Sterns in London

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By Jane and Michael Stern

Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine

When we told food-savvy friends we were going to London to eat, their eyes sparkled as they reeled off all the great new restaurants we should try. When we explained that our assignment was to spend a week eating traditional British food, the common reaction was a gagging sound and exclamations on just how foul it is: unspeakable, repulsive, boiled, tasteless, gray.

We had never been to London before, and our idea of what Brits eat had mainly been formed when we were researching our first cookbook, Square Meals, which focused on nursery food. We fell deeply in love with the work of British author Mrs. C. F. Leyel, whose 1936 Diet for Children advocated maximum butter consumption and further explained that “cinnamon and sugar are always wholesome accompaniments to butter.” What’s not to love about that dietary philosophy? We headed for London eager to try sticky toffee pudding and bread sauce, jam roly-poly and apple crumble, not to mention great hunks of roast beef.

First stop: Wiltons (55 Jermyn Street; tube: Piccadilly Circus), a fish and game restaurant in posh St. James’s that opened in 1742. The dining room is full of ridiculously rich-looking men carrying on conversations peppered with “head office …board members …national transport …merger …trip to the Scilly Isles.” We might feel intimidated if we weren’t already being treated like the Duke and Duchess of Sternshire. It has come to the attention of our server that Jane’s rather large American behind does not fit her rather small English chair. With deferential whispers and the dexterity of a magician turning a top hat into a walking stick, he presents a new chair and, ahhh, it fits like a throne. Lit by a few flutes of cool Champagne, we dive into such upper-crust fare as Scottish lobster Thermidor and Dover sole. On the side come creamed spinach and buttery gratin dauphinois potatoes. Nothing is overcooked, nothing is undercooked, nothing is cutting-edge or surprising. It is just right. Mrs. Leyel would give a thumbs-up to dessert: maximum butter, sugar, and cream in the form of a swoonfully rich bread-and-butter pudding, served inoffensively tepid. At meal’s end, we invent a three-stage amuse: a sip of coffee followed by a teaspoon of chunky tan Demerara sugar crystals from the sugar bowl, then a spoon of unspeakably rich ivory-hued double cream from the pitcher. Our server smiles benignly as we eat the bowls of sugar and cream. She is a nice nanny.

“Let’s have tea at The Ritz” is something we never thought we’d hear ourselves say, but here we are at 5:30 (having made reservations the requisite three weeks in advance) in The Palm Court (tube: Green Park) under a rococo ceiling of gilt and crystal chandeliers. To accompany our Lapsang souchong and jasmine teas, a three-tiered server is positioned on the table bearing crustless finger sandwiches of smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese, and egg mayonnaise with cress. On the plate above are warm raisin and apple scones with Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry preserves, and above that are pastries and “fruits of the forest” compote with English cream. By this time, Jane is convinced it is cream rather than damp air that makes English women’s skin so pretty. God save the cow.

The next day at lunch, we eat our first grouse. “It is one of the few truly wild animals we have left,” explained Ritz chef John T. Williams. “Grouse is not farmed, and our grouse live amongst heather, which gives flavor and aroma to the meat.” And how! Carved tableside so you don’t have to worry about bones, the little bird radiates an opulent perfume that reminds us of tanned leather; its meat oozes earthy gravy when poked with the tines of a fork.

Sweetings (39 Queen Victoria Street; tube: Bank, Mansion House), a 100-year-old fish and oyster house in the City of London, is noisy and crowded but discreet in an old-Brit sort of way. When we enter, a waiter wearing a starched white coat and black trousers asks to take Jane’s jacket to put on a wall hook. But its lack of a loop for hanging troubles him: “Madam, may I hang it by the seam at the base of the collar?” he asks. Tables, shared with strangers, are spread with white napery; ancient wooden chairs have the Sweetings “S” carved in their backs. Alternate accommodations are at oak counters where a pin-striped clientele hoists silver tankards of ale. The menu is heavy white cardboard that makes us think of an invitation to a Victorian seafood banquet: roes on toast, potted shrimps, fried whitebait, Cornish brill, scampi with bacon. Glistening West Mersea oysters are firm, meaty, and intoxicating. The fine flesh of fried plaice fillets is enveloped in parchment-thin crust. Jane is out of her mind just reading the names of the desserts: spotted dick, steamed syrup pudding, baked jam roll. Bread-and-butter pudding arrives with a beaker of pale-colored custard. “Do you think they would bring some cream?” Jane whispers. “I need it.” She has become an English double cream junkie.

