Monday, July 09, 2007

The Good News From London

LA Food Crazy in the UK

My only excuse for not posting these past two months is that I've been busy, and traveling. I recently returned from a three-week long business trip to New York, London and Stratford. I came back with many tales to tell, of Manhattan publishing houses and West End theatrical intrigue and encounters with legendary Shakespeare scholars in Shakespeare's birthplace. But for my Food Crazy readers, I really have just one, albeit earth-shattering, item to report: English food no longer totally sucks.

In London, I was ensconced at the Arts Theater in Great Newport Street just around the corner from Leicester Square, where my old Reduced Shakespeare Company partner Daniel Singer and I were directing our newly-revised version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) to celebrate the show's 20th anniversary. (Yes, 20th... obviously we started performing the show when we were six!) The revival is going really well, thanks for asking -- you can see the reviews from the London press by clicking HERE.

Coincidentally, the Arts was the last place I performed the show in 1992. Back then, the neighborhood of the theater was a poster child for England's well-deserved reputation for crappy food -- bad pub meals, chip shops, kebab houses, Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC. One could take a 15-minute stroll to some decent Chinese in Chinatown; there was a Mexican restaurant in Covent Garden, Cafe Pacifico, that made a passable facsimile of Mexican food; and there was always Pizza Express.

But now, Great Newport Street is emblematic of the culinary Renaissance that has hit London. The four closest restaurants to the Arts Theater, all within a minute's walk of the 's front door are: a tapas bar; an authentic Japanese Okonomiyaki restaurant, a 50's burger joint; a Korean place with kickass kimchi-chili pancakes; and an outpost of Britain's own fast food sensation Pret a Manger.

What happened since I was there in '92? Simply put, London has caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, California for food freshness, seasonality, sustainability, and yes, even convenience. Right across the street from the Arts is one of the many outposts of Pret a Manger, or, as locals call it, Pret. As the French name suggests, it's ready-to eat food -- sandwiches, salads, wraps, and coffee -- but with a totally fresh and organic aesthetic. No preservatives, no artificial flavors, no frankenfood, no transfats... think Subway meets Whole Foods. Sandwiches are made fresh every morning in each individual store, and packaged up for the day's business -- in cardboard rather than plastic. There's no such thing as "shelf life" at Pret... any leftovers at the end of each day are given to charity. The All-Day-Breakfast sandwich of egg salad and bacon with watercress on whole wheat bread was something I took advantage of often. The crawfish and avocado sandwich -- after the addition of some much needed salt and pepper -- was worthy of the trendiest Westside cafe.

You grab your sandwich or salad from the deli freezer, take it to the counter and request your beverage -- which can include a Coffee Bean And Tea Leaf-quality espresso drink -- and you're out the door with a perfectly satisfying lunch.

My readers know that I'm crazy for Korean food, so you can imagine my shock and surprise to find a restaurant called Corean Chilli (okay, they haven't learned how to spell in the UK) on the nearest corner to the theater.

I was in like a rocket for lunch on our first day of rehearsal, and had a sublime version of the ubiquitous Korean egg-and-kimchee pancake. Perfectly cooked, and reddened through with a piquant tang that absolutely demanded something to wash it back. You guessed it: soju, just as chilled, refreshingly delicious, and sneakily alcoholic as you find it in Seoul or on Olympic and Vermont. (A bottle smuggled into the theater helped me get through the stress of opening night!) The side dishes, panchan, were a little less generous and varied than I'm used to here, but the sweet, grilled beef bulgogi and the bibimbap were just like home.

Directly across the street from the theater is Abeno Too, a Japanese restaurant specializing in okonomiyaki. Some of you may remember my earlier post about my quest, on behalf of my friend Kent, to find the Osaka comfort-food specialty here in L.A. The sauce-drizzled grilled cabbage and egg concoctions here were superior in every way to those in Little Tokyo. Made with Japanese precision and style on the stainless steel grill in front of you, the wasabi mayo and special okonomiyaki sauce were drizzed on, not haphazardly, but in a mandala-like design of concentric spirals that made it almost too pretty to eat.

Nice! Mine, with pork and scallop, two of my favorite foods but rarely found in combination, was simply fantastic.

Even Cafe Pacifico, still hunkered down in a side street, has come up in the world of Mexican food.

Mex food in the UK, even in London, used to be so hard to find and poorly executed (we're talking "enchiladas" made of a crepe filled with canned baked beans and white rice, and topped with catsup) that Sa and I would travel there from California with salsa, bags of tortillas, and cans of Rosarita refries in our luggage. (Note to self: don't drop luggage from a high place when filled with jars of Pace Picante. ) We once took a two hour train ride from Nottinghamshire just to have lunch at the Taco Bell that once graced Leicester Square.

No longer necessary. True, grocery stores still don't stock Mexican ingredients beyond boxes of stale Old El Paso taco shells and beans, but you can go to Cafe Pacifico and have a thoroughly credible Mexican meal. A pitcher of margaritas and a basket of chips with fresh pico de gallo started things off nicely. But I nearly fell off my chair when my order of "five assorted street tacos" arrived, and looked exactly like tacos I might get from a taco truck in L.A.

Good, too. Though the lamb was marred by a cloyingly sweet sauce, the carnitas and carne asada were both crispy and tender, the grilled shrimp juicy on the inside and nicely seared on the outside. The duck (foreground) was out of this world. All were garnished with perfectly authentic onion and cilantro, and a comfortingly familiar bottle of Tapatio stood on the table, ready to do its Tapatio thing.

Of course, the Indian food in London is as good as it has always been. My hosts took me to their local, Indian Ocean on Holloway Road in Islington. Look upon it and weep.

But the London culinary revival isn't confined only to restaurants.

My hosts had just finished planting a large herb garden, and treated me on my early-morning arrival to an omelette made with organic, free-range eggs, a bit of artisanal cheese, and tomatoes and herbs fresh from their garden. Their local grocery store, Waitrose, specializes in organic, sustainable foods, fresh local produce, and environmentally-sensitive household products. Even the scariest local pubs now generally serve a decent house wine -- though you'll still get the odd look for ordering it. And the week after I left, all of the UK was going smoke-free in restaurants and bars, so pub owners were nervously erecting outdoor patios and beer gardens that promised to give dreary old London a positively Parisian flair during warm weather... which, thanks to global warming, is becoming increasingly common.

But fear not, my culinary life in London wasn't all Asian food and organic veggies. I had an occasional pasty, a fish and chip or two. I even decided to re-visit the traditional English Breakfast. Turns out that those once-scary piles of pork sausage, bacon, roasted tomato and eggs make for a fine low carb repast, and now that I've swapped my glycemia-bomb former breakfast of cereal, fruit and yogurt for a more protein-based first meal, this (leaving aside the beans) was right up my alley. I even discovered that the mushrooms in your standard English Breakfast are likely some of the best to be found anywhere.

In short, this is no longer the London of greasy Chinese takeaway, gloppy pub curries, and overcooked vegetables. To my great joy and surprise, I returned from the UK a bit... just a little bit... London Food Crazy.