Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sense Memory: A Taste of London

England was never really known for its food when I was living there, but over the years its cuisine has become incredibly ethnically diverse, and even the traditional dishes seem to taste better. Bill was shocked to learn that the predominance of curry was a relatively recent thing, because when we were trying to pick a place for dinner, we didn't even consider pub grub or English food, which used to be pretty much your only choices. Between great coffee, fish and chips, sandwiches-in-a-box, and the most amazing Korean of my life, I'm missing the food I ate on my trip last week.

Sick in bed, I just made myself a cheese and chutney sandwich. Sure, it was made with green tomato chutney from John's garden in Bucks County instead of apple chutney from England, and it was on Wonder bread instead of the huge, freshly-baked country bread at St. John, but it made me miss London just a little less. I'm too sick to drink red wine with it tonight, but the glasses of Côtes du Rhône (off-menu!) at St. John sure did wash the sandwich down nicely.




I didn't actually drink that much alcohol when I was in London (save for a pint each of Fuller's and John Smith's Extra Smooth), but I found myself drawn to drinking coffee this time around. I found myself at Bar Italia, a famously historic Italian spot that seemed a bit dodgy to me when I peeked my head in, but I was meeting someone there so I took a breath and ordered. The Italian barista spoke French to me and gave me a gorgeous cappuccino whose leaf-decorated foam was too beautiful to drink. But I did anyway.

I had a nice white coffee with breakfast at The Breakfast Club Angel the next morning, too, and kept asking Max to make me cups on their Nespresso machine, which were delicious.

The Breakfast Club kind of reminded me and Jesse of the old Shopsin's on Carmine Street, but only in decor and not in terms of menu. Instead of obtusely named dishes with surprising combos of ingredients, they served me the very simple eggs-on-toast, which came perfectly cooked and hearty, with a tomato chutney and a rocket salad. I sat next to a table full of music industry workers, gossiping about YouTube deals and Warner Music Group. I wanted to stay there all day.




One of my great joys is discovering new places - hidden treasures - both at home in New York and out on the road. Like Bar Italia, when Bill brought me to St. Giles High Street for Korean, I was suspicious. The guide book had recommended this place called Assa, but Bill insisted that there was another place on the same block that was better. I walked into the former Seoul Bakery, above the Azito Hair Salon at 55 St. Giles, and had no idea that the soondooboo chig (a phonetic spelling of sundubu jigae), a hot pot made with the freshest tofu I've ever eaten and a raw egg cooking in the hot broth, would be the finest Korean cuisine that London has to offer. Even the kimchi was amazing. We chatted up the owner, who complained that most Korean kitchens in town were run by the Chinese and therefore not authentic (and not good). We thought he was so amazing he tried to convince him to move to New York. But maybe his real success will be in London, where his talents are desperately needed.

Of course London is better-known for the famous fish-and-chips dish, but I'd only it in England once prior to this trip - a greasy, yellowy portion served under too-bright fluorescent lights at a place I could actually afford near Trafalgar Square. I've had plenty of fish and chips and other fried delights in New York at places like A Salt and Battery and Chip Shop, but still, I didn't know what I was missing. When we stopped into the Henry VI pub in Eton, we'd followed the Sunday lunch rush and all they had left in the kitchen were cheeseburgers and fish and chips. We lucked out. Both were fantastic.




Our trip to Eton, across the river from Windsor, inspired Bill to make Eton mess for dessert - a parfait-like serving of strawberries, whipped cream, and meringue pieces with a berry coulis. It was a perfectly refreshing ending to a filling meal of lamb leg roast and potatoes.

The next two mornings, Bill made French-style soft scrambled eggs with Janna's freshly baked rye bread, crust flecked with toasted caraway seeds, and poached eggs with roasted potatoes. Turns out Bill is a really good cook. I was treated like a princess in Chiswick!

I managed to not eat at McDonald's or Pizza Hut once during this trip, though I frequented both places a lot when I lived there (despite the mad cow disease scare). Instead, I ate beetroot, mature cheddar and rocket sandwiches from the cold case in the train station when I was on the go, and lots of bags of Walkers crisps (including a new flavor they're testing, not surprisingly, "Fish and Chips"). I also managed not to eat Dairy Milk bars every time I saw them in a tube station, unlike my normal breakfast on the way to class circa 1995. But I did try a peanut butter-flavored Kit Kat Chunky at Heathrow while waiting for my flight. I love trying regional variances in packaged foods (and fast foods!).

It's not that I can't find good coffee or good Korean in New York. Obviously there's an abundance of both here. But there's something about the context - the anachronism of it - that made the experience really special. And the combination of just the right amount of spice with something called "strong" cheddar (instead of "sharp") that's still kind of a novelty to me, even though I should be used to it after several visits to London, including one long-term stay.

But it's good to miss it. It keeps me coming back for more. And to discover how else the city has changed since the last visit.