We were frankly thrilled by the prospect of roast beef at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand (100 Strand; tube: Charing Cross, Embankment) even if one smarty-pants friend had described it as the Mamma Leone’s of London. Yes, tourists crowd the chandelier-lit, oak-paneled Grand Divan along with locals in search of red meat cut from massive ribs of Scottish beef that are rolled to the table on a silver trolley. The man in the toque with the carving knife is Giuseppe Zanré, who has been cutting and serving in London’s top beef houses for 45 years. When the joint he is carving has no meat rare enough to suit Michael, he summons another one from the kitchen and slices juice-dripping, bright red slabs from the center of the roast. The plate is a British deluxe-dining cliché: beautiful, bland beef glistening with juice accompanied by an airweight sphere of Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, and Savoy cabbage. What is really good here is coarse-cut horseradish, which Zanré tells us is the first thing he attends to when he arrives in the morning. “I use British and Swedish roots,” he says. “One is too bitter, one is too sweet. I combine them and mix them with mayonnaise and cream.”

We realize that, like Jane’s beloved cream, we are floating at the tippy top of the gastronomic order; and so, being roadfooders rather than royals, we forsake wild grouse and frivolities of strawberries at The Ritz to find commoner cuisine. Our first stop Selfridges (400 Oxford Street; tube: Bond Street), the newly stylish department store where restaurant choices range from sushi bar to pretzel parlor. We seek out the is Brass Rail, a legacy of Selfridges’ more plebeian days, whose menu lists sandwiches of salt beef, oxtail, and pastrami. You watch the sandwich being constructed at the head of a short cafeteria line, and although the carvers work at a leisurely pace no New York deli patron would tolerate, they assemble meat expertly, piling on thick-cut slices in a pattern that is tall but stable. Salt beef, which is what we know as corned beef, has a gentle, fatty luxury (unless you request lean), whereas the pastrami is tongue singeing, coated with a dense crust of crushed hot peppers. We take our sandwich-laden trays over to one of the nearby tables and look at shoppers bustling along just beyond our fenced-in (by a brass rail) lunchroom.

Despite our stacks of guidebooks and a file folder full of suggestions, the best guidance we get comes from London cabbies. They know where everything is, even when we don’t know what it is we’re looking for. We explained that we had heard about a classic old fish-and-chip shop called The Golden Hind (73 Marylebone Lane; tube: Bond Street, Baker Street) on Marylebone. “Eh, you mean Marylebone Lane or Marylebone Road?” the cab driver asks. We have no idea what we mean, but we tell him that it’s been around since 1914. “Ah, mate, you want the old ladies’ fish-and-chip shop.”

The sparsely decorated chippy is virtually empty when we arrive at 6:30 P.M. but fills up almost immediately with a wide range of people, only a few of them old ladies. Nearly all eat the same thing: a plate-wide hunk of haddock encased in brittle, ale-colored crust that vents steam as soon as it is severed to expose moist white meat. On the side come fried potatoes and a mound of mushy peas—dried peas that have been soaked long enough to acquire a fermented smack, then boiled into a lumpen, leguminous green mass.

Mushy peas are the kind of irretrievably unfashionable English food that people make fun of, like the “liquor” that accompanies meat pies as a mushy pea alternative. We learn about liquor from another taxi driver, whose advice we seek about where to have pie and mash. Without hesitation, he spirits us to Bermondsey, on the south bank of the Thames not far from Tower Bridge, and a gem in the rough called Manze’s (87 Tower Bridge Road; tube: Borough). The cabbie, a Cockney himself, informs us, “If you are hungry, you want double pie, double mash. And of course you want the liquor.” Liquor? we wonder aloud. “That’s flour, water, butter, and parsley; in London, you have your pie with liquor. Mushy peas are for the Scots.” He also suggests a helping of stewed eels to accompany the meat pie. “They look foul, I know, and there’s people from elsewhere in England who wouldn’t eat them, but to a Londoner like myself, they are lovely!”

Manze’s is an archaic storefront with green tile walls and harsh fluorescent lights. Prices are the lowest we find all week; the menu is minimal—pie and mash and eels (stewed or jellied)—and the beverage list includes an astoundingly pungent sarsaparilla, served hot or cold in a coffee mug. When your turn in the queue comes, you tell a uniformed woman behind the counter whether you want one or two pies and one or two orders of mash. She selects the pies (at our cabbie’s suggestion, we ask for well-done ones) and uses a trowel to scrape double orders of dense mashed potatoes onto the plate. A ladleful of gravy-thick, avocado-colored liquor is poured between the pie and the mash.

+The pies’ dark crusts have an irredeemably doughy chew, and their filling is austere beef without a hint of spice. Salt, pepper, and vinegar are all on hand, and stewed eels add zest, but it’s the liquor that makes the plate right. It is gravy with a veggie punch, dowdy and tonic, a soft green blanket of succor. We use hunks of crust to sop the last of it from our plates, then stroll out to the street in the sated state our cabdriver enthusiastically called “London fed.”

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