Has the Food Over There Really Become Edible?

Fergus Henderson, master of the "nose-to-tail" school of cooking.Photo: James Day

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.

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.”

Has the Food Over There Really Become Edible?