English chefs are upping the ante on their country’s cuisine by adding a twist to traditional dishes.
What are great restaurants for? At worst, they’re a seated passeggiata, where the in-crowd asserts its in-ness, the would-bes try to, and the innocent come to gawp and glut.
At best, they nourish the soul. Ideally, they start doing it once you walk through the door and continue long after you’ve left.
There was a large restaurant in Paris that a friend took me to a few times when I was a student. The clientele ranged from us to local bureaucrats and businessmen, as the menu rose from cheap boeuf bourguignon to escargots and filet mignon with truffles.
It was sort of fancy: It had white tablecloths. The waiters were mostly older, and glided about in white coats.
They brought carafes of water and wine, and a silver basket of rolls, unless you asked them not to. It had marble floors and chandeliers and cut-glass windows. Yet students could afford it.
There ought to be something truly democratic about the best restaurants, though there rarely is. That Paris place still hovers in my mind as a lost Olympus of dining, a descendant of Balzac’s Flicoteaux.
Le Cafe Anglais (8 Porchester Gardens, Bayswater W2; 44-20-7221-1415; www.lecafeanglais.co.uk) has something of the feel of that forgotten empyrean.
A person could eat well here for £12, or very well for £60. It’s big enough to shelter all sorts, from Harold Pinter (a regular) to scruffy types like me.
It opened late last year but already feels like a classic. The look is basically Art Deco. Though there’s a shiver of formality, there’s also something relaxed and inclusive.
It’s actually part of a large shopping centre, Whiteleys, but you hardly know it. It’s a lofty, long room – perhaps double the size of the chef-owner Rowley Leigh’s previous success, Kensington Place.
There was the ideal blend of repose and anticipation in the air the night I was there. Maybe the fact that Mr Leigh is a kind of gentleman chef has something to do with it.
An ex-Cambridge man, he’s notoriously well-read and affable, a different cut from the bad-boy chefs who have popularised British cuisine.
In spite of its size and newness, it was full, yet felt busy rather than crowded. And the menu felt classic already as well. It had ingenious features: a dozen different hors d’oeuvres, all at 3 pounds (US$6.03); then a handful of first courses; then the mains, including roast chicken with thyme and garlic in four sizes (whole, half, breast or leg).
It was halfway to a DIY menu, offering the flexibility we might always have longed for.
There’s surely something in the English soul that despises sophistication. I once saw a hair-raising Victorian recipe book, Beef With Potatoes, for example: Combine 5 lbs. beef, 5 lbs. potatoes, salt and water in good-sized pot. End of recipe.
At least they thought of the salt. But since the early ’90s, a specifically English haute cuisine has been emerging, treating the fine native produce with a new respect.
With its rain and coastline, Britain has some of the best meat and seafood on earth. It even has its own porcini, samphire, and forgotten vegetables like sprout tops, salsify and baby turnips.
These days, instead of tasting of depression and rain, they taste of hope. They’re being cooked as though someone cared about them.
The original Cafe Anglais in Paris was, I believe, Proust’s favorite restaurant. The 21st-century Bayswater version may not offer the original’s quaille en sarcophage (quail in sarcophagus) but does run to that other glory of late 19th-century French cuisine, quenelles de brochet.
It’s on the menu, which is seasonal and changes frequently, as pike boudin, but apart from the slightly fatter shape, it is quenelle, all right.
This gravity-defying wonder floating between mousse and souffle tames the bite of our most fearsome native fish, the giant-jawed pike, and just may be the most delicious starter known to humankind.
The native oysters were not cheap at six bucks apiece, but extraordinarily zesty, with a sweet citrus hint about them, and, unusually, circular.
They came from Whitstable, a few miles down the Thames. Among the hors d’oeuvres, the anchovy toast to be dipped in Parmesan custard was strange, inspired and very English; and the salsify fritters – white asparagus-like lengths deep-fried in batter – could have come from some country garden.
One of the mains was a fat slab of roasted turbot from native waters; and the baby lamb with cannellini bean puree was succulent and tender, young enough to carry the lamb accent in its flavour only faintly.
Noteworthy, too, was the glazed partridge with walnut and chili sauce – the nuts and the fowl both endemically English with that exotic dash of piquant. It’s something of a signature of the new English cuisine to add one esoteric touch.
I had not had pommes Anna, a crispy cake of butter-glazed potatoes invented by the famed chef Adolphe Duglere of the original Cafe Anglais, since I was a child on a trip to Normandy.
The crunch of the outside, thin as crisps, and the soft potato within, infused with the shell of caramelised butter that encases the whole thing, tall as a pudding bowl – this is old-style Cordon Bleu cuisine, the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn would have had to learn in Paris as Sabrina, and as Gigi would have eaten.
To finish, there was queen of puddings – a bizarre sweetness of sponge and jam with a crown of torched meringue on top, originally from Manchester, so they say – and trifle, russet apples, rice pudding: dishes that assert we’re still in good old rainy England.
