2011, Generally

In the past year or so, the London food scene has undergone a very tangible change. It’s not easy to describe succinctly, but from my perspective it looks like a sort of Americanization. Not in the sense of fast food empires tightening their grips on the British market, or that American food itself is becoming more popular (although that’s a big part of it); what I mean is that London is starting to look a lot more like New York or LA in terms of what and how people are cooking and eating. Just think of all the big trends of 2011: street food, good coffee, burgers, and craft beer went mainstream. Three years ago there were basically no good burger joints to be found in London, and only one or two specialty beer bars. Now we’re spoiled for both – even I’ve thrown my hat into the ring at BrewDog Camden. Plus, we’ve seen the rise of restaurants like Nopi, Spuntino, Pollen Street Social, and Viajante, which may not seem like they have much in common on the surface, but all their menus exude a playful, boundlessly eclectic creativity and a sense of exploration. They call to mind Yoon, Dufresne, and Chang more than Ramsay and Oliver.

Milwaukee burger trial at BrewDog Camden.

For years, I feel like the London food scene has been dominated by this idea that all good food is fine dining, and if it’s not fine dining it isn’t good food (unless it’s home cooked, but that’s different). In 2011 we saw that notion completely inverted, as fine dining took to the streets and lowbrow food worked its way into highbrow contexts. Diners seem to be less uptight these days, and more casual, honest, and adventurous in what they spend their money on. Beer is cheaper, more food-friendly, and more diverse than wine; there’s more to China than dim sum and duck; fusion cooking works when it’s inspired by flavor, not forced by concept; burgers don’t have to be “gourmet” to be good; great barbecue requires as much thought, practice, and care as French haute cuisine. These are all important lessons we collectively learned last year, lessons that New Yorkers and Angelenos learned many years ago. I’m not trying to be snobby or patriotic; there are obviously great things about British food culture that Americans would be wise to take on board. But I do think that until quite recently, most major cities in the US have been more exciting and more diverse food destinations than those in the UK. And I think the UK has taken note of that.

Not convinced? I submit a few more thoughts for your consideration:

  • In April, an American won the MasterChef title by serving burgers as a starter. (It was me.)
  • There is now a restaurant in London called Burger and Lobster. Burger and Lobster! And that’s all they serve! That sounds like Maine, not Mayfair.
  • My completely average corner shop here in Bounds Green sells Sam Adams, Morrisons stocks Sierra Nevada, and Tesco carries Goose Island.
  • Ramen is finally coming to the capital.

This last point is important. Ramen’s obviously not American, it’s Japanese, but it isn’t entry-level Japanese. For many people in both the US and the UK, sushi is the first Japanese dish we try, and the first one we come to love. The whole sushi phenomenon is a little bit vexing to me because it’s based on a frustrating contradiction: it seems exotic and sophisticated on paper, but more often than not, it tastes completely inoffensive and bland. Let me just clarify that good sushi is one of the most beautiful dishes in the world; if made with fresh, seasonal seafood and expertly prepared rice, it can be absolutely exuberant with flavor and texture. But for every Yatai there are a hundred outlets of Yo! Sushi or supermarket shelves hawking insipid pre-fab maki that tastes like nothing but rice. And poorly cooked rice, at that.

Because sushi so frequently lacks any flavor at all, it lacks flavors that may be unappealing or challenging. But for that reason, and because it’s fun to eat (even crappy sushi looks pretty and colorful), it’s a good gateway to more interesting Japanese cuisine. We come for the sushi, but we stay for the tempura, the pickles, or the gyoza (and we may even discover good sushi). We graduate from sushi and branch out into other kinds of washoku like okonomiyaki and yakitori. And then there’s ramen. Glorious, wonderful ramen.

If sushi is too often style over substance, then ramen is the opposite. Ramen is unrefined and rough; it isn’t delicate, healthy, or even particularly exotic; but what it lacks in terms of image it more than compensates for with soul. Ramen is one of Japan’s most rich and flavorsome foods, and also one of its most individualistic; whereas soba and udon are considered more traditionally “Japanese” and therefore subject to more rigid strictures, ramen is open to variation because it’s often thought of as not quite 100% Japanese. (Its roots are Chinese, and it’s occasionally still called “Chinese soba.”) Different regions boast different types of ramen, and within those regions, different shops sell endless permutations of that type. The question of which region and which shop makes the best ramen is hotly debated, with loyalties typically divided along prefectural borders.

