Young British chefs are currently concentrating on local, seasonal products. A pleasure tour through London shows: The country’s cuisine is better today than it has been for ages.What’s he drinking? “Whole milk.” Hastily, James Lowe, 39, takes a sip. His restaurant, the “Lyle’s”, which opened four years ago in the Tea Building in Shoreditch, where Lipton was once quartered, is filled to capacity. The four-course set menu costs 59 British pounds – the ambience with vintage Ercol chairs and industrial flair is priceless.
Good British food was long regarded as non-existent
Lowe herself doesn’t get to eat anything. He is also dog-tired: “My one-year-old child hardly sleeps at the moment.” And another “child” named “Flor” is already on his way: bread and pastries made from flour ground in “Lyle’s” will play the leading role in the restaurant that will open near Borough Market in summer.
The chef is a representative of a young guard of chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs who today offer what was long considered non-existent in London: good British food. Lowe relies on local producers, on high-quality products with a lot of taste of their own and on a preparation that does justice to the latter. On this evening there will be white asparagus with walnuts, anchovies and grated cheddar and – as a special of the day – the head of a brill, a flatfish that is cooked crispy on the charcoal grill in the open kitchen.
Renaissance of British cheese
Lowe also has a clear stance on fish. “Where to eat fish ‘n’ chips well? Are you serious? There is no such thing!” You won’t find anything like that in this city. Yes, at “Scott’s” in Mayfair the quality might be right, “but whether they can prepare it is another question”. Lowe works with three fishermen who are on their way early in the morning along the south, west and east coasts. No nets, of course. He only got four copies of the brill that day.
Lowe purchases the raw milk cheese, a “Baron Bigaud”, a soft, recent reference to the French Brie, which is available for dessert, from Neal’s Yard Dairy. Cheese lovers in London come across this name again and again. Founded in 1979, the speciality business is largely responsible for the renaissance of unpasteurised British cheese straight from the farm. Today the company cooperates with around 40 companies from all over the kingdom.
Sourdough bread and craft beer are waiting in line
In addition to the main store in Covent Garden, a Neal’s Yard cheese boutique has recently opened in the Spa Terminus Market in Bermondsey, south of the Thames. Once again, the ambience is captivating with tiny shops, quartered in the arches of an old railway viaduct and always open on Saturdays. Here, residents pursue the British’s favourite pastime, queueing. They queue in front of Little Bread Pedlar for a locally baked sourdough bread or a Danish with rhubarb, get fresh city honey from The London Honey and get artisanal “table beer” from the microbrewery The Kernel.
And at a tasting at Neal’s Yard they can show how different cheese can taste, even if it comes from one and the same farm. The “Cardo” is “pretty, bright, lemony”, while the “Tymsboro” is more subtle, “but with a strong salty note at the very end,” says Phil, who served beer in a pub before hiring a cheese shop. Today he even experiments with raw milk himself. “I’m not completely free of talent,” Phil says with an ironic undertone.
Nothing for the squeamish
Neal’s Yard cheese is something even St. John doesn’t want to do without. Although the address has long had cult character, 25 years after the opening of the parent store near Smithfield Market, the place is still a kind of refuge for conscious connoisseurs without fear of contact. Owner Fergus Henderson is also here regularly. Before the first guests show up for lunch, he passes by for a piece of seed cake and a glass of Madeira.
The cheese can be found in the “St. John” for example in the “Welsh Rarebit”: Montgomery’s Cheddar” from Somerset is melted for this traditional Welsh dish, mixed with Guinness beer, butter, flour and mustard powder and spread on a slice of bread. Then there is a dash of Worcestershire sauce, which, as the waiter notes, “brings every dish to life”.
Fergus Henderson also advises to try the crispy pork cheek with dandelion, the marrow bone from the grill and braised ox kidneys with bacon and mash. The fact that “St. John” is the pioneer par excellence in nose to tail is noticed by anyone who enters the historic premises of this former bacon smokehouse and holds his nose in the air. This is nothing for particularly prudish people.