Great Queen Street (32 Great Queen Street, WC2; 44-20-7242-0622) offers a kind of rustic minimalism that is congenial to the English soul.
It’s a bit like some vision of a pub you might have found in the 1920s in a remote corner of Norfolk or Shropshire (at least from what I could make out of the dimly lighted interior on a packed winter’s night).
Bare wood tables, wood floorboards, cozy and elegant dark-red walls, a long wooden bar top.
It hasn’t thrown off the feel of a pub, although it’s a serious restaurant, brainchild of the team behind the Anchor and Hope in London, and has made a virtue, or perhaps a statement, out of simplicity.
Its minimalism extends to the menu, a daily piece of paper. The wine list ditto, changed about monthly. And you’ll find no fancy phrases about the dishes.
“Hereford beef” comes two ways: sirloin with anchovy butter, or rib, chips and bearnaise for two. There was a mutton pie, seven-hour lamb shoulder for four or five people (a highlight, but we were only two in my party), wild duck, greens, mash. And so on.
Nobody’s wasting ink on salivating mini-paragraphs of decorative nonsense. But the difference from the Victorians is that it’s all very well cooked.
These modern cooks know how to season, they know their times and temperatures. The young servers squeeze with efficient haste between the tables; it’s noisy, it’s a bustle.
As for the food, we began with excellent crab on toast, a thick porridge of chunky, buttery crab in a sort of gruel of crab juice. And a broad bowl of mussels and grilled calamari, with long hanks of braised fennel in a brown broth.
The sirloin with anchovy butter was succulent and à point, but the dish of the night was rabbit stuffed with black pudding.
Black pudding, the bane of British breakfasts, as unclean a concoction as the human palate has ever tasted, has recently undergone rehabilitation; it has been inducted into serious cuisine.
The contrast between the springy yet tender white rabbit flesh and the crumble of sausage, between the relative plainness of the rabbit and the dense subdued power of the pudding, worked well.
Who would ever have thought, 20 years ago, that the scourge of the B&B breakfast plate, this salty, sweaty, bloody pudding, would ever be exalted to its current status? Accompanied by a vaporous Bandol rouge off the no-nonsense wine list, it made a superb heart to the evening.
Figure on roughly 30 pounds a person for dinner, without wine.
Naming itself, like Great Queen Street, after its address – in effect, not naming itself – Hereford Road (3 Hereford Road, off Westbourne Grove, W2; 44-20-7727-1144; www.herefordroad.org) still has the look of the Victorian butcher shop it once was: through the glass front, you can see a counter of gleaming cream tiles, and behind it the busy chef, the owner himself, Tom Pemberton, at work in the diminutive public kitchen, dressed in his white coat.
There’s also a prep kitchen downstairs, but it’s up in the unfussy space beside the narrow front room where the cooking happens. You can sit there at small tables, or go downstairs to a larger, brighter dining room.
Of these new venues, this struck me as the unfussiest, and perhaps most English. Great Queen Street had a touch of Celtic somewhere in it, and Le Cafe Anglais was deliberately Anglo-French. Hereford Road is plain old England. Or rather plain new England.
The decor is predominantly brown and white, a livery of simplicity.
And the sans-serif menu, which changes daily, couldn’t have been more plain-spoken. Duck breast, turnips and black cabbage, for example. (Once again, that one slightly exotic note.)
The dishes followed equivalent pairings of colour and flavour. Warm chicken livers sauteed with floppy green beans; celery and mussel soup.
Potted crab is the kind of dish at which we might have turned up our noses 20 years ago. But today, prepared perfectly – with its lid of chilled butter sealing in the flavour, which you break up with your fork like a tectonic plate to reach the flaking, chunky flesh beneath, with just a hint of mace in its taste – it’s hard to fault.
Next, pheasant on a bed of small brown lentils and withered watercress, redolent of a fragrant fresh olive oil, and roasted Jerusalem artichokes.
The leg had a touch of gaminess, the breast was tender and plainer. And a slice of roast pork thick as a hunk of peasant bread, golden-rimmed, resting on an even fatter slab of potato cake – something like pommes dauphine without the cheese or sauce – sheltering a huddle of luminous green kale.
To finish, we tried custard tart, something I never even liked as a kid. But in this shallow, broad slice, the chemical custard taste was entirely absent.
Instead, it was almost like a chilled creme brulee without the crust, almost bland but tantalisingly not; and a mini-dish of apple and quince crumble with its own tiny jug of creme anglaise – surely allowed as English.
At Hereford Road, expect to pay about £25 per person for dinner, without wine.
Could it be that the days when good food in Britain was foreign are over? Is it that the English are no longer too busy storming around the globe subjugating people rather than attending to their tables? Who knows, and who cares? Bring on the grub.
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