American food has come a long way since the days of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Planet Hollywood, as Tom Parker Bowles gleefully explains
It all happened so fast. In the flip of a rare-breed, hand-minced burger, topped with bacon jam and wedged in between two billowing brioche buns. One moment American tucker was pure grease-soaked sustenance; the next, it’s reborn with a revamp and a facelift, the drawling darling of the masticating classes.
Stop for a moment, anywhere in the capital, and breathe deep. What do you taste? Noxious petrochemicals aside, it’s Cajun spice and buffalo sauce, drawn butter, Zatarin’s seafood rub and the seductive whiff of mesquite. We’re now a city in thrall to high end, edible Americana.
Back in the day, the choice was strictly limited. On the plus side, you had the Hard Rocks, Maxwell’s and Texas Lone Stars, endearingly ersatz creations where the food at least attempted to replicate the burger joints, BBQ shacks, burrito houses and diners of the United States (albeit with limited success).
Now, though, at long last we’re getting to grips with the sheer regional variety, the lip-smacking breadth, of real American food. It never ceases to annoy me when dullards bang on about American food being simply sloppy processed muck. What about the clam bakes of New England, I want to scream, the crawfish boils of Louisiana? And BBQ, ‘meat and three’, Cajun and Creole, Cali-Japanese, and Tex Mex (the real thing, not that hideous pastiche on which we grew up). Had I the space, I could break into a fevered paean as to the sheer glorious diversity of those 50 great states. God bless her indeed.
But back to London. And yes, I know, dude food has outstayed its welcome, like that fat, bearded schlub from The Hangover trilogy. It’s everywhere, like a processed cheese and chilli slathered, pit roasted, deep fried bore. But the fad will pass. They always do. And we’ll be left with the true gems, the dishes (some of which are dude food, others renditions of US regional classics) which deserve to linger on forever. Buffalo wings at Meat Liquor; proper pulled pork at Pit Cue in Soho; mac and cheese spring rolls at Far Rockaway in Shoreditch; spicy ox cheek doughnut at Duck and Waffle in the City; sublime hot dogs at Bubble Dogs in Fitzrovia; shrimp and grits at Jackson and Rye in Soho. The list goes on and on. I’ve even heard great things (from Jay Rayner, a man who knows his butt from his bark) about the BBQ at The Big Easy, that old Chelsea stalwart. New smokers, and a much respected American barbeque king, have been drafted in to offer Londoners real smoked food.
And now things are moving ever upwards. Avenue, in St James, deals in all sorts of upscale clam chowders and Reuben sandwiches. I’ve yet to eat there, and reports are mixed, but with openings like 160 Degrees Fahrenheit in West Hampstead (from the team behind Pied a Terre) and The Lockhart, just behind Marble Arch, things are looking decidedly rosier. The latter sees Mississippi born chef Brad McDonald cook modern Southern dishes, featuring all manner of catfish, collard greens and dirty rice. Hallelujah to that.
So for the hungry Amerophile, it’s a good time to be in London. Ok, so the likes of Thomas Keller, David Chang and Mario Battali have yet to open their first UK outpost. But patience, my friends, patience. The upscale American invasion has started. Until then kick back, y’all, and take a deep draught of Pickleback. Because when it comes to all things starred and striped, London’s never had it so god damn good.
3 things I’ve done this month…
In Bangkok with David Thompson, the genius behind Nahm, voted Best Restaurant in Asia. Dear god the man can cook, from funky fish gut curries to the most delicate of soups. We spent four days, travelling the country, eating raw buffalo larps in the north and southern curries so fierce they could strip paint. Sublime.
Up to Camden to try out Des McDonald’s new Q. Ok, so the lack of any real smoked meat was a disappointment, but as ever with McDonald gaffs, the dishes are mainly good (some, like the creamed corn and beef hash, really damn good), service flawless and you get the feeling this place will get better and better. But if you do call it ‘Q’, then please give us smoked ribs and butt and brisket.
Off to St Pancras to wave off my friend Matthew Fort as he sets off around the islands of Italy, for the third part of his Italian trilogy. I say wave, but really, we toast him off at the Champagne Bar. Can’t believe I won’t see him for six months. Anyway, then off to the Fortnum and Mason Food Writing Awards. All culinary London is here. A cracking party, and worthy winners too. I stumble home a little later than is sensible.