Friday, June 30, 2017

Blackbird Pie

British cuisine gets a bad rap. 

"It's bland.  It's all meat and potatoes.  It tastes like Grandma's insoles.  There's no creativity."

I beg to differ.  There is lots of flavor.  There's also fish and chips, which I suppose could be misconstrued by an idiot to be meat and potatoes.  There is epicurean creativity and who the hell eats their grandmother's shoes?  Besides her dog?

By the way, there is a difference between fries and chips.  Cause sometimes we got fish and fries instead of fish and chips.  I'll get to that in a moment.

Our first night on the ground we were quite travel weary and decided to simply walk down the street to our local thriving hub.  And there we found a very English, local thriving pub.  Most of the pubs, by the way, have this dark green and/or black with gold lettering standard look.   That way, if you're wandering about really hammered you should have no problem identifying one in a line up.

Besides the omnipresent fish and chips, most of the pubs and restaurants offered a variety of meat pies, among other things.  The pies are about the same size as the Banquet ones you can get in the freezer section of grocery stores here in the States.  But that's where the similarities end.

I had several different pies in several different pubs.  They were all excellent.  Blackbird is actually chicken but sounds like a song.  I also had a steak with onion and mushroom.  My lovely wife had a pie with goose, duck and pheasant in apricot sauce that night.  And there were many more varieties.  Possibly even a Sweeney Todd.  Hopefully I didn't have one of those, but if I did, I guess I can join the ranks of the Donner Party for really intimate dining.

The pastry was light and flaky.  And the gravy in the steak pie was swimmingly sumptuous.  This was no package sauce, nor was it a quick roux.  No, this was one of those gravies that has a couple precursors before they get to the main event.  Layer upon subtle layer of savory flavor.

Sure, you can toss together chicken giblets, lima beans and a couple carrots like Banquet, or you can shoot for the moon with a flavor extravaganza.  Who knew?  Flaky pastry and sumptuous gravy with every bite?  And it keeps warm throughout the entire meal all by itself? 

I had NO idea.  I am ordering a half dozen mini pie pans.  If you're lucky enough to get invited over for dinner this fall guess what we're having?

That first night we were waited on by an attentive young English girl who had spent a couple college years in California.  But other than her, we found many of the waiters to be rather indifferent.  Many don't expect a tip and they kinda treat you that way.  One has to be a bit aggressive in order to facilitate a meal that doesn't go on until tomorrow.

Speaking of meals that go on forever, we went to this thing called The Medieval Banquet.  I was made aware of its existence through this other thing called The London Pass.  Which turned out to be a pretty darn good deal for us.

The London Pass is a sightseeing city card for most of London's top attractions, saving both time and money.  You can purchase one for two days or all the way up to ten.  It includes over seventy attractions, including all the top ones like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.  We went the ten day route because it's impossible to cram everything into a couple days.  Even trying to do it in ten we ended up being brain dead from all the cultural input.  And even though the ten day is more expensive than the two, four or six day pass, I did some math and reckon we still saved over two hundred bucks.  And we didn't see half the things on the list.  You'd have to be the Energizer Bunny and/or snort a bushel of cocaine in order to see and do everything included with the pass in a ten day period.  Period.

The card also touts saving time by avoiding lines, but we were only able to by-pass lines at three  locations.  They were long lines-so that was good-but there's security now at just about every attraction and everybody has to get their rucksacks and purses searched.  Thanks terrorists.

Still, you know, FUCK YOU, all you fucking cowards.  Your little antics have not stopped us from going anywhere or doing anything we've wanted to do.  Sure, we're not going to your home turf in Iraq or Syria or where ever, but those shit holes were NEVER on our list.  So just FUCK. YOU.

Sorry.  Rant.  There was terrorist activity just before and just after our trip at locations we visited.  Those guys were lucky they didn't run into me and my marvelous rucksack full of marmalade.  They'd have surely been sorry.  And sticky.

I also splurged and for ten bucks I ordered the Dining Pass.  You can pass on that.  The first and only time we tried to use it we discovered all the restaurants that were participating and offering a discount have to be notified 24 hours in advance.  So, like, there's no spontaneity.  I mean, unless it's a big deal like a 60th birthday dinner in Paris, we don't book any meal more than a few minutes in advance when we're on vacation.

We discovered this advance notice requirement at a restaurant called "The Light of India", our only foray into Indian cuisine while in London.  This restaurant was highly touted and I have no idea why.  It was small, maybe a fifteen table establishment.  It was nicely attired, as were the waiters, but none of them smiled.  And they all unsmilingly tried to upsell us at every encounter.

"How 'bout some Cham-Cham with that Vindaloo?"

"Would you like Tikka with your Biriyani?


It might have helped if we had even the vaguest notion of what they were talking about.

The Dining Pass, if honored, would have given us a 25% discount off the entire bill.  Which would have amounted to about twelve pounds, or ten bucks, the amount the card cost.  But we were told it would not be honored because we didn't call 24 hours in advance. 

