On Tuesday night last week, Open Table kindly invited a number of London food enthusiasts, including myself, along to Grain Store in Kings Cross to partake in their Transatlantic Tables evening. At the same time they invited a selection of New York’s similarly inclined addicts to dinner across the pond, connecting us through our love for our city’s food. After an evening spent eating Chef Loubet’s specially prepared menu we were challenged to write an open letter to New York, and those who love its food, detailing why we love our own city’s food so damn much, all for a chance to win a trip over there to sample its own delights.
Alright New York,
Your food is pretty good; I’ve had the pleasure of trying a small handful of places when I visited your city back in November of 2013. I got to walk around the East Village eating Lobster Rolls from Luke’s Lobster, experience the secrecy and unique hotdogs of Please Don’t Tell and the burgers from Black Iron Burger. I filled my face with a salt beef reuben from Katz Deli and even found somewhere to give me a chicken waffle grilled cheese sandwich. Brooklyn gave me the delights of buying BBQ by the pound at Fette Sau, which remains some of the best BBQ food I’ve eaten, and a night sat in the Brooklyn Brewery followed by a trip to the Meatball Shop to hungrily (and drunkenly) devour a plate of meatballs. I’m not even going to touch on all those fancy Michelin Starred restaurants you’ve got, because that’s just not my cup of tea.
But you know what is my cup of tea? The London food scene. I always feel a sense of pride when people use the old cliche of London being one giant melting pot of different cultures. It’s a city with such a vibrant mixture of people, cultures and their foods that it’s hard not to get caught up in it sometimes, and remember just how far the food in the city has come over the last 10-15 years, because don’t get me wrong, it’s not always been as impressive as it is today. Outside of a few highlights, it was a city strife with Angus Steakhouses, bad French cuisine, poor pizza and don’t even get me started on the state of the burgers. In fact, that’s something that can be said UK-wide. Thankfully, the city finally woke up and realised it wanted something more from its food – we wanted something to get excited about.
In terms of the burgers, we can probably have you guys to thank for that. We may have gotten a little carried away, and there are now more burger spots than people (this may not be true). But at its core the London Burger scene is one of the best around; its torch carriers; Bleecker Street, Meatliquor and Patty & Bun all champion staying local. Bleecker Street even have a burger that uses one of the most British of ingredients, a black pudding. In fact, the Bleecker Black won the Best Burger in London, no less. You can read a bit more about my rambling on burgers here, or you can take my word for it and sink your teeth into any of the ones the city has to offer. These burger bars have one main thing in common, a carefully selected sourcing of their meat. A huge pride in UK sourced beef, lamb and chicken shines through each of them.
It’s this sustainability and pride in local produce that I feel has helped push through the changes in the London food scene. Coupled with people being fed up of the aforementioned steakhouses and generic restaurants, and wanting to create affordable places to eat in areas not necessarily seen as desirable, London’s food revolution started to take back the city’s eateries. A prime example of this is E5 Bakehouse, who started in one man’s kitchen while he cycled bread around to a number of local clients, and is now in a number of arches under the railway in London Fields, an area which at the time was cheap and seen as undesirable. They expanded from one arch to 3, and now make up to 1000 loaves of Sourdough a day, sold in hours or still, to this day, cycled around East London. They are so keen to promote sustainability that they’ve even started milling their own flour, all sourced from carefully selected farms they hold a close relationship with.
This close relationship with where your food comes from was something that Bruno Loubet, the head chef at Grain Store, spoke passionately about during the Transatlantic Tables evening. Using his wealth of experience from different countries and cuisines he casts aside your notion of each and adds his own twist. With vegetables being central to everything, even the meat & fish dishes, it preaches sustainability and a desire to sing about the local produce of the UK. Each dish takes something you’re familiar with and adds its own twist, usually veg. The Ravioli on the evening being a prime example of this; organic vegetable ravioli in tomato consomé with herbs oil. With each individual ravioli inspired by the colours and flavours of a different vegetable, it spoke of a man experienced in spending his days tending a veg patch, sampling everything he’s grown and making furious notes.
