Thursday, May 22, 2014


I’ve been in England for a spell, doing the kind of things I do in England; eating, drinking, walking, being a writer: it’s not the worst.  I’ll probably do more than one post about my eating adventures but here to start with are three small observations of the English gustatory life.

On my second day in London I had lunch in the Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain.  This, it seemed to me, is everything a good modern English restaurant might be; a great looking room - in this case with Whistler’s restored mural The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats (1926–7) on the wall.  Hard to beat that.

 The menu has depth, tradition and reinterpretation, a bit of nose to tail, a hint of foraging.  Starters included nettle soup, smoked eel, and devilled kidneys but I went for the “Air-dried Old Spot pork, with celeriac and chervil root slaw” which was a bit more salami-ish than I’d been expecting, though Old Spot is fine by me in just about any form.  Safe to say I’d never eaten chervil root before.  I have eaten and indeed grown chervil but I never even noticed the root; my error, surely.

Main courses were slightly less interesting it seemed to me: spring chicken, Cornish pollock, and black bream, but I couldn’t resist the “Lamb faggot, with minted peas and broad beans.”  If nothing else I knew it would allow me to tell my American pals I had a tasty faggot while in London.  How we laughed.

I also thought the service was terrific in the Rex Whistler Restaurant (though some reviews suggest it isn’t always that way), and it was noticeable that none of the waiting staff I encountered were native English.  Maybe there’s something in this.

On the last day of my visit we went to Walton on the Naze, in Essex, a rough and ready and likable seaside town.  We were in search of fish and chips and we ended up at an anonymous fish and chip shop where the food was decent enough, though the 10p extra charge for mayonnaise or tartar sauce seemed a bit mean.

We sat outside on a patio (“Not for public use”) that was shared with the traditional seaside restaurant next door.  There may have been some commercial connection between the two, but I wouldn’t swear to that.  We were there for a little over half an hour from two o’ clock onwards, and we noticed that in that time nobody went into the restaurant next door, though at one point a woman, a waitress I supposed, or possibly the cook, came out, sat at a table and ate a slice of cake, then went back inside.  
        That was the only bit of business observable until a couple of minutes after 2.30 at which point three middle-aged ladies arrived and went into the restaurant in search of lunch.  A minute later they came out again: they were too late.  The restaurant closed at 2.30 and the woman who’d eaten the cake now reappeared and locked the front door of the restaurant as the three ladies walked away.
         Was this a bit of absurdist drama?  You bet.  Or perhaps Catch 22.  “We’ll stay open until we get some customers and then we’ll close before serving them.”
         There was something thoroughly, familiarly English about this, something that some of us hoped was behind us.  How well we all remember going hopefully into a pub with a big sign outside saying “Pub Grub” only to be told, by a delighted barman, that service ended a few minutes ago.

         Another manifestation of petty spitefulness (or so it seemed to me) was to be found on the napkins in Pret A Manger (which sometimes seems to call itself the less Frenchified Pret).  We all know that Pret a Manger is part of the new breed of eatery that employs largely meaningless words like good, natural, handmade, etc. to describe itself, which is pretty annoying, but to be fair, the Posh Cheddar baguette (above) that I had there was perfectly fine.  It was the napkin (aka serviette) I had trouble with. 

First there’s all that predictable greenwash about avoiding “obscure chemicals” which I guess means that well-known chemicals are just fine.  But it’s that line “If Pret staff get all serviette-ish … please give them the evil eye” that really gets to me; encouraging customers to scowl at staff.  Is that a good thing?  At first I thought there was something quite novel about this, but then I realized the truth is that in England, customers and servers have been giving each other the evil eye for centuries.  It’s called tradition.

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