Sunday, August 03, 2014

We have house sitters, thieves, just to be clear

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.

34 comments:

  1. YOU ONLY TASTED ONE DONUT?! Sophie would have spent her own money rather than miss out on the ones pictured, same with the cakes....Sorry about your dreadful St. John experience. I want the Yelp version :) So happy to see your post from abroad.

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    1. Unfortunately, I am not a teenaged ectomorph! Donut consumption must be limited. Isabel did taste more baked goods than I did, but she's really a scone girl.

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  2. Yelp version - and thieves? Huh? Details, please! (My husband thinks Mark is hilarious!) best, Ida

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    1. If I may clarify the title, she is addressing potential thieves. "Just to be clear, thieves, we have housesitters."

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    2. Doh! Lol! Well, that makes good sense! For some reason, I thought she had been robbed by her house sitters!!! ROFL! :) Thank you for the clarification, Alison. :) Best, Ida

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    3. Gosh, I hope I wasn't robbed by the housesitters! Mark is really, really funny.

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  3. The first time I was in England, in 1991, the food was so so so so terrible everywhere I went that I ate a spoiled sausage roll in Oxford and didn't realize that it had gone bad because it tasted just exactly like everything else. {The breakfast at the hostel where I was staying in London was so scarily disgusting I thought I was on Candid Camera or something.} I got horrific food poisoning and was sick for hours, but I had to pull myself together because I was staying with friends and they had hired a babysitter to go for a rare evening out in my honor. We got to the restaurant and I was sitting there, queasy, barely upright, when one of their friends got it into her head to order HAGGIS. So there I was with food poisoning, stomach roiling, watching someone eat a sheep's stomach. UGH. {But it does make a story I still enjoy telling.}

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    1. That sounds nightmarish. Being sick in someone else's house and then having to fake it through a challenging meal? Awful. I'd heard and read that British food was really wonderful now, that all the horror stories were ancient history. I would say it's 70% wonderful. Overall, I'd actually put it slightly below the USA.

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  4. Jennifer, love your last sentence---this is a thought that echoes through your posts, historically. I truly love your sense of humor!

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  5. Well, Isabel has a point. Raisins are a terrible thing to do to a grape.

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  6. I have never heard anything good about England's cuisine, and it doesn't sound as though you really have anything good to report either. I hope you find something scrumptious, Jennifer.

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    1. Oh, it's pretty good! I'd heard things had changed and they have, but it's not, you know, France.

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  7. I remember being very disappointed with food and service in London. Servers were neglectful and unfriendly, often incompetent. The baked goods and cakes were all very dry, with ultra-sweet, lean frostings. I grew up on moist, rich American cakes (mostly from boxed mixes!), and couldn't understand what was wrong with the English. Our local cafe, for example, served an apple slice they were famous for, but it was damp and tough pastry topped by unpeeled, sloppily cored (I often found bits of core and once found a sticker) apples with an insipid, overly sweet crumble topping with so much cinnamon it was dusty and bitter. It can't have helped that I had moved to London from Italy, where everything pretty much tasted fantastic. It mystified me that London caffes, run by Italians using expensive Italian espresso machines, produced lackluster espresso drinks. I can't explain it. But the takeaway is, you don't go to the British Isles for the food. I hope you are having a great time!

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    1. I started to think that they just have a different service tradition -- that waiters aren't supposed to hover. That's a great description of the apple slice. I can almost see it, with the bits of core.

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    2. I think you're right about the different tradition - I remember years ago here in the Netherlands, trying to convince an American he wasn't being discriminated against, waiters ignore everybody. There's a theory that when tips are a smaller part of wages, servers are less friendly.

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  8. Several years ago I went to London for a week (alone) so didn't want to eat at a fancy restaurant. I found I liked the "jacket potatoes" baked potatoes, you choose the topping. I'd have mine with cole slaw. I had a very good bottle of white wine in my hotel room and that combo filled me up and made me happy, with little expense.

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    1. Lots of jacket potatoes. We don't do that here, do we.

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  9. I was in London two years ago and found great inexpensive places to eat. Even the Starbucks had much better baking over there! It is easy to eat well and cheaply in London! Yes the baked potatoes are grea ad so is food from M&S and as I said any coffee chain offers great sandwiches and baking. Pret a Manger is good too. Compared to my trip in the early 90's this last I ate very, very well for less than 25.00 a day!

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    1. We found it really expensive, but maybe that's the fluctuating dollar. And the food WAS good. Just this one restaurant was a big downer, partly because my expectations were so high.

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  10. It makes me sad to read your post and some of the comments....we went back to live in the UK for a couple of years just recently and were blown away by the good food.....in lots of areas....a vast improvement. And no, Mark, not really, since based on your comment about if it was good it would be in the States by now......the US would be eating decent bacon! Sorry about the restaurant though :(

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    1. Mark was only saying that to be obnoxious -- he doesn't really think that. He'd argue strenuously that he DOES really think that, but it's all part of his schtick.
      The food was mostly really good. You are correct.

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