This got me thinking about the vegetarian and vegan community here in London. I’m not going to get bogged down in talking about the social and environmental points, but more about how vegetarian, and vegan, is becoming less of an ‘also ran’ that people discard when weighing up their options. You’ve got long time stalwarts like Mildred’s, an institution in London who have now expanded to 3 sites, the rare Italian Vegetarian Amico Bio, offering Italian cuisine all sourced from the family farm in Italy, and a number of high end options from Vanilla Black and The Gate. On top of this you have numerous veggie & vegan cafes, tucked away in the boroughs of London, like Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green or Hornbeam Cafe in Walthamstow, happy to offer you a tofu scramble and veggie sausages. One of the very welcome newbies to the scene is currently ‘just’ a van, growing in popularity week by week; Club Mexicana. They’ve found a home with Street Feast and can be found at most of their sites, but run pop ups in kitchens across London. Offering completely vegan Mexican food their Pulled Jackfruit tacos are popular, but it’s their Vegan Cheese Fries that keep me coming back. Deep fried blocks of ‘cheese’ which ooze everywhere and taste just like cheese should. Then you have places like Grain Store as mentioned previously, who take veg and put it at the front, or places like Dishoom. Dishoom has been voted the best restaurant in London on numerous occasions by different sources. While it does serve meat, it is one of those places you can go and accidentally order an entire meal without any in it, and leave with no regrets. Their Black Dhal is famous throughout the city, and something I myself have tried to replicate on a couple of occasions. If the promise of the best dhal you’ve ever had isn’t enough to tempt you in, go for the Bombay Café style décor and bottomless chai.
That bottomless Chai is a feature of Dishoom’s breakfasts, something that the city has rekindled its love for in recent years. Egg Naans and Kejriwal have made Dishoom a favourite, which in a city dominated by crushed avocado on toast, is quite impressive. Breakfast, or should I say Brunch, in London is becoming increasingly popular. Places like the Modern Pantry are taking the classic breakfast styles and mixing through contemporary flavours (for instance: Kashmiri masala beetroot, carrot, potato & spring onion hash, endive, poached egg, yuzu & moromi miso hollandaise, toasted seeds) in a setting that’ll make you feel like you’re earning significantly more than you are, Or Caravan, next door to Grain Store, offering everything you’d expect from a modern brunch location with mountains of crush avocado on toast or jalapeno corn bread (they do small plates throughout the rest of the day too). You could probably breakfast every day of the week somewhere different for 6 months and not find somewhere to complain about. Whether it’s the eggs from Foxcroft & Ginger, the pancakes from The Breakfast Club or a veggie fry up from Gallery Cafe, there’s something for whatever mood you’re in.
To tie it all together, it feels appropriate to go back to the diversity I mentioned earlier. The city’s street food scene is where this really comes through. The likes of Street Feast operate a number of sites throughout the year and a couple of others do similar. Each of these converted spaces, from warehouses to carparks, boasts a baffling array of cuisines from every corner of the earth. You can sit in one courtyard and get anything from BBQ (Smokestak), Nitro Ice Cream (Chin Chin Labs, my favourite ice cream company, full stop, where else can you get Burnt Butter Caramel Ice Cream Sandwiches?), Mexican (Club Mexicana & Breddos Tacos), Burgers (Mother Flipper, Bleecker Street) or Seafood (Prawnography, B.O.B.’s Lobster). Outside of these food temples the city boasts every kind of food you could imagine. Even within the pizza scene there’s endless diversity. You could get a New York style slice from Homeslice, Sour Dough italian styled pizza from SoDo or super speedy and dirt cheap thin crispy styled from Pizza Union. The choice, at times can be overwhelming. You can find yourself trying to decide between a jerk chicken plate at Rum Kitchen, a bowl of pork broth ramen at Bone Daddies or even a Cauliflower Shwarma at Berber & Q.
As overwhelming as this already is, I’ve hardly even scratched the surface on everything I love about this city’s food. The markets (broadway, borough and ropewalk for example) alone could add another 500 words. London has left me spoilt for choice, and rarely disappointed. If you can drag yourself away from New York, I couldn’t think of a better place for you to come dine.