AN AMERICAN LONE WOLF IN LONDON: FOOD

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone complain about the blandness of English food, I’d actually be able to afford to live in London. 

 

Tourists have come back from England unimpressed with the cuisine.  If you are like me, a student living in London, you are working with a small budget. 

That means that until you get a place to stay with a proper kitchen, you’re going to be spending nights going to the corner chicken and chips shop and paying three pounds for a nice, greasy meal.

Don’t knock this.  Chicken and chips are almost as popular in London as fish and chips, and many places in London – though not all – cook a decent version of it.

I had only thought that I’d tasted proper chips until I moved to the UK.  There are plenty of pubs and small businesses that somehow turn a lonely spud into a dish of deliciously, crisp golden wedges.  Restaurants like The Sea Cow and chains like the Golden Hind are experts at fish and chips.

As delicious as this traditional staple food can be, man does not live on fast food alone.  Once you get your flat situated, you’ll still want to venture out and enjoy the great cuisine that London has to offer, even if you do not find traditional English dishes enticing.

Authentic International Dishes

If you search around enough, and ask questions, you’ll find that one of the great aspects of British culture is their earnest desire to experience an authentic version of dishes from around the world. 

That is not to say that there aren’t some dishes altered to fit the British palate.  For example, though Indian curry is the staple dish of England, you’ll find that restaurants will serve dishes that are mild rather than spicy.  (Weaklings beware of Vindaloo.) 

And there is no doubt that the supermarket versions of Indian curry are nothing like the delicious bowls of spicy sauce one might get in India.  Still, Indian restaurants in residential areas of London tend to have wonderfully delectable meals and soft, freshly baked naan bread.

Chinese food is also more authentic in London than one would usually find in cities like New York.  And though there some Italian restaurants in the States that are absolute perfection, you can’t wrong by visiting some of the best ones in London.

If you wanted to treat your palate to an extraordinary indulgence, you could not go wrong with The Terrace.  A restaurant set in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, famed Chef Patrick Williams creates mouth-watering blends of French and Caribbean cuisine. 

But if you are keen on experiencing authentic English dishes, then you may find it useful to stick with foods that don’t reach too far up the weird-o-meter.  Toad in the hole, for instance, a breaded dish with pork sausage is a tasty treat.  Imagine pigs in a very big blanket.

Triffle, a dessert made up of layers of custard, jello (what the British call jelly) and whipped cream, is delicious when done right and can be found almost anywhere including supermarkets chains like Waitrose.  Yorkshire pudding is an appetizing little breaded treat that goes well with dinner foods. And England is especially famous for its meat pies (known in America as pot pie.)

Wherever you eat in London, you’ll typically do better by dining in residential areas rather than tourist spots.  It’s cheaper and neighborhood restaurants strive to keep residents coming back.  If you’re looking to save money, you can get great traditional cuisine in Pubs for a reasonable price.  Try a few places until you find one that suits you.  Be assured that your palate will be eventually satisfied and that England’s reputation for food is only misunderstood until one’s had the chance to sample it for more than 10 days.

So if you’re venturing out this way and planning to stay awhile, don’t be afraid to try something different.  And remember, you don’t have to be American to relate to these experiences, and you don’t have to live in England to understand that every place on earth has its own special nuances. And the world keeps going ‘round.

French Cuisine in Brussels

When my friend Chris and I hopped off the Eurostar Train at Gare du Midi in Brussels, the first thing we noticed was the smell of Belgian waffles.  We had both been really excited about the trip.  And though we were eager and willing to embark on this journey, we’d had no idea that it would turn out to be, more than anything else, an expedition for our taste buds. 

After checking in at the Hilton hotel and getting directions and maps from the concierge, we started on our way.  La Grand Place was in walking distance and Chris with his navigating nose and the use of a map, was guiding us toward it.

By then, we were both ravenous and tried to find a place to eat, but kept coming up empty.  It seemed ages before we figured out that restaurants stay closed after breakfast and don’t open back up until 3pm.

By the time we found a Le Grand Café open, we didn’t much care that it was a tourist trap, crowded with sticky floors and slow service.  Though it wasn’t Brussels best by any degree, it was pretty good.  It became clear to us that the French see food differently then the rest of Western civilization.  We cook food, they create it.

