Reputations are tough to shed, especially when they are most often uttered with a snigger of superiority.
Try saying, “I’m grabbing a bite to eat in London” to most Americans and watch the sneers twist upon otherwise kind and generous faces. Have these people ever been to London? Okay, maybe they have been, but maybe they were dining at the Hard Rock Café, I don’t know.
It was true 20 years ago, I’ll admit that, but the same could be said of many cities. Now the struggle in London is deciding which restaurant you’ll prioritize on your visit. That includes deciding which of them you can or will afford. London is expensive, be wary. Of course, there are the ubiquitous Indian restaurants, as well as Pakistani, Malaysian, Szechuan, Vietnamese, Thai and, well, you get the idea. Aside from fish and chips, you can eat cheap here too.
But I can’t help it; there are so many excellent spots here that I want to try as many as I can. Arbutus, for instance: last night I had the best grouse I’ve had since, well, since I was here a year ago and ate at the nose-to-tail icon St. John. Lightly dressed in as mild a mole as you can imagine (maybe they don’t see a lot of real mole in the UK), it was nonetheless delicious, with ridiculously flavorful mushrooms and some fried corn, along with a little buttered toast thing covered in force meat. I slurped down a Spaetburgunder (that’s German for Pinot Noir) from the great Meyer Nakel and was even happier when, midway through my dish, a server dropped by a little bowl filled with greens and another force meat crouton.
The salad (and my citrus cured trout) both came with little crunchy roasted grains. Turns out they were buckwheat and they made for a fun texture in the midst of the greens, like you thought you’d crunched on a piece of sea salt but got an earthy flavor instead.
Needless to say, I started with rock oysters when I visited Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House. Oysters and Lustau Manzanilla Sherry — that pretty much defines a perfect lunch for me. It was sunny at the Borough Market (sunny London, who knew?) I wandered from food stall to food stall, and after grabbing some amazing cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy, I moved on from oysters and Sherry to grilled mackerel with chopped fennel.
It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t too dear either. I counted a dozen other restaurants nearby that I wanted to check out, but then I have only a few days. That’s London food the way it is now.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column to The Star’s Food section.