I’m about to say something highly controversial: I love British food.
And I’m not talking about “crisps,” because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy a little salty sliver of fried potato goodness? Although, the British do tend to test that love with some rather unique flavoring options. Beef and onion? Roast ox? Prawn cocktail? Don’t even get me started on repeat offender/intrepid flavor alchemist, Tyrell’s.
But crisps are easy to love. What I’m talking about is heavy, stodgy British fare with funny names and a heavy reliance on the aforementioned potatoes or other mysterious carbs (what starchy root vegetable is a Yorkshire and why is it made into a pudding?)
I like the stuff that, in a pinch, could be used as a building material. You know, to stucco something perhaps, or be a passable substitute for mortar. We’re talking bubble and squeak. Bangers and mash. Jacket potatoes with baked beans and cheese. Toad in the hole. Welsh rarebit.
I didn’t even scratch the surface of my love of British food during our recent trip to London. I had forgotten all about my love of a good Ploughman’s lunch until we were almost departing. I never did seek out a Lancashire hot pot or a Cornish pasty. No stottie cakes doused in gravy (to be fair, stottie cakes are generally hard to find anyways). We’ll have to save all those delicacies for next time.
Here are a few British things I ate and loved this trip:
Full English breakfast – Since our hotel, the W Leicester Square, included a breakfast buffet every morning, we really only went out for breakfast once – our first morning in London. We were jet lagged and tired from sitting on the plane but we couldn’t check in yet (we’d been upgraded to a suite, which is all very nice, until you find out that the previous suite occupant has asked for a late checkout).
We went to a place recommended by our friend Amy, the Grazing Goat. It’s a small, bright gastropub that’s part of a boutique hotel on one of those posh, Georgian townhouse-lined streets near Marble Arch.
Since it was a Sunday, there were quite a few families with small, needy, yelling children smearing dippy eggs and soldiers all over their pink British cherub cheeks. If I liked children and their hippy parents, I’m sure I would have found it adorable. As it was, it was a lot for my jet-lagged self to handle.
The tables were (of course) wobbly and the service was a bit spotty, but the English breakfast made it (mostly) worthwhile. Eggs, streaky bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, beans, toast and hold the black pudding, please.
I skipped the tea and went for something a bit more caffeinated, but I cannot for the life of me imagine why I didn’t get a Bloody Mary or mimosa to soothe my nerves and pre-game for the Tottenham soccer match we went to later that day. Did I mention we had literally just flown in? I think I was worried I’d fall asleep if I started drinking.
Fish and chips with mushy peas – My default British meal (and everyone else’s). I think I had these at least four time over the eight days we were there. Maybe five. Each place had their pros and cons: one place had better chips, another had better fish, yet another had a better batter. My favorite was the place we went on our first night: The Brewmaster Pub in Leicester Square. The haddock was great, the chips were triple fried, the homemade tartar sauce was wonderful and the mint in the mushy peas really cinched it for me.
Steak and kidney pie – I’m generally not a fan of offal, something that is very hard to avoid in jolly olde England. They’ll eat just about any organ over there. But, when your black cab tour guide suggests you try the steak and kidney pie at the oldest restaurant in London – Rules in Covent Garden — you just do it. Plus, it was the only pie option on the menu and it looked very, very good.
I even ate a few of the kidney bits, all mixed in with the steak and awesome gravy and pastry, and washed down with lots of red wine. It was actually very good. Well, at least I didn’t die or anything.
The old clubby atmosphere at Rules and plethora of animal trophy heads (there must be hundreds) can’t be beat, either. Just be sure to take your coat with you to the bathroom…those back stairs are drafty.
(I did have a steak and ale pie at another pub later in the trip, but it was pretty meh.)
Sticky toffee pudding – After so bravely swallowing many small bits of gamey kidney, I figured I deserved a dessert. And my favorite dessert in the whole wide world is sticky toffee pudding. Rules does it up right, serving the (yes, sticky) toffee syrup-soaked cake with a dollop of just slightly tart crème fraiche. It was not my only sticky toffee pudding this trip, but it was by far the best. Maybe it was because of all the animal heads placidly watching me devour something not derived from them.
Sunday roast – The event I had been planning and waiting for the whole trip and it did not disappoint. We had so many options to pick from, but I had read an article in Time Out about London chefs and what their favorite new restaurants were in 2015. Blacklock was mentioned time and again. It was my birthday and Mother’s Day (in Britain, at least) so I was extra glad we had made a reservation.
The restaurant is located in a Soho basement and has lots of communal tables full of folks sharing plates heaped with slabs of meat.
This was after our appetizer of bone marrow, because, well, England and weird meat byproducts. (Seriously, is there anything more invasive than eating the marrow of another animal? “Let’s see. I could gnaw at your tendons and tear your flesh into bite size pieces, but that just doesn’t seem to be sufficient. I know! Let’s crack open a bone and get at the gelatinous molecules inside there.”) I try to be a good sport and try everything, even if I have had it before and didn’t like it because you never know. But no. Still not a fan.
We ordered what I’m affectionately calling the Gluttonous Americans Special, also known as the All In: roast lamb, pork and beef with duck fat potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, carrots and some broccolini, and a large, delicious boat of salty brown gravy– all for 20 GBP a person.
The waiters were wonderful, very chatty and friendly and they politely looked the other way when I ate all of my Yorkshire pudding, half of XFE’s and the entire third one that I think we were supposed to share. They humored us while we marveled at the fact that Sunday roasts with all the trimmings hadn’t taken off in the U.S. yet.
Sadly, Blacklock did not have sticky toffee pudding and I know this because I asked, even though I was uncomfortably full and sweating meat by that point. I’m pretty sure I would have found a way to get one last dessert in.