23 February 2010

Eating London Out: From High Brow to Downright Skanky

The two of us have been cooking and marketing a lot, but to be frank, we haven't really made anything inspirational or blog-worthy in some time. It's been nose-to-the-grindstone at the day job for me, and Alannah's been juggling volunteer work, French school, and French bureaucracy. So the trip we took to London not only ushered in our second wedding anniversary (yay!) but also provided a badly needed vacation.

London's nothing new or particularly exciting for either of us (it's just a short high-speed train ride from Paris, after all), but going for a short vacay with little to no agenda or reason behind it (other than, you know, the anniversary thing). So beyond attending some little charity gig at Royal Albert Hall the first night, we were free to pretty much drink, eat, drink, and eat some more.

So here's a little gustatory tour of London...

Getting crabs in Bayswater... Mandarin Kitchen on Queensway, half a block north of Hyde Park, was once the shining star of Chinese cuisine in London. When I was a kid, this was the place to eat, where the local middle class could rub shoulders and eat garlic-scallion lobster with the stars. It's now the washed up has-been of the scene, but still has its charms – not unlike the old hookers on Paris' Rue Saint-Denis. And much like settling for a palm-job over a toothless BJ, we went for the garlic-scallion crab in lieu of the formerly glorious and still overpriced lobster, and it was tasty, if not well executed. Big ups on the razor clams and eight-treasure steamed chicken, but a big FU to the service that made the legendarily rude Wong Kei (another London institution) seem like the Ritz-Carlton.

We ended our day with some Chinese, too, at some anonymous diner-style Hong Kong place in Soho's Chinatown. One day in England, two Chinese meals. Rut roh.

Bed and Full-English Breakfast... Anybody who looks at a full English breakfast and feels revulsion needs their head checked. Or is French – as proven by the multitudes of French people in our breakfast room turning down one of the greatest breakfasts known to mankind. Fried eggs. Fried tomato. Fried bacon rashers. Baked (not fried!?) beans. Toast. Freakishly yellow margarine they can somehow still call butter. There's no better way to sop up the previous night's drinking and simultaneously prepare for the coming day's drinking than Britain's greatest contribution to the culinary arts. This is how we started each morning thanks to our B&B.

Working Man's Three-Courser... Alannah wanted to get her hands on some real Cockney with a lot of girth and heft. The answer is pie, mash and liquor (as in sauce, not booze), and the real-deal is at the original M. Manze in Bermondsey. Despite it being in south London, it's like being in an old episode of Eastenders, with real (fucked up) London people having real (fucked up) London conversation about their real (fucked up) London lives. Almost everybody gets a two-pie and mash combo with plenty of parsley liquor. But what's that on the third plate?

Manze's other specialty is jellied eels. That's right - chunks of eel in jelly. At room temperature. Because, like everything else suspended in aspic, it should be served at just the temperature where it's an ideal vector for food-borne illness. So I had to have it. Surprisingly it was not the worst thing I've ever eaten. Or perhaps unsurprisingly, considering my track record of putting just about anything in my mouth. Alannah even had a piece without gagging. The thing is, it's not something I'd want to eat ever again. Dishes like jellied eels are a stretch-the-budget food for lean times, not one of desire. Anyone who tells you it's a delicacy is either drunk on entirely too many cask ales (not difficult to believe) or a god damned liar.

That said, pie, mash and eels at Manze's is as much an institution in London as a Mother's "debris" po-boy is in New Orleans or a bowl of railway arch ramen is in Tokyo. They're the less heralded, unglamorous kin to high tea, jambalaya, and sushi – but just as iconic parts of the cuisine.

Pub of Porky Pleasure... Smack in the middle of the ever gentrifying meatpacking area of Smithfield is one of the rising stars of the gastropub movement. Ever since the mid-90s, some pubs have been raising the grub ante, shying away from the standard Shepherd's Pie and Fish & Chips and going for more gastronomic food, oftentimes at astronomic prices. So thank heaven for the Fox & Anchor, who in addition to serving their cask ales in pewter tankards, also serve a bar menu with plenty of affordable items, some of which overlap with the dining menu. Pub classics like pork pie and pork scratchings are given the high-quality treatment, and their chips (as in fries or pommes frites) are simply on another planet. The thick wedges are double-fried, in proper Belgian style, but the second frying (just before serving) is in goose fat. Pewter tankards. Goose fat chips. Housemade pork scratchings. Is there anything more perfectly English?

We had dinner at a Soho pub, and while the fish & chips were perfectly fine, nothing quite measured up to the pub experience at the Fox & Anchor. That made for a bit of an empty feeling in the tummy late at night, so we went to an off-licence (as in mini-mart or epicerie) to pick up some only-in-England snacks.

I picked up a couple of different types of pork scratchings/crackles to compare to what we'd had at the gastropub earlier. The friends we were hanging out with earlier objected to the gastro-scratchings, saying they were too tender. Real scratchings, they said, are liable to break your teeth! In fact, these "Mr. Porky" scratchings and crackles came with such a disclaimer, and were indeed like petrified versions of American pork rinds/Mexican chicharrones. Some even still had hair on them.

Alannah, being much more sensible, picked up a Yorkie bar. She did her part to support women's rights by chomping into a block of chocolate that clearly states on it, "It's not for girls!" Bravo, dear wife, for having the bravery to stick up for girls, and to eat mass-produced Nestlé pseudo-chocolate.