In a touristy place like this, one wouldn’t expect anything to excite their palettes.  We could barely read the menu, which had no English subtitles.  But I reasoned that the word saumon meant salmon, and so we both ordered it.

What we received was a combination of rich sauces and stuffed fish that was a treat for the palette, as well as the eyes.  Dressed with what could have only been fried onion-skins and carrot strips, the presentation of food was colourfully decadent and we tucked in eagerly.  The sauces complemented the food so well that each bite was like an explosion of flavour in our mouths.

Ready for more

Satisfied but ready for more, we ordered dessert.  I had Tatin Tarte (Apple Tart) with vanilla ice cream, and was shocked to find the quality of the ice cream better than any I’d ever eaten in London restaurants.  The ice cream was from a Swiss company called Mövenpick, known for its strict charter prohibiting the use of any chemical or artificial additives.  The tarte, unlike many I have tasted before, was sweet and rich enough to stand on its own, with no need for accompaniments.   After lunch, I found myself paying more attention to the cities rituals regarding food.

We couldn’t help but notice that in the tourist area of Le Grand Place, a square in the middle of the city enclosed by some of the loveliest and ornate architecture Brussels has to offer, there was at least three chocolatiers on every road.  A fierce competition between chocolatiers was taking place, but the tourists always won.  Most of us got two or three free chocolates before we stepped foot in the doors.  None of the chocolate shops were lacking in customers.

Elisabeth’s for example was bustling with tourists; no doubt on account of the funny female duo behind the counter, both of them urging the customers to taste their newest creations.  At first, I crinkled my nose suspiciously when handed a chocolate green tea-flavoured treat.  Yet, finally disarmed by the saleswoman, I popped the strange concoction into my mouth and was greeted with two rich delicious flavours that I couldn’t have guessed would complement each other so well.

 A few hours later, as night fell over the city, we began to experience that all too familiar combination of growls and pangs growing in our bellies.  We stepped onto a street near the Arcade in Le Grand Place and immediately felt as if the city were answering our every appetite. 

At first, so many colours greeted us that we had to wonder just what kind of food was being sold on this narrow cobble-stoned strip.    The first restaurant had a replica of Brussels’ most prized statue, the Manneken Pis. The small metal boy stood naked, as water sprang from him onto a lovely exhibit of king sized prawns, lemon wedges, asparagus, oysters, clams and crab claws, caressed by crunchy red and green lettuce leaves.  It was an awesome sight, and I began to imagine that the seafood in Brussels was fresh and delicious. 

 The restaurant just across from it was called The Lobster House, which we ultimately chose for its brick-laid kiln built right in the middle of the dining area.  It was so quaint and warm inside, and our waiter was clever and funny.

I had read in a tour guide book that Belgium was actually responsible for creating french fries, and that the word ‘french’ in this case is the verb meaning to cut into thin slices.  Belgium, in fact, is famous for many foods and beverages including mussels and beer.  Our mouths watered as we waited for our meals.  It took an incredibly long time for our food to be served, which we started to believe was a trend in Brussels.

When our platters of grilled fish and seafood, frites, mixed vegetables and pastas finally arrived, we dived in gleefully.  The seafood was indeed fresh, and we imagined that our grilled salmon and prawns had been happily swimming in the ocean that very same day.

 Filled to the gills

 Filled to the gills, we walked off the tight feeling of fullness swearing to never eat again.  Yet, within two hours, that now familiar smell of Belgium waffles wafted towards us from several spots in the centre of Le Grand Place.  ‘We can’t possibly leave Brussels without having a Belgium Waffle,’ Chris suggested.  Before long, the flaky taste of buttery crust and rich chocolate had gripped us both.

The next morning, just as we were leaving for the station, we stopped to buy chocolates and treats that we claimed were for family and friends.  Yet, in truth, it was in a very small way, an attempt to bring a taste of Brussels with us. 

But the cuisine in Belgium is more than a taste of good chocolate or the smell of a waffle.  It is an experience best had in a French city where food is celebrated daily, and best shared with those who can appreciate the beauty of great food.