British food in London
British food, for the rest of us outside Britain, brings to mind fish and chips or bangers and mash. But if like me, you have grown up with Tuppy Glossop’s midnight adventures with steak and kidney pie, you wish a cook as good as Anatole who can make you just such a pie. Now with the revival of British cuisine and gastro pubs, someone just may serve you one.
One such pub is Great Queen Street. They do head to tail cooking. We ended up going there twice and tried a variety of fares – lobster bisque, gizzard salad, tongue with lentils, wild rabbit with blood pudding and turnip mash, and a very special buttermilk panna cotta. I am convinced that if I had stayed in London longer, I would have worked my way through their entire menu. I am particularly sad that I didn’t try the braised lamb neck and mint sauce, it would have made a good comparison against my local favorite, Incanto. The food was delicious and light. The tongue stood out because it came with the furry edge that made my better half squeamish. Trying to joke about the texture of “tongue on tongue” only aggravated matters in a hilarious sort of way.
We went to Applebees in Borough Market in an attempt to eat at the market without having to deal with the crowd. They have a Mediterranean menu that would make an excellent meal anytime. But if you are on a British food mission, they offer a fantastic poppy seed battered fresh turbot with chips and mushy peas. The fish at Applebees is very fresh indeed, the battered turbot is crispest I have had and it was deliciously flaky and moist inside. The mushy peas is a keeper. They also had a smooth tomato soup with smoked fish, mackerel or haddock if I recall correctly, which was very good.
London night life is vibrant. In Soho and Covent Garden, the streets are full of people and completely undeterred by cold and rain. The restaurants and pubs spill over. The crowd is mixed age, dressed fashionably and loud. This is noticeable coming from San Francisco where the recent years of economic downturn has had a discernible cooling effect on the restaurant culture. Our visit to Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in St. John’s Hotel only confirmed the difference further. For a world renowned chef this restaurant is surprisingly cheery with bright lights, friendly staff and rapid turnover of tables. Perhaps theater goers are the primary clientele. We ordered a fried pork skin starter, wild rabbit pie (the closest I was going to get to steak and kidney pie on this trip), and doughnut filled with a local berry ice-cream. On a separate occasion, we came in for just the desserts and got steamed treacle sponge and chestnut cream. The pork skin, my first, reminded me of rice pappadoms from South India. I couldn’t stop wondering if pork skin is any tastier in New Orleans. The rabbit was delicious and rich. I reckon it could have easily served four. The treacle was a little too buttery and sweet but the rest of the desserts (they sound lovelier when called puddings) were excellent. I wasn’t as impressed as I was at GQS and I suspect that with growing age, my preference is now leaning towards lighter fare.
Finally, Lamb and Flag. They are the what you expect of a traditional British pub. Like Fuller’s Victoria, it transports you to a different era with its gleaming dark woods, narrow stairs, stained glass and tiled floors. It smells of age, wood polish, ales and sweetness of pork fat. And like a good pub, serves a healthy portion of bangers, mash and steamed peas. British pubs do serve decent beer but these days craft breweries in US can compete with the best of the best. So I was unhesitatingly conserving my beer budget in favor of Dog Fish Head back home. More recently, Bottlecraft in San Diego is on its way to becoming my favorite place to drink. If I want to drink good British ales, I will be doing so at Bottlecraft and will be keeping you posted.