Henderson’s philosophy for cooking is simple: “Enjoy limitations!” Limitations should be embraced. “You shouldn’t mess with nature too much,” says Henderson, who calls himself the “mother hen” of the farm and likes to use the word sad for things like discarded lemon ends or disregarded innards of all kinds.
When he had his wisdom teeth removed many years ago, his mother cooked him a puree – from woodcock. The fact that pig’s feet and squirrels also end up on the plate in the restaurant decorated with a Michelin star is part of the standard programme. Only British wine is on the menu of the “St. John” – for obvious climatic reasons – in vain.
Connected in spirit
Even Phil Bracey, 34, doesn’t sell any of them. But the wine bar “P. Franco” on the Lower Clapton Road, where the Australian sells low-intervention wines, as natural wine is popularly called today, is extremely popular and is also appreciated for the range of food, which follows the Bistronomy concept. Bracey is currently oscillating between the “P. Franco”, the freshly opened “Peg” in Hackney and the “Bright” at London Fields Park. The latter’s open kitchen also produces a lot of seasonal, predominantly local dishes.
As is the case in many hip western restaurants in the upscale segment, there is also an East Asian influence, as in the case of “Katsu Sando”, the Anglo-Saxon approach to the classic Japanese schnitzel sandwich. Besides there are also Tagliolini fatto in casa with porcini mushroom butter and black truffles – and interestingly also white asparagus with walnut and anchovies. Whether coincidence, homage or plagiarism, the fact shows how small the scene is, how close the companies are to each other. The James Lowe mentioned at the beginning has nothing but highest praise for the “Bright”.
What is also noticeable is that many of the chefs who turn the culinary world in the metropolis – especially in East London – upside down were students at “St. John”. And just as you can’t get around Fergus Henderson’s restaurant, you can’t get around Heston Blumenthal, 52, one of the pioneers of recollection and reinterpretation of historical regional dishes.
The best sandwich
“The British cuisine is in probably the best position since the Georgian era these days, says Blumenthal (among others “The Fat Duck”, “Dinner by Heston”) on the phone. “At that time, all chefs in the palaces and mansions were British or English, before they were replaced by French chefs in the Victorian era,” says the celebrated 3-star chef. At the end of the conversation, Blumenthal winds the Jewish snacks on Brick Lane and their salt beef sandwiches into a wreath. What’s even crazier, however, is what a certain Max Halley is working out in the Crouch End in the north of London. The 37-year-old former history student has worked in various restaurants, including those with stars, and believes he has found the solution for the perfect sandwich.
Good fish ‘n’ chips – is there any?
A flying visit to the tiny, trash-cool “Max’s Sandwich Shop” in Crouch End, Arsenal Territory, makes you want more. The composition “Turkey M@therf*!ng Tikka” in the in-house Focaccia bread is a small revelation and proves what Halley preaches: “It all depends on the presence of six components”. If a dish contains warm ingredients and cold, crispy, soft, sweet, but also sour ones, a kind of culinary trigger point is activated: “Our brains tell us that what we eat is delicious”. The sandwich is the ideal food for this theory, as all the above-mentioned components can be found in one bite. As sober and serene as that sounds – Halley’s calculations seem to work.
Just like at “Max’s Sandwich Shop” in London, there are many places where the offer, the quality and the experience are being worked on. In the “Corinthia”, for example, the five-star hotel by Hungerford Bridge, Austrian Food and Beverage Director Benjamin Hofer has dedusted the afternoon tea. The china, the porcelain tableware, comes from Richard Brendon, champagne glasses and chandeliers are from Baccarat. And when eating homemade scones and finger sandwiches as well as pastries from the trolley, there is a debate about where to get the better coffee, at Allpress or Climpson & Sons. About which is the best gastro pub in town and which the best gin bar. And about whether something like good fish ‘n’ chips exists or not.