Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Food, Glorious Food.

Forget everything you’ve heard about cuisine in England being dreary.  Forget as well about warm beer, it’s served nice and cold in London.  These two wives’ tales may stem from the immediate post-war years when England was still rationing food and other items.  It’s hard for Americans to comprehend how England suffered during World War II, when attacks on our own homeland have been exceedingly rare.   Imagine fourteen 9/11s spread out over eight months and you’ll get an idea of what it was like to live in London during the Blitz – and many smaller towns weren’t much better off.   As a percentage of total population, the UK’s blood loss was three times that of the US.  Unlike America, which enjoyed a post-war economic boom, the UK wasn’t much better off than post-war Germany.  It took England the better part of a decade before life returned to a semblance of normalcy.  But before I go off on a tangent, let’s get back to the subject at hand.
I must start with a disclaimer: Ten days is not nearly enough time to explore London’s culinary scene.  It would probably take years. 
Though we arrived in London to find that our hotel room had been upgraded to a townhouse with full kitchen, we did relatively little cooking.  Most of the items we purchased at the local Tesco revolved around snack food such as crisps and digestives – along with sodas and fruit juices.  (Tesco reminded me of Giant Eagle, right down to the dreaded self-service registers.  I’ll stick with Heinen’s any day.)  So, we generally dined out twice each day – a large breakfast and a late lunch.  Our hotel also offered complementary wine & cheese from 5:00-7:00pm each day, and we partook most evenings.  Between that and the bars we visited, I probably drank more in London than at any time since I was in my early 20s.
On our first morning in London, after we’d dropped off our luggage, we scouted around for a quick breakfast and found ourselves at, of all places, McDonald’s.  The differences between the American and English versions of Mickey Dee’s are minor – the bacon used on the Egg McMuffin is British rather than Canadian, and the egg is free-range and cooked a bit softer.  Note that you will be asked if you want ketchup or “brown sauce”, which is basically the British version of A1.  Much of London is populated by American restaurants, ranging from KFC to Chipotle, all the way up to TGI Fridays and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  Add to that The Book of Mormon, currently playing to sold-out houses in Piccadilly, and one can easily get the feeling that the Yanks have invaded.
On four occasions, we dined at The Cambridge, one of the many Nicholson’s pubs dotting London.  While the menu is basically the same everywhere, each location has its own ambience.  We chose The Cambridge based on proximity to our hotel – we could log onto the hotel’s Wi-Fi from there and get excellent reception, even though it was rather wonky from our rooms.  As the dining room is on the 2nd floor (British would call this the 1st storey, as the Ground floor is the Ground floor), we had a nice view of Cambridge Circus yet felt insulated from the London rush hour.  Nicholson’s pubs are an ideal choice if you want reasonably priced standard fare, including an English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, or just a pint at the bar.  The Fish & Chips featured a generous portion of the juiciest Cod I’ve ever enjoyed, lightly battered and cooked to crispy perfection.  They also have some classic English desserts such as Treacle Cake – a delicious concoction which I intend to import to our kitchen.  

English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, and Steak & Ale pie
For Dan’s birthday, we headed to Preto Rodizio Brazillian Steakhouse on Shaftsbury Avenue.  In anticipation of our dinner there, we avoided food during the day.  Preto offers the standard Churrascaria fare, similar to Cleveland’s Brasa: You’re given a coaster, green on one side, red on the other.  After starting with a salad and appetizers, the diner turns the coaster green side up.  A gaucho will then bring you a rotation of meat selections until you flip the coaster to the red side.  Since it was Dan’s birthday, we exercised restraint so we’d have room for dessert.  The wait staff was observant enough to place a candle on Dan’s dessert.  Preto is most definitely not a restaurant for vegans or those who prefer small portions, but for omnivores and those on the paleo diet, it’s essential dining.  We also discovered that the location is ideal for people watching.
La Bodega Negra was on the same block as our townhouse.  I would describe it as Fusion Mexican, moderately upscale.  The drinks menu is generous and the atmosphere is convivial. 
Dinner is served at La Bodega Negra
As the southern edge of Soho is also Chinatown, there were a number of Asian restaurants.  I advise approaching these with caution as there seemed to be a wide divergence in quality.  We sampled two buffets which were somewhat inferior to our own local Chinese buffet restaurants.  Also, unless otherwise noted, restaurants in England do not offer free refills on soft drinks.
An exception to that was Ed’s Easy Diner, which we went to on our last night in London.  There are actually several locations, but the one in Soho is the original.  This is a recreation of a classic 1950’s diner, an exercise in Americana which was quite popular.  Each time we passed it, the small space was completely filled.  The reason is simple: generous portions of burgers and fries, friendly service – and free refills on soft drinks.
Chiquito is in Leicester Square, so it’s an ideal place to dine before hopping onto the Tube.  We only went there once, for breakfast.  It says something about diversity in London that we enjoyed an English Breakfast in a Mexican restaurant, served to us by a Polish waitress.
Our townhouse was directly above a Bubble Tea shop.  I’d never tried it before, and doubt I will again.  The taste was nice enough, but I found the texture off-putting.
A note on tipping: Most restaurants include an automatic surcharge which seems to cover gratuity.  But we found it was usually around 10%, which to me is not an adequate tip if the service is good – so we usually supplemented it with cash.

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