OK, so, the booklet that came with the card did say to call in advance, but NOT 24 hours in advance.  We didn't call at all, but this was a Wednesday night, not a weekend, and they had many open tables.  As a matter of fact, they still had open tables when we left.  They NEVER filled up while we were there.

And let me make one thing clear.  We would not have been there at all if the Dining Pass had not made us aware the restaurant existed.  I mean, it was a couple tube stops away from our home base.  Or anywhere for that matter.  We would NEVER have just stopped by.  So as far as I'm concerned the restaurant owed somebody something for us being there, but they unsmilingly said nope.  Probably in Indian too. 

We should have walked out, but I didn't want to play that game.  Besides my lovely wife was hungry.

And that's a major something I've learned about travel.   Never let your wife or partner get tired or hungry.  Because if either of those two events occur she might get a little grumpy.  And wife or partner grumpiness while traveling (or any other time for that matter) should be avoided at any cost.

I've since added pee break.  Because if she's really gotta pee she can get a little cranky.  I can easily find a tree or a tire, but you know those girls.  They gotta find a seat with walls.  Or an occasional bush-as long as no one else is around.

Besides receiving no conflict resolution with the card, the food was mediocre at best.   All the little bay shrimp in my curry were way over done, they were close to becoming the consistency of an eraser on a pencil head.  And my lovely wife's dinner, while palatable, was obviously not memorable.  We ended up not tipping the constantly upselling and unsmiling waiters, thus recouping about half the cost of the card.

We never tried to use the Dining Pass again.  Too much planning, too much bother.  I told them so too in the survey they sent after our return.

So, do get the London Pass, but don't bother with the Dining Card.  Unless you like planning out your evenings, days in advance.  Don't bother with "The Light of India" either.  Unless you like chewy pencil eraser heads.  It's highly over rated and nobody's happy.  Especially on Wednesdays.

For that matter, we would not have been there at all if our Jack the Ripper guide hadn't canceled on us.  We had signed up for a tour called, "The Blood and Tears Walk", put on by a guy that has written a book about London's bloody past.  But apparently he had to cancel because of a subway suicide, which sounds altogether rather ghoulish.  So we pulled out the Dining Pass book, hopped on the tube and had a one star dining experience.

The Medieval Banquet was kind of a bust as well.  As I mentioned, I discovered this existed through the London Pass.  And even though we received a forty percent discount that still wasn't enough.

The banquet is put on in a large brick warehouse on the docks near the Tower of London.  All the hired hands are dressed in medieval costume like they're on acid at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire.  Or wait a minute, maybe that was just me. 

Some of them sing, some of them dance and all the young lasses showed off cleavage.  There were also a couple of acrobats that twisted and contorted in amazing ways ala Cirque de Soleil.  Guests could even rent silly hats and other vestments of the day and get lost in the shtick, as long as they were partaking of the included with dinner free flowing ale and cheap red wine.  But that's about it for the positives.

The food part of the banquet deal was beyond subpar.  Every stranger at the boisterous communal tables got to share loaves of lousy dry bread (without butter) and then got treated to an overdone chicken thigh and leg.  Just one.  And it tasted like it had been boiled.  There were also some over done vegetables.  My ten year old grandson cooks better than this.  Salt would have been a huge, welcome addition.  Talk about Grandmother's insoles.

It might have been a better experience if we had partaken of the free flowing lousy ale or cheap red wine, but those days are behind us.  A number of patrons got into the shtick after enough of the cheap booze, but that falderal was lost on my lovely wife and I.  They get three stars (out of five) for entertainment, no stars for food.  Seriously, the food was horrible.

The rest of our dining experience(s) ranged from good to excellent.  All the pies I tasted were fabulous as were all the fish and chips.  For lunch in the lovely little hamlet of Windsor, I ordered this appetizer called Plateau de Pain.  I usually don't eat lunch, but come on.  With a name like that I had to. 

It turned out it wasn't some weird sadomasochistic food deal like I'd hoped, that last word is pronounced "pan".  Which means 'bread' somewhere.  Boy was I disappointed.  Nothing like a little BDSM for lunch. Or is that BSMD?  I get confused.

The dish was actually quite delish.  It was three slices of three different home baked breads with a butter that was infused with herbs.  I also tried Sausage and Mash at a pub in Cambridge, which could be construed weirdly as well.  If you have my mind.

I wasn't sure what "mash" was until the plate showed up.  I'm certainly too cool to ask.  I'd rather be surprised anyway.  Unless whatever's on the plate is still wiggling.

Turned out the sausage part was basic.  Three different kinds of sausages on a bed of mashed potatoes.  Which had a thicker yet creamier consistency than what you normally find here in the states.  No box mix here.  Possibly a little egg yolk.  Cream.  Butter.  It was quite good.

They also call ground beef "mince", short for "minced meat."  In case you wanted to know.

Fish and chips?  Fish and chips?  Of course, about four or five times.  Here, there, lunch, dinner.  Sometimes chips, sometimes fries.  How could we not?

