|The baked goods in the UK are stunning -- and not just at Harrods, where the pictures in this post were taken.|
Priorities for our time in London:
Owen: see Transformers 4 on an IMAX screen
Isabel: go to Top Shop
Mark: visit the Courtauld Gallery
Jennifer: eat at St. John restaurant
|something off with that slice|
Everyone got their wishes, depressing though it was to grant Owen his. Everyone was happy with their wishes, but me. Our dinner at St. John was memorably dreadful. Fergus Henderson, the founder of St. John, has been a leader in the nose-to-tail/whole hog eating movement and I own one of his cookbooks. I’d made a reservation weeks in advance and prepared my timid family for the challenges they might find on the menu.
The place was airy and cold, with wood floors painted gray and stark white walls. It felt, as Owen put it, like an asylum. That didn't have to be a problem, but the staff reinforced the chilly mood. The service seemed actively designed to make you feel unwelcome, uncool, and uneasy. Mark: “Lots of waiters are supercilious, but only a few manage to be supercilious and inattentive.”
I tried to illustrate the many ways in which we were ignored and condescended to by the staff but the blow-by-blow narrative sounded like a self-pitying Yelp review so I deleted it. You’ll have to take it on faith.
How was the food? The bread was outstanding, dense and sour. My beef mince on drippings toast was delicious, but zero attention was put into presentation and it was hideous, a lumpy brown puddle that covered the entire plate. Isabel’s forbidding salad, an unadorned tangle of stringy greens, resembled a ball of tumbleweed, while Owen's pale, flabby poached chicken came with grainy white beans so poorly cooked that even I wouldn’t have served them. Mark’s slices of tepid roast lamb looked and tasted like dinner at our house the day after Easter. We would have ordered dessert (blackberry trifle and Eccles cake) but our waiter let us sit there with the fat congealing on our plates for 20 minutes before he finally wandered over to see what we needed and by that time we were ready to go.
It makes sense that a restaurant dedicated to serving ox heart and lambs kidneys might be one where they take few pains to make people comfortable. Or are they actively trying to make people uncomfortable? It was a contemptuous and punishing restaurant and I wonder if there isn’t a streak of masochism in contemporary food culture that has made this place such a hit.
|Donuts are everywhere in London, though we only tasted one, a leathery miniature cronut.|
|I love the detail on the pecan pie crust. That, I could do.|
We left London and went on to Banbury, a town you might know from the nursery rhyme or as the birthplace of the Banbury cake, recipes for which date back to 1615. Tasting Banbury cake was item #1 on my Banbury agenda.
Believe it or not, it's a bit hard to find Banbury cakes in contemporary Banbury and I had to ask around to find a bakery that sold them. My first Banbury cake was a flat, flaky, oval pastry with a thin currant filling, heavily dusted with sugar. It was about the length and width of a croissant and had the spicy antique flavor of mincemeat. It was lovely. Later that day, we went to lunch at a cafe and for our shared dessert I ordered a Banbury cake. This one was a lot fatter -- more like a dumpling -- and packed with spiced raisins and candied peel. It came hot with whipped cream and I urged Isabel to try it. She frowned and began a little speech about how raisins “shouldn’t exist.” I said to Mark, “C’mon, try it!” He took a flake of pastry from the top and said, “I did. If something was actually good it would have made it to the United States by now.”
|The cream came from a canister and the caesar salad arrived with a bottle of supermarket dressing on the side. When in Banbury!|
They’re a wonderful family in other ways, but as eating companions, hopeless.