t-fuck-them-up sort, food that isn’t characterized by any particular seasoning or cooking pattern, but which stands on its own as wonderfully displaying the character of the ingredients. It’s not “we have octopus, of course, we’ll serve it with pesto,” but “We have octopus, what should we do with it today?” In an honest, not-haute-cuisine-bullshit way.
So, my first night in London I met my friend Raj at Hoppers (thank you Jay), a mini-chain of three centrally located Sri Lankan restaurants that was way too hip and noisy for me, and where the table was too small for everything we ordered (You know that syndrome? Hate it.) — and the food was mostly interesting and delicious.
You can put what I know about Sri Lankan food on the head of a pin, but I’m pretty sure this was mostly more Sri Lankan in spirit than, like, “There’s a cook from Sri Lanka cooking her family’s recipes back there.” Nevertheless, the hopper, a crisp dosa-like thing cooked in a bowl shape with a fried egg in the middle, was something you could eat as often as anything good with a fried egg in the middle. A jackfruit stew was the first convincing dish I’ve had with jackfruit, maybe ever. There were a couple of dishes that weren’t so impressive, but it was an abrupt and welcome change from Liguria.
Dinner the next day was with my friends John and Miranda at a Stockwell pub called the Canton Arms, which isn’t as fancy as its website makes it look but was as solid a gastropub experience as you could ask for, perfectly seasonal, perhaps a little all over the place for my taste – there were French, Italian, Lebanese, even some Japanese influences — but done well, and you’d be hard-pressed to find such good neighborhood food in any American city.
That was what it was like: amazing Sichuan food; another good gastropub; a meal we cooked, of barely seasoned mutton chops and fall vegetables, all on a grill on a Sunday midday, with lots of herbs (but not basil); a quick lunch of modern Japanese bar food; some perfectly executed Dover sole in a hotel: just one interesting and delicious thing after another. Then John and I went to St. John.
I didn’t discover St. John by any means, but I was among the first American food writers to have something to say about it more than 20 years ago, and I’ve never been disappointed there. It should be said that at some point I became friendly not only with Fergus Henderson, the founding chef – with whom I shot some TV back in 2005 or so – but also with his partner Trevor Gulliver, and we’ve had lunch together a few times now (including, bizarrely, on the day my father died in 2014), so my experience there is hardly typical.
But as usual, the menu was impossibly appealing: fried tripe, braised lamb tongue with winter vegetables, plaice with mash, lamb shoulder with beans. I know none of this sounds especially special, but done right, it’s exactly what I was saying earlier: great ingredients handled with care.
After deciding not to have dessert, we ordered — I don’t know — all of them: spotted dick, that wonderful fat-dominated truly English specialty; Eccles cake, which you never see anyway (kind of a currant paste in puff pastry), and perfect madeleines. I guess you could call this a pig-out.
I recommend very few restaurants to people. I don’t like being told I was “wrong” (which often happens because my tastes are peculiar, though maybe that’s true of everyone). And, really, after nearly two weeks in Liguria, if pressed, I could send someone to three places, and one was a pizza joint. But I bet I’ve sent a hundred people to St. John over the years, and they all still rave. It’s the Chez Panisse of London – it has a thing, it does the thing brilliantly, and the aesthetic is maintained by the founders, who clearly find staff who buy in big-time. Thankfully it hasn’t changed much; apparently, it isn’t losing money, and it’s still a joy.
Compare this to food in Italy. Everywhere you go in Italy, you get that region’s unique local dishes — and almost nothing else. This makes it notably old-fashioned, wonderfully enjoyable, and sometimes – if truth be told – a little boring. How much do you like pesto? Enough to eat every day? chances are, that’s what you’re going to do in Liguria: eat trofie, trenette, maybe some octopus or squid or mussels — almost all with pesto.
Really good pesto, made with the ingredients (not just good basil and Ligurian olive oil, but Italian pine nuts and fior di Sardo in addition to parmesan) and techniques (a mortar and pestle, of course) demonstrated to us by our friend Enrica, is a revelation, Even in Liguria, not everyone (or should I say “almost no one”?) makes it that way. Most people seem to be using generic ingredients and a blender. But one can get tired of even “really good pesto.” And if you think you’re going to get a break and eat in a Korean or Peruvian restaurant, you’re kind of in the wrong country — or at least the wrong region.
I like that Italian thing, don’t get me wrong; when I was in Rome last winter, I must’ve eaten pasta all’ amatriciana 20 times. Wherever I go next time, I’ll both love and get sick of whatever the fixed dishes are. But it sure is nice to mix things up.
Then, of course, I realized that that’s essentially what I do at home. It’s good to travel, and it’s good to be back.
After following your travels from our second residence in Nice, France, we’d be REALLY interested in hearing which Ligurian restaurants you went to. We go to Liguria on a regular basis for lunch and dinner. The food is so much better (if, as you say, completely regional) than the food on the Côté d’Azur. So if you could please let me know, our palates would greatly appreciate it:-)
In all 3 universities where I worked I encouraged people from different countries and backgrounds to bring in food reflecting their ethnicities. It was a great way to try and learn about foods from different cultures.