[Written for wine.com]
Good British Food: An Oxymoron?
By Elizabeth Sagehorn
The first time I visited London in 1992, the food was so bad that I lost ten pounds. It was either unappetizing to look at or so filled with saturated fat, that I shied away from eating much of anything. While packing for my most recent trip, I took note of the cellulite rippling about my thighs, and was fired with enthusiasm at the thought of losing a little weight. Was I in for a surprise!
The English seem to have finally forgiven the French their part in the Napoleonic Wars two centuries ago and adopted some of their more delectable cooking skills. French is all the rage right now, but not the traditional heavy on the cream and fat French. Gifted local chefs have managed to concoct delicious dishes that are original, tasty, attractive and (relatively) easy on the arteries. While visiting expatriate family members recently, we made the rounds to discover this trend for ourselves. We picked two restaurants that we loved which are endemic of some of the gastronomic goings-on in not-so-foggy London town.
The Capital Hotel on Basil Street in Knightsbridge is one of those small swanky hotels that only announces its presence with a tiny brass plaque next to the door. Silent, middle-aged attendants pad softly to and fro, attending to guests’ needs the old-fashioned way. If you can’t afford to pay $500 a night for such service, but would like to experience it for an evening, we suggest having dinner in their restaurant. The room itself is unremarkable. Considering how much you’re about to cough up for dinner, you would think they could lay down a new carpet that didn’t have worn patches in it. The décor (cream walls with pretty standard fare ethnic art) is equally uninspiring. But the food and wine….
Between the four people in our party, we ate half the menu. And frankly, I wish we’d brought four more people so we could have had a bite of everything because what we had was delicious. The standout appetizers included the warm quail salad on a carpaccio of ceps. The flavors were rich and complementary, and the sauce was only slightly sweet and full-bodied. The salad of roasted peppers, carmelised garlic and goat’s cheese was another pleasant surprise. It sounded a little weird, but turned out to be a fantastic combination of flavors and beautifully presented. The best entrees were both meats. The saddle of rabbit, sweet onion pastilla and rosemary was moist, tender, and mercifully not gamey tasting. The fillet of lamb with herb crust and fricassee printaniere also sent us into raptures. The dessert worth writing home about was the strawberry and white chocolate trifle. It wasn’t too sticky sweet and was served in a very generous portion.
But the most impressive part of the evening was Matthew the sommelier. At our request, he brought each individual a different wine with each course (another reason to be grateful for London cabs). If you press him, he will admit to being partial to French wines, but he presented us with a selection that stretched from Lebanon to California. Each glass made its way around the table for others to taste, and remarkably there was no swapping. Everyone agreed that their wine was best for their dish. The rest of the staff was equally polite and unobtrusive in the old-fashioned way that earned England its standout reputation for service. Dietary restrictions were met with creative suggestions and accommodated with ease. Dinner, wine and bottled water for four people came to £303 (about $460).
If you’re looking for something a little less pricey and upscale, but equally delicious try 190 at 190 Queen’s Gate in Kensington. Actually three venues, a bar, downstairs restaurant, and bistro, it is also located in a hotel (The Gore Hotel, no relation to our veep as far as we could discern) and is a much more cheerful place to visit with friends or family. The bistro is a lovely, high-ceilinged, cheerful, yellow room. On a pleasant evening the huge windows are opened and you can catch a whiff of the flowers in the window boxes. The food is hearty and much of it is original. The wine list has a surprising range.
The Bruschetta and mussels we had as appetizers may not sound too exciting, but these are both dishes that are often badly made. In this case, the tomatoes in the bruschetta were plump and tender and flavorful. The mussels were tender, fresh and tasty without being particularly fishy-flavored. They were steamed in a water, white wine, garlic and parsley broth. Favorite entrees included a roast butternut squash, pistachio and shitake mushroom cannelloni. An unusual taste sensation, none of the flavors overpowered the others, and they all harmonized to create a mouth-watering dish. The char-grilled tuna with roast fennel, olive and blackened tomato salad and red pepper mayonnaise was also a hit. It was beautifully presented and the fish was done to a turn.
If this new-fangled fancy cooking is not in your line, never fear. There are still plenty of places where you can indulge in bubble and squeak to your heart’s content. Just don’t expect to loose any weight while you’re over there.