Olympian bites

Updated: 2012-08-06 10:24

By Mark Bittman (Agencies)

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Olympian bites

Dishes at Quo Vadis include broiled mackerel and radicchio with pork. Photos by Hazel Thompson for The New York Times

Olympian bites

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Mark Bittman goes looking for the English on London menus, and tells you where to eat in-between Games.

Mock English food all you like. But the local food thing is almost as inbred in England as it is in France; it just sometimes hides behind poverty, war or a fatal attraction to America.

Today there are literally dozens of restaurants featuring not only fish from the Channel, the North Atlantic and the North Sea, but local beef and pork. Meanwhile, there is lamb from Wales and Scotland, and produce from everywhere.

My focus here wasn't ingredients. It was a style of cooking that's called, for want of a better term, "English." When I saw eel or Jersey royals (a new potato with a cult following) on a menu, I figured I was headed in the right direction.

Here are my favorites, in order.


Admittedly, this is a chain. The atmosphere is similar to what you find in a New York coffee shop, and though character isn't its strong suit, I find myself recommending Canteen to friends as well as stopping there myself whenever I'm in London.

Maybe if you're British the food seems ordinary, but to me it verges on the exotic: savory pies, meat or meatless; a salad of smoked haddock and poached egg; pig cheek with carrot and Swede (rutabaga); Welsh rabbit with egg.

In a city in which everything seems wildly pricey to many tourists, Canteen is reasonable.

Only one of the main courses approaches 20 pounds ($31.50); most are far less, and - get this - many if not most dishes are available in half portions for half-price. The last time I was there, two of us shared five dishes and a little wine and escaped for less than 50 pounds.

Canteen, Royal Festival Hall, Belvedere Road (and three other locations); (44-845) 686-1122; canteen.co.uk. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about 40 pounds.

Hawksmoor Seven Dials

They were eating steak in London before the New York steakhouse was invented. Hawksmoor, like Canteen, has multiple locations (the one I tried is called Seven Dials after its Covent Garden location) and with a little menu-fiddling can also be reasonably priced.

Comparisons pretty much end there. Here there are elaborate wine and cocktail lists along with huge steaks posted specially on a chalkboard; look to the printed menu for those of a more normal size.

Either way, they should be shared. In fact, that's my recommendation for everything, because the side dishes and desserts are both terrific.

(You get a sense that there's a real chef in the kitchen, not just some guy who knows how to grill steaks.)

The beef, it should be said, is British. It is grass-fed, delicious and impeccably cooked over hardwood charcoal.

I was happy about a samphire-and-crab salad, and even more so with a salad of eel, ham hock, watercress, mint, peas, croutons and poached egg; the plain green salad is also very well done.

Chips fried in beef fat (among the best I've ever had), Jersey royals and a whole grilled fish were also near-perfect, though the chicken was dry.

On a second visit I managed a few tastes of dessert: Champagne jelly with citrus is a gorgeous palate-cleanser; sticky toffee pudding, rich and dense; and peanut butter shortbread with salty ice cream, kind of ideal.

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials is in a vaulted cellar, bricked and lovely but unchanging throughout the day, and with a pleasant but decidedly saloon like atmosphere. Service on our visit was better than average.

Hawksmoor Seven Dials, 11 Langley St. (and two other locations); (44-207) 420-9390; thehawksmoor.com/locations/seven-dials. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, can run 100 pounds, but, with judicious ordering, can be far less.

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