I also had shrimp with capers.  Which I left on the shrimp because they were actually eyes.  I didn't eat the eyes. That didn't make any sense.

We've been fortunate now in all three of our European excursions to have a kitchen included with our accommodations.  I cannot stress how convenient that is.  Not that we've ever cooked a meal, I mean, we're on vacation.  But just to have a fridge and microwave available is fantastic.

Why?  Because we love going into foreign grocery stores.  It's almost like going into a Grocery Outlet here in the states, only gourmet.  You never know what you might find.  And if you're in a non English speaking country, with, like a whole entire different language, then it's really a blast because you have no idea what anything is.  We'll spend an hour or more in a neighborhood market, it's as fascinating to us as a museum.

The granddaddy of all department stores, Harrod's, besides having designer everything on its acres of floors also had a dazzling array of gourmet food items, from caviar to pheasant to pastry to tea.  And chocolate.  We spent an hour or two just gazing at all the food, which, if you've ever been to Harrod's, can range from costly to mortgage your house eccentrically expensive.  Seriously.  Some of that stuff is easily a hundred bucks a bite. 

The neighborhood markets are much better because you can actually afford the food. 

We had sandwiches in our room a couple of nights, as well as salads and snacks.  We also had instant coffee every morning.  Yes, instant coffee is kind of a thing over there.  So I'd make a couple cups of that soup every morning just to get us down the street to a real coffee shop.  There we'd grab some serious stuff and venture on our way.

And then there was Paul.  Sweet. Delicious. Paul.  Right across from Earl's Court Station.  Open til nine, every night.  Paul's, a quite obscene French bakery, offering sweet, passionate pastry delights for the true Sugarland junkie. 

Ah, yum. 

Tarts, tartelettes, cakes, pies, turnovers. 

Ah, yum. 

Paul's pulled off puff pastry perfectly. The lightly sugar topped apple turnovers were sublime.  After that first night when we stumbled in after dinner, Paul's became a regular every night occurrence. 

Yeah, even though I broke up with Little Debbie a few weeks earlier I had a nine day love soiree with Paul.  Every night I would savor two to three of his salacious, delicious creations.  And every night my taste buds and tummy were filled with sweet sugar bliss. 

I waited a couple weeks after vacation to have my glucose level checked.  I'm back down to acceptable levels.  It's amazing what cutting down from five portions of dessert a night to just one can do.  Or two, if Paul's is around the corner.  It's fortunate his establishment is a world away. 

The second best meal of the trip was also found in our local thriving neighborhood.  "Orowan", featuring Lebanese cuisine.  We ambled in at just the right time, a couple minutes before the last two tables were taken. 

My lovely wife ordered a main dish something or other with lamb, I had four appetizers for my meal that had nothing to do with lamb.  Everything was fabulous, even her lamb.  According to her.  I, myself, am not a lamb fan.

And even though the restaurant was small and crowded, all the waiters were smiling.  The atmosphere was buoyant, the food excellent.  We'll five star that entire experience.

We noticed there weren't many Brits working in the restaurant service, even some of the pubs.        Most of the places we ate in had foreign wait staff, which did add a little fun and challenge in ordering- even in an English speaking nation.  The most memorable was a forty something Russian lady with a sassy attitude.  Her service was on point and fun, even if we could hardly understand a word she said.

One place that did have Brits working was The Sherlock Holmes, a crowded pub we visited one evening after a day of art history.  We found our way upstairs to the restaurant and after a ten minute wait a long sitting empty table was cleared and we were seated. 

To mention they were understaffed would be an understatement.  There were two girls that I think were waitresses, and the gal that sat us was a hostess of sorts.  Who decided she needed to take a fifteen minute break after seating us with a line out the door.  And a couple more empty but dirty tables.

We were actually able to order drinks about ten minutes later, and then continued to watch as a debacle unfolded.  One of the waitresses was new and had not a clue.  People that were seated were waiting for their food, their drinks, their checks.  And there was a line out the door.  It was a complete cluster fuck.  By the time management came upstairs from the main bar to assist the entire place was on fire.  I managed to pay for our drinks and then we skedaddled, figuring dinner would take a week to order and then another month before it showed up.  Our departure opened up one table for a couple of the throng that was now leading out the door and down the stairs.

I think that turned out to be a sandwich night in.  Which, by the way, Europeans aren't that big on condiments.  You might get 1/2 teaspoon of mayo and mustard on the bread, but that's about it.  So have some extra beverage available to wash that puppy down.  And get a small jar of foreign mustard and mayo while you're at it.  Who knows, you might even get turned on to Louie Maille!

It was Samuel, my namesake's thirteen year old son who educated me on the difference between chips and fries.  Fries are the smaller, thinner cuts with square sides.  Like McDonalds.  Chips are the thicker cuts, more rectangular in shape and with substantially more girth.  Like many of the Americans who eat them.   And now you know.

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