When you go somewhere, there are things that you expect are going to be there. There is a picture in your mind, a set idea of what the world you’re entering will look like. With me, I do a lot of research on places, so my expectations are usually fairly accurate. It sometimes means spoiling surprises for myself, but it does mean that I most know what is coming.
In arriving in London, most of my expectations have been met. There have, however, been a few things that have shocked. They are just little surprises, small things that have struck me based on, to be honest, not a lot of observation.
So accept them with a grain of salt, but here are my three biggest surprises about the London food scene.
There are some amazingly good noodles around
I expected good Indian food (though I’m not convinced I’ve found it yet). I expected good French food. I expected pretty decent kebabs, reasonable Italian, and maybe some ok US barbecue.
For some reason, though, there were some cuisines that I wasn’t particularly expecting to be great in London. One of the ones at the top of the list was Japanese.
Turns out, that expectation was very wrong. It’s not just that there is some good Japanese food in London. It’s that some of the best food in London at the moment is Japanese.
There are two restaurants in Soho causing all the stir. Each have taken a style of noodles and worked at making them as well as they possibly can.
The first, Koya, is all about udon noodles. Thick and meaty, served with or without broth and a number of different toppings, it’s an exciting bowl of food. Some options are traditional Japanese flavours, and others are more British in origin, such as the special of roast pheasant, mushrooms and cabbage that I ate.
The other has a very small menu, and specialises in ramen. Tonkotsu has made a huge impact on this city, with the rich, deep pork ‘tonkotsu’ broth in their trademark bowl of noodles delivering an unbelievable depth of flavour. With only four bowls of house made noodles to choose from, plus a few sides (including some stunning fried chicken pieces), this is fast becoming one of London’s favourite cheap eats.
I don’t know why I didn’t expect great Japanese. Noodles are a global trend right now, so this city was sure to be right in the middle of things, but for some reason it didn’t click with me. It was certainly a happy surprise.
There are only three pub menus in London
When I first went into a pub here, the menu looked pretty good. It was a nice looking, quiet, local pub type of place, serving cider and tarragon battered fish, pork and chorizo burger, sausages and mash, chicken and ham hock pies, and so forth. All were good, simple pub dishes.
The second pub I went into impressed me a lot less. Clearly a cookie-cutter chain style pub, the menu had their larger fish’n’chips plate called “the Codfather”, and a “Big Ben Burger”. Very much a tourist operation, it was pretty dull. When I wandered past another pub advertising the same badly named dishes, it was to be expected.
The third pub I went into, however, again looked like a small, independent place. Cute, cosy, with some interesting beers on tap and boardgames behind the bar, it seemed like a place with its own spirit. But then, I looked at the menu.
Cider and tarragon battered fish. Pork and chorizo burger. Chicken and ham hock pies. The whole menu was identical, even down to the descriptors used on each dish. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good menu, and I understand that pubs have good reasons for using menu consultants.
What surprised me was the lack of a desire to be individual. The pubs have so much character in terms of décor, or atmosphere, but then the food is identical. I look forward to finding the places that do their own thing.
The organic pig is winning
In Hyde Park there is a tiny little sausage stall. They sell a basic sausage in a bun, with some caramelised onion. Condiments are on the side, so you can choose what else you want on it. It’s all a very simple operation, with one slightly surprising factor.
The sausages are organic.
Yes, in a park-side sausage stall, they’re using meat from organic, boutique farm raised pigs. It’s not just there, either. From pubs to restaurants to back street cafes, organic pork seems to be served everywhere. The message is clearly getting through.
I don’t know why the success here has been so much greater than at home. Maybe it’s the influence of chefs like Fergus Henderson who for many years have focused on only cooking happy pigs, and serving every part of them. Maybe it is the continued TV work of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and even Jamie Oliver, championing organics and ethical eating. Or perhaps it is the central place of pigs in British cuisine, where is seems to me to hold some of the same romantic position that lamb does in Australia.
Which is great for so many reasons. It shows that ethical eating can be commercially viable, and that people who go out to eat do care about the welfare of the animals. From the gastronomic side it’s exciting as well, because it means that everywhere the bacon, the sausages and the other pork dishes are almost universally excellent.
That is something that deserves celebration.