Quickly now, what comes to your mind when you hear the words French Cuisine?
For me, fine dining, regional, and an assortment of French translations for common ingredients that are clearly the fading remnants of my eight plus years of childhood education in the language come rushing out at me.
Now do the same for say, Italian or Chinese. I’m sure strong images pop into your mind, mainly of the favorable variety, including some great dishes or full meals you’ve had associated with the countries from which they came.
And how about British food?
Sure certain good memories emerge, but I imagine for many of you, there is also a negative association, especially in terms of its global reputation. Personally, I can’t think of a single country/region of the world that has a shoddier image when it comes to their cooking than good old England. Excluding of course the more modern developments and influx of other cultures that has had a dramatic effect on the county’s culinary landscape. Straight up British food is what I’m referring to here. You know, roast beef with potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips and the like.
I’ve heard the saying that the British “don’t like foreign food”. I’ve always found that expression odd, given the incredible history of its culture and its ancient, pre-modern status in the world as a superpower, having dominated the world and probably brought back to the homeland a wide array of eating and drinking ingredients and traditions over time. I’ve always been under the impression that bits and pieces of the food identity of the lands that were colonized were integrated subtley into the old Anglo-Saxon society and the development of the food its people ate.
On a recent visit to the UK, I decided to test out some theories and engage in a variety of these stereotypical images of the food of this land. To begin this journey, I enlisted the help of a local friend, who took me, as I had requested, to some strong examples of the public house culture. I badly needed to experience the real deal, no more of these faux pubs with their cheesy script font signage built into North American strip malls that are younger than my friend’s five year old son.
Located near the Covent Garden tube station, the Lamb & Flag is one of the oldest pubs in London, dating back some three hundred plus years. As it was just a place to quench our thirst over a few pints of IPA and some bitters, I can’t comment on the food at all since we had none, but for atmosphere, this place is hard to beat. With its old world feeling permeating the bar, the framework and floorboards, its this been-there-done-that sensation that for me, is one of the best that the UK has to offer. Like a blunt punch to the nose, this stopover just an hour after I landed, was an immediate awakening and just what I needed to get my night going with a bang.
Next up, we headed out of the core of the city to the neighborhood of Hampstead. My friend offered me two choices. Choice a. being another pub similar to the Lamb & Flag in terms of its old school history and ambiance but less quality grub, or b. a more refined, gastropub that had a much more robust and well executed menu. As it was time to eat, the call was an easy one to make, and so we ended up at The Wells.
Walking up to it, the building was very welcoming with the warm glow of lights cascading out from the larger rectangular-shaped and arched windows with white trim and its large, heavy front door. It reminded me of some grand estate home, a classic walkup in Georgian-style made of brown brick and giving off the aura that it had stood the test of time. Strangely once inside, the light seemed dimmer than what shone through to the outside street and the white table cloth covered tables were all taken, except for one. It was around nine p.m on a Sunday night and I was shocked to see it so jam packed, even the bar was full. The posted closing time was 9:30 p.m but it was clear there was leeway on that, as we stayed well over an hour past that and felt no pressure to leave by the incredible wait staff.
I must say that I completely regret not taking any photographs but alas, I was having a great meal with an old friend and thus this was not the time for that. The one-sheeted menu was broken up into what was called “first courses”, a selection of about six appetizers, including a very enticing sounding ham hock salad. Then a choice of about seven “mains”, of which we elected the corn-fed chicken breast (with new potatoes, asparagus, greens and a tarragon sauce), and the seared fillet of seabass (with baby carrots, samphire, green beans, snow peas, green olives in a shallot butter sauce). I especially enjoyed the seabass, well seasoned and flaky, tender inside but a great outer crust from the sear giving a beautiful textural change up. I’m not normally a fan of this fish, but this dish certainly converted me, well at least I’ll try it again elsewhere again.
The sides of fresh baked bread with balsamic and olive oil, steamed broccoli and mashed potato had to be ordered separately (as one friend told me, the British don’t eat vegetables other than half a tomato; I’ll get to that in a future post). All were nice accompaniments to our mains. Despite a couple more pints each of the Belgian Leffe ale as well as the Dutch Grolsch lager and shots of Gordon’s Gin (as an homage to London), we still manage to save room for dessert in the form of the sticky toffee pudding with hazelnut ice cream (divine!) and the apple & rhubarb crumble with a dallop of vanilla ice cream (also an amazing combo!).
If this refined take on pub food is in any way part of the new trend in the UK when it comes to good eats, I’d say the blemished record to date of England not having any outstanding food is clearly changing. Add in the rush of highly acclaimed chefs and restaurants originating out of this place, and its clear to me that even the old-style places to eat and drink are more than doing their part to push British food culture up there with the best of them.
Up next, visits to a popular chain restaurant reminiscent of the Earl’s and Cactus Club Cafes of Canada.