Meat market... The next day saw us back in Smithfield, exploring the market area a bit and making our way through the little mazes and alleyways whose twisted nature probably inspired the likes of Jack the Ripper and hundreds of coked-up date rapists leaving the Fabric night club at 7 in the morning. Our mission, however, was to snag a spot at the bar at St. John, ground zero for Fergus Henderson's revival of nose-to-tail cookery.

Suck it... and keep sucking... Famous words spoken by Argentina coach & living legend (& former morbidly obese druggie) Diego Maradona. He got fined and suspended from coaching by FIFA for uttering such obscene words, but perhaps he was talking about the roasted bone marrow and parsley salad at St. John. Between this, the amazing Welsh rarebit (yes, I know it's cheese on toast), the grilled ox heart, and three real ales on hand pump, we didn't want to leave. In fact, we almost ordered a second round of food, but thought better of it. I regret not having done it, because not only is it some of the most fantastic, simple, finger-lickin' food I've had in London, but it's ridiculously affordable for food of this caliber. Mind you, this is simply the bar menu, but that's what makes this so brilliant - that these are the bar menu dishes. At between £5-7 apiece, it's hardly more than what you can get at the local doner kebab joint, and far less likely to kill you. On top of that, Henderson was actually hanging out at the bar and downing drinks between media interviews. I'm not the fanboy type, but I think I might end up becoming one.

Top of the World... Sipping Pommery champagne atop an overgrown ferris wheel isn't really our style. But when you're celebrating your wedding anniversary, you do cheesy things like buy the "Champagne Flight" on the London Eye. And to be honest, it was actually worthwhile. Considering we normally drink champagne at our local dive bar and still wind up somehow shelling out just as much, the London Eye was not only fun, but a *gulp* good deal. It was also a horribly cheesy delight to see the couple next to us get engaged. I guess we can be romantic sometimes.

Shattered & battered... Friday couldn't be all champagne and bar-menus-at-Michelin-starred-restaurants, you know. It was time to skip the pub and go to a propper chippie (that's short for "chip shop") for dinner. We'd previously fish and chipped it up at highly-rated Mr. Fish in Bayswater, where they even have a liquor license and table service... But this trip called for the really real deal: Fryer's Delight in Holborn. Why this chippie? Because they fry everything in beef drippings. And, really, they fry everything. I supplemented our cod/chips and haddock/chips with a battered sausage and saveloy sausage, but had my eyes been bigger than my stomach, I would've ordered the fried half-chicken, fried whiting, fried plaice, fried rock... Far from a quality meal, per se, but oh, so satisfying. Hello, beef tallow!

Going healthy... After a final full English on Saturday morning, we headed to the Notting Hill farmer's market. It's small, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality and charm. Alannah really wanted to get some kale, which we cannot find at all in Paris. Lo and behold, a woman there was selling kale - big, giant bags of it for only a pound each. We also picked up some Guernsey double cream, and then went to a nearby organic market and picked up a ton of groceries. I have to say, it did feel odd packing a bunch of vegetables and dairy into a duffel bag, then cross an international border with all of it being legal, yet still a bit risqué and taboo. Kind of like the mile-high club, I guess.

Real Mexican in London!?!? Besides kale, one of the things we can't get in Paris is real Mexican food. Go ahead, send in your best Mexican address in Paris, and we'll laugh at you for suggesting a place that serves red beans and ground beef. If we wanted Tex-Mex, we'd just hit the Old El Paso aisle at Monoprix and be done with it... Until recently, you could say the same for London, where I've had easily the worst Mexican food ever on several occasions.

The only good thing about that shitty Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant movie is that every American and his/her mother lives in Notting Hill. Which means that there is demand for real (i.e. not Tex-Mex) Mexican food. Someone is finally filling that demand, and that someone is quite simply called Taqueria. While it still doesn't hold a candle to even the most humble taqueria in California, half the dishes are authentic and – more importantly – contain spice. My carne asada tacos, while not adequately marinated, were served in proper corn tortillas (not flour!), with proper salsa (not ketchupy menses!) and with a proper michelada and spicy pumpkin pepitos on the side. A bit too fancified with overly-doting service, but it was nice to get more or less real Mexican food without having to make every little thing from scratch ourselves.

Tea for two... Going back to the somewhat decadent route, while not on our agenda, was a no-brainer. Our early-evening train back to Paris was out of the shiny new Eurostar terminus at St. Pancras, where I've been wanting to throw caution to the wind and have a pre-train meal at the shiny new restaurant since the first time I saw it. It just so happens that the St. Pancras Grand serves afternoon tea from 3:00-5:30pm, and the one thing we'd skipped on our list-of-all-things-English was exactly that: Afternoon tea. Despite the relatively high price, this was an excellent choice: A tower of well-prepared snack foods for each of us, a huge pot of tea each (which was refilled at the end), and a modern, classy environment which is at the same time subdued and opulent. While security measures and ever-cheaper airlines are trying to suck the fun out of travel (the getting-there part), train stations like St. Pancras are brining a little bit of the glamour back.

It's probably hard for anyone to imagine that leaving Paris for a few days and eating our way through London would bring our foodie inspiration back. But it did. From the lowest of the low (a 49p packet of scratchings) to the highest of the high (champagne nearly 500 feet above London) and everywhere in between, it was nice to get out of our groove.

We're home with a new set of ingredients to mess around with and new sources of inspiration. But don't worry, you won't be seeing anything about carne asada crumpets here anytime soon.