“It’s just that Scottish food tastes like it was cooked on a dare!”
I laughed when I heard this on a Saturday Night Live skit years ago. I mean, offal cooked in sheep’s stomach? But then Hubby and I went to Edinburgh for Honeymoon Part 3 (part 1 was in Napa; part 2 in Normandy; and we’ll continue honeymooning the rest of our lives) in 2003 and I fell madly, wildly in love with the city, the people, and most of all, the food – even, and absolutely haggis. Scotland’s long alliances with France shows up in its haute cuisine and we were deeply enamored of our experiences at such restaurants as the Witchery.
Now, maybe you can subsitute “English” for “Scottish” and I might find the thought more believable: meat pies, steamed suet puddings and stunningly heavy foods; but on further reflection, I think this is also unfair because the truth is, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually eaten what might be considered traditional “English” or “British” food. Then came last Tuesday.
In town for business meetings, we were taken to a pub for dinner our first night. Now, a pint of plain (Guinness) I can take any day of the week with joy; but accompanied by rarebit and Spotted Dick is just asking for trouble. I had ordered an Angus burger, copping out to what I imagined would be the easiest dish on the menu to tackle – but what came out were two pounds of flattened beef on a hoagie roll. Too horrified to pursue the “burger,” I ate the chips (fries) instead. The next morning found several of us in a state of pain – the food the night before being entirely too heavy, too rich, too much. And none of us had had enough sense to eat carefully -- we gorged. On top of this, we were struggling with the time change and the gargantuan meal the night before probably didn’t help.
“I want to know something,” I muttered to Greg the next day. “How is it possible that a nation whose empire once stretched across the world…could be so maligned by and for its cuisine?”
“I have a theory,” Greg said.
“And that would be?”
“Seafaring nations have lousy cuisine.”
“That’s so not true! What about the Norsemen?”
“Ooh. Good point. But the Portuguese!”
“Name one Portuguese dish.”
“You know, you might be on to something.”
I brought this up with my sister over dinner Thursday night.
“I disagree,” she said. “English food has changed a lot. The fact is – it’s simple food, simply cooked and thoughtfully prepared – that’s what real English food is now.”
And I know this – there are culinary geniuses in English kitchens doing amazing things. One of my stated ambitions is to eat at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant! But Kaly persuaded me otherwise Thursday night when I arrived.
“How are you feeling?” she asked when I told her I wanted to try for a Gordon Ramsay dinner.
“No, I meant, how’re you doing food wise?”
“I’m okay, but still kinda finicky. The tastebuds are still undergoing rejuvenation.”
“Okay, then let me suggest that you save Gordon Ramsay for another trip. The fact is, unless you’re 100%, it’s a waste of time and money. So let me take you to my favorite places.”
She took me to a small French bistro where I ordered Bisque d’Homard, gratin dauphinois, haricots verts and a pan fried sea bass. This was probably one of the better bistros I've been to - the food was honest; well prepared and not bludgeoned to death with sauces. In fact, the Bisque d'Homard was a filled ravioli topped with a spoonful of caviar on a bed of wilted spinach with intensely flavored lobster sauce spooned lightly into the bowl. The bisque was so rich, so fulfilling, that being served as a sauce rather than a soup was more satisfying. The gratin bubbled with cream and Gruyère and the green beans...oh...there are so few things more earth shattering than well sauteed beans.
“You must pinky swear never to reveal this place to anyone.”
Kaly regarded me solemnly, holding out her little finger. I paused from inhaling my white chocolate mousse dessert to stare at her.
"I'm serious. You may not divulge the name of this restaurant to anyone.”
So there I was, 35 years old and pinky swearing that I would never reveal the name or location of the restaurant to anyone.
The next night, she took me to J. Sheekey’s, located in the theater district (this restaurant, I am allowed to divulge). The restaurant specializes in seafood and my skate -- panfried -- was simple and succulent. Kaly ordered a tomato salad with parsley and shallots that astonished me with its bold, decisive flavors.
"How is it possible that tomatos can taste like this in January?" I demanded.
"This," Kaly said as I devoured my dinner, "This is what eating in London has become."
Okay. I believe.