When I mention to a young, pork-obsessed chef I know that I’m off to London for a few days of serious eating, he squints his eyes, the way obsessives are prone to do, and gives a happy little sigh. “This time of year,” he says, “London is all about the pig.” Or bone marrow, he might have added, excavated from giant veal shins onto great rashers of toast, or dabbed, the way they do in the venerable Connaught hotel, on delicately cooked pieces of turbot. Or shockingly overpriced, Michelin-starred Indian restaurants where the $20 martinis are spiked with chutney and the doormen wear top hats. Or “eco-driven” haute-barnyard establishments like the Acorn House, in Kings Cross, where everything is righteously homegrown and recycled, down to the kitchen’s leftover carrot tops. Or high-angle dim sum parlors like Yauatcha, in Soho, where you can get slippery shrimp shu mai dumplings dressed with slivers of kumquat, and $18 pots of Buckingham Palace–approved tea, brought to the table by waitresses from Poland wearing emerald belly-button rings.
Ten years ago, you could have blitzkrieged through London’s decent restaurants in a day or two. Not anymore. Like New York today, the city is in the grip of a profound restaurant mania. London has its own restaurant-rich meatpacking district, its own insufferable superstar chefs (Gordon Ramsay and Tom Aikens), even a region, called “Vinopolis,” where you can wander among yuppified ale houses and wine shops swigging bottles of artisanal gin. There are 43 starred Michelin restaurants in London, compared with 39 in New York, and provenance (read “locally raised”) is the buzzword on every foodie’s lips. According to Jay Rayner, the genial, curiously un-dyspeptic restaurant critic of the London Observer, there is even a new steakhouse in town, the Hawksmoor, which in his humble opinion is on a par with the legendary beef palaces of New York.
So how does this new dining mecca stack up with New York City? It was my grim professional duty to find out. “Get on a plane, spend five days, eat your ass off” is my editor’s succinct command. Which is how I find myself, at roughly 6 a.m. Manhattan time, with my digestive time clock still hovering somewhere over the Atlantic, staring at a pile of haggis as big as my head.
The venue for this epic encounter is the Anchor and Hope, a smoky gastropub by the National Theatre. Unlike the faux gastropubs of Manhattan, there are no pictures of woolly sheep on the walls, no brightly painted carvings of gently smiling pigs. The menu is written up daily by a chef who has spent time in the kitchens of Languedoc. Already, I’ve tackled a platter of brawn (“It’s pig’s head, all cut up and pressed into strips,” explains Rob, the merry bartender), and, prior to that, a helping of ducks’ hearts simmered in sherry and served on a thick slice of toast. Now comes the haggis, a special for the Scottish holiday Burns Night. But it’s not boiled in the usual way or deep-fried or congealed in suet. It’s moist, almost fluffy: a delicate, even delicious mix of peppery spices, porridge, and pig’s blood. It’s served with mashed “tatties and neeps” (potatoes and turnips) and a shot of Macallan, courtesy of merry Rob. “Pour it over the whole mess, just like my old mother used to do in Edinburgh,” he cries, as I commence shoveling with my fork.
It’s my idea to start with the essentials of the London palate (“Peasant food, done properly and with a bit of care” was one restaurateur’s description) and work my way upward. It isn’t long, though, before I’m suffering from sticker shock and offal fatigue. At St. John, the famous East End restaurant run by Fergus Henderson, whose elemental philosophy of “nose-to-tail eating” has inspired chefs on both sides of Atlantic, I dine with a couple of hearty expatriate bankers on marrow bones bigger than any marrow bones I’ve ever seen in New York. They’re followed by pig’s cheeks tossed in watercress, densely flavored shavings of venison liver (served over boiled eggs), wheels of crisp Middlewhite pork belly dressed with stewed prunes, and a profoundly tasty beef-and-kidney pie, stuck with another log-size marrow bone.
Lunch the next day is at Bacchus, a small restaurant in the shabby-chic neighborhood of Shoreditch, touted by London critics as the local equivalent of Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50. The room is another converted pub, this one presided over by an intense, goateed chef from Portugal, an acolyte of the madcap Spanish gastronomist Ferran Adrià. I rashly order the “Aventura” tasting menu, a nine-course, three-hour marathon, which begins with sardine “sushi” spritzed with “rosemary sake spray” from a perfume atomizer, continues with a dainty portion of pork jowls obscured with edible flowers, and reaches its bizarre crescendo with a nice hunk of lamb shoulder touched with Japanese hijiki and a cloud of coffee foam. “I think I need a simple bowl of pasta,” I say, as I push the last plate away. “Fly to Rome,” replies one of the world-weary Londoners at the table. “Factor in the cost of the flight, and the meal will still be cheaper.”
He’s probably right. In New York, with its ever-larger, Wal-Mart-size dining establishments, restaurateurs make their money through volume; in London, a city of diminutive dining rooms, they do it the old-fashioned way, by jacking the price.