Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why British Food Doesn't Suck

What is British food exactly? And while we are at it, what is French food or American Food? When the best food in the United States is often a Californian take on Italian, a Texan take on Mexican, or a New York take on French, even American food is hard to define. British food, long maligned for bland tasting meat pies, soggy chips, and mushy peas, has developed over the years, just like the United States and even France.

With the long history of colonialism and now influx of immigrants, Britain has picked up a cosmopolitan mix of peoples and their foods along the way. That Brits have long loved Indian curries is no secret, but upscale South East Asian, Italian-style wine bars, and even artisanal Japanese noodle making are infiltrating the heart of the British dining scene.

With that in mind, on a recent trip to London I set out to discover some new British restaurant arrivals drawing inspiration and menus from different parts of the globe. If my research is any indication, the world continues to shrink and the food in London is better for it. One can only imagine what “British” food will pop up next.

Koya: There is nothing like long, hot, homemade noodles bathed in rich miso broth on a cool London day. Koya, in Soho, is a narrow and brightly lit enclave of traditional Japanese udon in the heart of the theater district. It would be an understatement to say my bowlful of handmade noodles in miso with ground pork and green onion was a mouthful. But I was up for the challenge, taking the noodles one dip of the chopsticks at a time, slurping up the umami rich both between bites. Koya also succeeded with an unusual and gamey miso cured venison special and crisp green salad topped with fried lotus, all washed down with homemade ginger tea.

Bocca di Lupo: If the difficulty in getting a reservation is any indication, Bocca di Lupo is no secret to Londoners. Known best on the West side of the pond as the author of 2010’s “The Geometry of Pasta” cookbook, chef Jacob Kenedy is turning out the sort of consistently excellent Italian fare that makes you want to finish your plate and order again because each successive course seems to get better and better. On my recent visit, the much-lauded fried balls of mozzarella were the least interesting dish if not bad at all. A plate of crudo- sea bream, red prawn, and creamy scallop- came drizzled in rosemary oil. Herbaceous and yet distinctly of the sea, it was as if the fish had taken a stroll through a pine forest and emerged delicately scented on the plate. Orchiette pasta was tossed with crumbled spicy homemade sausage and arugula. While sausage of pork and foie gras, rustic in presentation, was nothing but decadent in the mouth.

Cay Tre: Perhaps it has yet to figure out food costs, but Cay Tre, a classy Vietnamese newcomer, is loading their pho with beef. In the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, rare slivers of beef normally act as more of a garnish than a focal point. At Cay Tre, the bowl is all about the beef. Loaded with sirloin, tendon, and brisket, their pho is a meatier version of the classic while still redolent with star anise and filled with the biting grassiness of greens and the licorice of torn basil tangled together with just cooked rice noodles. Two elegantly fried head-on prawns embedded in a cake of grated sweet potato was a tasty starter when rolled in lettuce and dipped in a classic sauce of vinegar, chilies, and sugar.

Polpo: Polpo, part of a hip 18 month-old mini-chain of London wine bars, is the one that started it all. Even though Polpo is Italian, don’t come expecting pasta, because you might not find it. But do come open to a raucous dining scene that might well be going off into the ten o’clock hour on a Monday night, unusual in this city. Pizzettas are small and thin crusted with a nice chewy interior and crisp edge. Faro might star in lieu of risotto as it did on a recent night paired with rich braised lamb. Asparagus was in peak season on that visit, served simply and deliciously blanched and smothered in anchovy butter. Wine is delight to drink at Polpo as many options come by the quarter, half, or full bottle. And should you arrive early or come without a reservation, a speakeasy hidden in the basement appropriately called The Campari Bar is a delightful way to spend the wait over an aperitif. Or linger late take in a nightcap downstairs. That is if you didn’t close down the joint over dinner like I did.

1 comment:

  1. "British food, long maligned for bland tasting meat pies, soggy chips, and mushy peas, has developed over the years, just like the United States and even France."

    I guess I'm not that old.. or just lucky enough not been able to taste the previous British foods that they say were too bland. I only knew British as healthy and yummy foods as far as my taste buds are concern.