One of the best parts of the Olympic Games is the way network TV covers the host city. No matter where it is, pre-Games coverage includes a breathless narrative of the country’s proud traditions, its friendly people and its position for a stronger tomorrow over gauzy shot after gauzy shot of sweeping vistas and laughing children.
Sometimes, this kindergarten-teacher approach to world geography can be enlightening. After all, how many people knew what a Sochi was before it was named the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics? I’m looking forward to seeing some good scenes of Bob Costas trying a local delicacy (probably not vodka, sadly, though it is Russia’s most notable foodstuff) and a few majestic snowy mountain ranges when those Games roll around.
However, when the event lands somewhere closer to home, either literally (Salt Lake City? We get it, they’re not all Mormons.) or culturally (Vancouver. It’s Seattle, but cleaner.), the coverage starts to seem almost parodic. This is what we’ve been treated to this past week in London.
Everybody in the English-speaking world knows Great Britain—heck, they colonized most of ’em to begin with. We don’t need the Sesame Street montages of Buckingham Palace guards with those furry hats and busy street scenes of a melting-pot culture almost as diverse as New York City’s. And we certainly don’t need to watch Mary Carillo try this crazy thing called fish and chips—it comes wrapped in a newspaper! Knock me over with a feather.
There is an enormous wealth of British culture that has been overshadowed in international popular culture by those furry hats and fried foods for decades. British food, particularly, has come out of the closet by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years, overcoming its reputation of being as bland and soggy as the weather to revel in local produce, farmhouse traditions and that melting-pot resource of international spices.
There’s so much of it, in fact, it’s found its way to New York. April Bloomfield has been a one-woman cheer team for British food here since her first restaurant, The Spotted Pig, opened in 2004 in the vein of the gastropubs that had revolutionized London. Now, her John Dory Oyster Bar (1196 Broadway, 212-792-9000, thejohndory.com) is a more accurate representation of the state of play across the pond these days. Impeccably fresh fish and shellfish is handled with a light touch and strong flavors—a salad of marinated sardines, cucumber, melon and cottage cheese is a beguilingly fascinating combination for its simplicity—and the nose-to-tail sensibility shines through when the occasional special whole roasted fish head is offered.
The menu also reclaims a few unglamorous old favorites from the Motherland as is now all the rage. On a menu that changes regularly, two constants are kedgeree, a colonial bastardization of the Indian khichri, a rice pilaf with smoked fish and mild yellow curry powder, and Eccles cake, a buttery pastry filled with currants served with a wedge of Stilton.
Uptown, the gastropub spirit has been re-reinvented at Jones Wood Foundry (401 E. 76th St., 212-249-2700, joneswoodfoundry.com) with menus not only for lunch and dinner but for toast as well, the in-between-meals (and between drinks) snack more filling and less dainty than tea-time. Scotch eggs are the world’s gift to the drinker, hardboiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat then fried, and the true patriot can get Marmite, the potent yeast spread whose savory depth and slightly molasses-like sweetness inspires spontaneous renditions of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The London Candy Company (1442 Lexington Ave., 212-427-2129, thelondoncandycompany.com) is working to redeem the much maligned British candy industry. Yes, their hard candies are straight out of a demented grandmother’s purse, in a number of flavors that verge on the savory (and not in the good, salted caramel way), but dime-store British chocolate is of an alarmingly better qualify than American, and comes in great varieties. Try a Yorkie (“Not for Girls,” as the wrapper rather alarmingly states) which comes in great big cubes stuffed with raisins and cookie crumbs or a Crunchie, filled with a solid bar of golden honeycomb that will slowly melt on the tongue—if you can wait that long.
So the next time the Olympics coverage cuts away from water polo to reveal that the British serve their beer at room temperature, turn off the TV and go try something new instead.
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