In New York and Los Angeles, ramen has come to attract the same kind of devotion as it does in its native Japan. It started as an unsung staple among Japanese Americans (and dedicated Japanophiles), but soon caught the attention of the local press, and then the foodie community at large. With outposts like Momofuku injecting a dosage of modern coolness into an otherwise humble food, ramen has gone bourgeois, and it’s now as ubiquitous and essential an American urban food item as the taco or the hot dog. Of course, London has never had a very large Japanese community, so Japanese food has been slower to take off here than, say, Chinese or Indian. But by now we’ve all crossed the sushi bridge, and we’ve arrived in noodle country.

Doesn't that looks GOOD?!

It’s not that ramen didn’t exist in London until now – it’s just that nobody cared, not even the restaurants that sold it. There are a few dedicated ramen shops in Soho that churn out indifferent and totally mediocre soup, while the best ramen in the city has been shrouded behind a speakeasy-like veil of secrecy. Cocoro, Nagomi, and Roka all serve mighty fine ramen, but up until recently, none of them listed it on their menu. To be fair, Cocoro and Nagomi advertise in Japanese-language magazines and newspapers, which is how I found them. I think they just assumed non-Japanese folks weren’t interested, but I always figured that if a restaurant were to serve good ramen and put a little marketing behind it, the foodies would come flocking. And that’s exactly what’s happened with the ramen events held by Tsuru Sushi. So far they’ve generated quite a lot of buzz around their three previous ramen lunches, all of which sold out and received universally positive, sometimes gushing reviews from those in attendance.

When I first discovered Tsuru Ramen on Twitter, my eyes widened and I got goosebumps. It’s happening, I thought. I got a similar feeling when I first discovered Daikokuya in LA back in 2004, but this is exciting on two levels. I was happy that good ramen might become easier to find in London, but it also validated my hunch that there is a general ramen void that needs to be filled. I’ve been planning to open a ramen-centric izakaya since winning MasterChef, and the rousing success of the Tsuru Ramen events seems to be a good sign that the time is right for it. It is possible that ramen may be just a fad – but that’s what they said about sushi.

At any rate, the arrival of ramen, burgers, beer, and highbrow/lowbrow shuffling all makes me feel very at home; I guess it seems like Americanization because to me, it seems like America. London has always been a good place to eat out, but it’s just now becoming a fun place to eat out, and it’s going to be awesome to see what happens in 2012 – and to be a part of it myself.

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10 thoughts on “2011, Generally

  1. Stuart Lawson (@chillikicks) says:

    Nice post Tim. I’d add that eating out in London is starting to look a lot more like Sydney too, at least in terms of fun, price and quality. London just has that much more variety, love it. The last “special” dinner I had in London was Claridges a couple of years ago (yeah, I don’t get out much these days). The food was OK, but expensive, and BORING. Won’t make that mistake again, glad to see there seems to be so much more choice now. And long live the street food buzz!

  2. barrkel says:

    Are you sure it isn’t just knowing more about London? Because I remember lots of good burger joints run by Antipodeans, and visiting them more than two years ago.

    I’ve also been to Viajante, and won’t be going back; far too much emphasis on almost inedible seafood.

    • barrkel says:

      Replying to myself in lieu of editing – I have to concur with AA Gill’s review in the Sunday Times re Viajante “it is food that is constructed by people who won’t have to eat it, and made for the worst of all kitchen orthodoxies, to show off and intimidate”. Several courses were unbearably disgusting. It was a labour to continue through the full 12 for the occasional delicious morsel.

      • Tim says:

        Where exactly are these good burger joints run by Antipodeans? And more importantly, what kind of good burgers were they serving (i.e. were they more In-N-Out or more GBK)? And why did nobody take notice? This last question is important to the point I’m making – it’s not so much that good, simple burgers suddenly appeared in London, it’s that people suddenly started to enjoy and appreciate them.

        As for Viajante, I enthusiastically disagree with you and Adrian. That quote says far more about Gill as a writer and an entertainer than it does about Nuno Mendes and his restaurant. Does Nuno show off? Of course he does – but no more than any other chef aiming to be creative and expressive in a sophisticated and artful way. (Ramsay, White, and Blumenthal come to mind. Oh, and so does Gill and most other professional critics.) Regarding the claim that Viajante is intimidating: first of all, it’s laughably hypocritical considering who said it, and secondly, it’s a total misapprehension of the chef and the restaurant. Nuno makes very personal food, that’s certain. It’s unusual but also sincere and full of heartfelt passion, and because of that, it’s not for everyone. I don’t think it’s the best restaurant in the UK or even in London, but as a chef who likes to experiment and as a diner who hates being served boring, soulless food, it gives me great joy to see it do well.

        Your personal views that there have been good burgers in London for years and that Viajante sucks are somewhat beside the point anyway. My point is that London is now a more exciting, diverse, unpretentious, and fun place to eat than it was when I arrived in 2008. And I am not the only one who thinks so: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2012/jan/20/cheerful-2012-street-food-revival

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