Beyond beans on toast
Defying its reputation, English cuisine takes on surprising sophistication, freshness, and variety.
LONDON — On almost every corner of this city, there's a cafe selling standard English grub: fish and chips, "jacket" (baked) potatoes topped with cottage cheese or tuna, and the ubiquitous beans on toast.
Since the beans are always straight from a can and the toast is, well, toast, you'd think people wouldn't battle the famous London weather for a dish they could prepare at home for half the price. But obviously the English aren't following one of my rules for dining out, which is that you should always order something you can't make yourself. The problem with beans on toast, complained a columnist for a London newspaper recently, is that it's too difficult to get the beans and the toast ready at the same time.
English cooking still suffers from a stodgy, postwar stereotype that, like a lot of clichés, is both true and false.
The corner cafe still has a homey, '50s-style decor with food to match, for example. But there's more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the philosophy of the Colonel Blimp types you see perched at its counter.
And since you've already located your raincoat and matching hat, why not skate past and try one of London's "gastro-pubs," where the fare is surprisingly sophisticated, fresh, and varied.
According to "The Rough Guide to London Restaurants," the first gastro-pub was The Eagle, a down-at-the-heels joint that was taken over by food-minded management in 1991 and, as a result, is now almost too popular for its own good.
You find a table, appoint someone in your group to guard it, and shoulder your way to the bar to place your order. The chalkboard menu changes constantly, but on any given night you might choose, not fish and chips, but a whole wild sea bass with chicory salad.
One evening I had a roast pigeon that I chased around my plate with knife and fork before picking it up with my hands and devouring it caveman style.
A mile to the north, one finds The Duke of Cambridge, a gastro-pub with a restaurant area as well as wooden dining tables in the bar. Here seared scallops with pepperonata and new potatoes might be offered as well as an inch-thick pork chop accompanied by Swiss chard and carrot purée.
Many gastro-pubs serve organic food, and The Duke is famous for this. Its principles are posted on signboards downstairs; in a half dozen visits, I still haven't made my way through them all, but one salient point is that the owners believe in using local sources to reduce environmental damage associated with long-haul trucking.
My favorite gastro-pub, St. John, is more gastro than pub. The main draw is its immaculate, well-lighted dining area. Here, waitstaff in white-shirt jackets and floor-length aprons look like the food scientists they are, kind of; they are happy to explain the menu, and much of it needs explaining.
"Widgeon" is duck, for example, and "Stinking Bishop" is a cheese, which one might figure, is especially smelly. (Like nearly all gastro-pubs, St. John offers at least one vegetarian dish.)
The chitterlings are especially tasty. They are not served stew-style, as they are in the American South or rolled into a sausage like the French andouillette, but instead are twisted into a loose roll and charred on a grill.
Consistent with its traditional approach, St. John serves everything except hooves and claws. Its logo is a blissfully sleeping pig, who sleeps perhaps too blissfully given his eventual fate, yet is an apt symbol for this gastro-pub's snout-to-tail outlook.
And while desserts at most of the places mentioned here tend to be familiar standards, when at St. John, I always follow the if-I-can't-make-it-myself rule and have an Eccles cake, a sort of upside-down mince pie served with a slice of Lancashire cheese.
But the new English cuisine is not to be found only in gastro-pubs.
One night my wife and I crossed the river to the Tate Modern to look at Anish Kapoor's mammoth installation "Marsyas" and then went upstairs to the museum's Café at Seven, where we dined on partridge and black pudding and watched the moon rise over St. Paul's Cathedral.
Another day, we shopped at Fortnum & Mason and lunched at the Fountain, the charming ground-floor restaurant populated mainly by tweedy locals. Here, what appear to be professors of Ancient Sumerian Hieroglyphics tuck into steak and ale pie and Welsh rarebit, followed by ice cream sundaes that any 10-year-old would pawn his collection of Harry Potter novels for.
One of these bewhiskered septuagenarians wagged his finger at me when I scattered a few coins in an attempt to elevate the built-in 12.5 percent service charge to something like the American standard, and I felt like a third-former who hadn't done his lessons when he thundered, "Don't ruin it for the rest of us!"
While London weather hasn't changed, the food has. Beans on toast will always be there, of course, and that's probably a good thing, because, as my neighbors say, sometimes nothing else will do.
But if you have to dress up like a deck hand on a North Sea trawler to go out anyway, you might as well set your compass for something more adventurous.