As I continue on my gastronomic rampage, other differences between the two cities become clear. At my hotel, the One Aldwych, while addling myself with one of the 33 varieties of martini available at the bar, I meet a real-estate developer of serious and wide-ranging appetites, who lived on Madison Avenue for 23 years before moving to London. With the grand old Continental restaurants dying off in New York, he says, classic French cooking, at restaurants like the River Cafe and Le Gavroche, is better in London, and you’re a lot closer to Paris. In his opinion, the ingredients are better in London, too, and he doesn’t miss the theatrical hysteria of New York restaurants. “When you go out to eat in London, there’s a little more grace.” So what does he miss about New York? “There’s no Mexican in London,” he says. There’s no sushi in London either, no pizza (“If it’s pizza you want,” said Rayner, “fly back to New Haven”), no takeout food, no fresh ice cream, no sandwich shops worthy of the name. Even London’s new, highly touted chophouse turns out to be a tame facsimile, where they serve frosty mint juleps with a plastic straw.
On the other hand, I’ve never had dim sum in New York like the crispy, melty Mongolian beef at Yauatcha, where Carolina was the name of my Polish waitress with the emerald belly-button ring. At a new Sichuan restaurant named Bar Shu, I come across a dish called “Assorted Meats in Fiery Sauce” (“including sausage, tripe, intestines, bacon, luncheon meat and duck blood,” according to the daintily worded menu) that’s as grimly authentic as anything you’ll find in New York’s Grand Sichuan outlets. And then there’s the city’s vaunted Indian food, which is excellent provided you avoid all establishments where doormen wear top hats.
Restaurants in London are also mercifully free of Kobe beef, overwrought, architectural desserts, and preening bar areas the size of prison yards. The only time I ever hear that dreaded New York phrase “Let me explain our new menu” is at the “tapas-style” Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Maze, the menu of which is available to New Yorkers, in less original form, at Ramsay’s London Bar on 54th Street.
After four days of eating my ass off, I’m gobbling Tums and my jacket smells of pork fat and tandoori smoke. “Sit up straight,” whispers my wife, who’s flown into town to offer moral support. We’re at the high end of the city’s food chain now, at the Connaught, in Mayfair, home to yet another Gordon Ramsay establishment (there are nine), this one run by the country’s most prominent female chef, Angela Hartnett. There are six kinds of cologne in the men’s room of the Connaught, and a night in the corner suite will cost you exactly £2,029. I order the Dover sole, which rests in a creamy cucumber sauce dotted with caviar. My wife has the turbot bombed with bone marrow, and a buttery rendition of pommes Anna. Halfway through this exemplary, heart-stopping lunch, she puts down her fork. “I can’t believe you’re still alive,” she says.
I can’t quite believe it either. But like Livingstone in the jungles of Africa, I press on. In South Kensington, I visit the painstakingly overwrought restaurant of the city’s foremost culinary auteur, Tom Aikens. I dine on scallops laid over mashed oxtail, topped with a little nickel of blood pudding. There are fat Normandy oysters, lightly flavored with lemongrass and white-wine gelée, and a hen’s egg settled in a fluffy corn purée that causes the banker I’m with (in fancy London restaurants, you always eat with bankers) to clap his hands with glee.
On my last day in town, I stagger into Arbutus, one of Rayner’s recommendations, which opened ten months ago near Soho Square. “What’s good?” I ask the waiter. “The pig’s head, sir,” he says. I order it, along with a blizzard of other dishes. The pig’s head has been braised overnight in port, among other things, sautéed with chopped parsley, and served with sweet onions and whipped potatoes. It’s the best meal I’ve had in London, a perfect combination of local ingredients, old-fashioned English pulchritude, and Continental technique. Presently, the chef and co-owner, Anthony Demetre, emerges from the kitchen. Demetre visits New York regularly, it turns out. Lupa is his favorite restaurant, and he thinks Batali is a genius. He notes proudly that Danny Meyer was in for dinner last night. “We’re encouraging a more relaxed style,” Demetre says. “To be honest, we’d like to be like the restaurants in New York.” So is dining in London better than in New York? Probably not, we both agree. There’s more density in New York and more variety. There are more inventive mid-market restaurants (there’s no Fatty Crab in London, no Otto Enoteca, no Momofuku Noodle Bar), and the really snooty, expensive ones are more diverse and much cheaper. But the best food in London feels fresher and closer to the land than it does in New York. Demetre nods politely, then drifts back to the kitchen, while I fall into a bilious silence. “Of course,” I mutter to no one in particular, “it helps if you enjoy pig’s head.”