recent eatings

I’ve been here over a month now, and not gone out too eat too much in that time.  I was reminded of this while reading T’s entertaining-as-always post about all the great places she went in five days when she visited London recently.  Combined with the fact that I’ve hardly done any real touristy things here, this made me feel somewhat lame and incompetent.  But in my defense of myself, from myself, I will say to me and to all of you that there are good reasons for this.  One, of course is budget.  Another is that I’m basically by myself, in a place with a kitchen, so it doesn’t really occur to me to go out to eat.  Finally my neighborhood has a profusion of restaurants, but mostly of the ‘take-away’ variety that people here seem to like.  There is nothing to bad about this, except that most of them seem generic and I have been told are not too good.  For example, I’ve been warned that no one actually goes to get Indian food on Brick Lane anymore, and that it’s just for tourists.  And who wants to be a tourist?!  Oh.

But I have been out a bit.  Here is a rundown:

1. Mien Tay.  In Shoreditch/Hoxton, not to far from where I live, there are a string of vietnamese restaurants.  Mien Tay got some good reviews online, and was crowded, so I decided to try it.  I had, as far as I remember, honey and spice chicken.  It was tasty, with a nice sweet flavor as you might imagine.  They also had Siracha, which Tesco shockingly does not have.  When I was little, I used to be so embarrassed when relatives would come over from India and carry around packets of hot sauce to put on everything.  I thought it was really lame.  But I think I may be reaching that point myself, specifically requiring Siracha at all times.

2. Udaya.  My long lost cousin, who I met for the first time on this trip, told me to go to East Ham for good south Indian food.  Her recommendation was just to step out of the tube station and find any of the million places to have a dosa.  But of course I don’t roll like that, so did some research to find Udaya, a bit off the main strip.  This place specialized in cuisine from Kerala (Keralese).  I had a chicken dish with some puri and these little deep fried fish balls.

Not that I really know what authentic Indian food is, but this was a bit westernized.  For example that sauce you see is ketchup.  Yeah I was surprised too.  The chicken dish actually tasted quite a bit like my mom’s chicken, which I haven’t had in at least 10 years, on account of being vegetarian.  A competent meal, I would say.  The real highlight were the puri, soft and tasty as they were.  What was also new for me was being in the neighborhood itself, because almost everyone there was Indian (or second or third generation).  There are suburbs in San Francisco and L.A like this, but still, there was something strange and interesting and nice about being in that environment.  Oh and I didn’t have a dosa, because I wanted to try something new, but definitely will before I leave, since that’s the true barometer for a south Indian restaurant.

3. Beigel Bake.  Yeah, ok, not exactly haute cuisine, but simply in the necessary-for-existence category.  Bagels (beigals?) have somehow not infiltrated the menu of every cafe here, so you have to search them out a bit.  There are two apparently famous bagel shops on Brick Lane, open 24 hours, this being one of them.  They actually make all sorts of breads and pastries.  But when it comes to the bagels themselves, they only have plain, and you can get it with cream cheese or butter, plus salmon if you like, or with salt beef.  That’s it.  And there’s no toasting; if you want a bagel with cream cheese they have it premade and just toss it to you as you put £1 on the counter.  There’s no place to sit and there’s always a (fast moving) line.  The bagels themselves are good; I approve.  The cream cheese, meanwhile, is great – sweet and tart and dense like cream cheese should be.  Both bagel and cream cheese are dense but also very, I don’t know, bouncy.  Chewy but not overly so, substantial but not too heavy.  Yes, these are the bouncy castles of bagels.

Brick Lane is now filled with a mix of Bangladeshis and drunk, trendy people, but before that the area was (just) Bangladeshi, and before that Jewish, so the bagel shops are a testament to that history.  In fact Bangladeshi immigrants in the 60s and 70s ended up occupying almost the exact same buildings in this area as the  Jewish immigrants had 70 or so years earlier.  Also the main mosque here used to be a synagogue (and some time before that was a church for immigrant French Huguenots).  And outside this synagogue,  “Jewish anarchists threw bacon sandwiches at Orthodox worshipers…and held ‘Yom Kippur Balls’, (pork feasts) on the holy Jewish fasting day of Yom Kippur to annoy conservative rabbis and spread their radical secular message.”  And yes the Jewish immigrants were stigmatized in the same way that Bangladeshi immigrants would be later on.  So moral of the story can’t we all just get along everyone is equal sandwiches not bombs eat bagels!

4. Frizzante.  This is a cafe next to the adorable Hackney City Farms.  These aren’t just community gardens, but also have a fair amount of space for animals of all kinds.  Frizzante uses, at least in part, produce and eggs from the farms, and presumably also meat, though there aren’t that many animals.  I had scrambled eggs with salmon and lemon crème fraiche over a couple slices of toast.  Sound pretty humble, no?

But OMFG this was some of the best food I’ve had in months.  The eggs were really light in color and fluffy, and went beautifully with the salmon and the tart creaminess of the crème fraiche.  The bread added texture, but also was really good in its own right.  The green garnish was also delicious and familiar tasting but I couldn’t quite place it.  When I saw it I thought cilantro, but it tasted different, almost like sprouts.  I asked after, because they have an open kitchen, and found out it was celery cress.  Perfect addition.  The only bad thing about this meal was that the cappuccino I was drinking had a lot of chocolate sprinkled on it, which I’m only mentioning because that’s something they do here in the UK.  But anyway, I will definitely revisit this cafe before I go.  Truth once again that the quality of ingredients matter much more than cooking (not to say the chefs here were not great).

But I should have some British food while I’m here right?…

5. The Marksman.  This pub is almost right across from Hackney City Farms, coincidentally.  There are of course a lot of pubs that offer traditional pub food, and many others that have menus that are a bit more elaborate.  I’m not sure the Marksman qualifies as a ‘Gastropub’.  In fact I’m increasingly unsure on what does.  But anyway, I decided to take myself out.  There was an option for a two or three course menu, so I chose two.  First I had a goat cheese souffle with roasted figs and rocket.  While not as good as the baked goat cheese at Elf Cafe that I had before I left, you really can’t go wrong with a big piece of toasty goat cheese.  The real innovation was the roasted figs and fig juice, which was great.  There needed to be more of that.  The dish also made me realize that rocket is arugula.  I’m slow at some things.

For the main course I had the above: “slow roasted pork belly with mushroom mash and garlic confit.”

I need to back up a little in order to explain this choice.  Several months ago, I decided to stop being vegetarian.  I had been vegetarian for ten years, though for most of that time I was the kind of “vegetarian” who also eats sushi (and at other times vegan).  The reason I decided to stop is because of Los Angeles, basically.  LA is a really great food town, and I wanted to try more things that I was able to try as a vegetarian.  So I’ve been slowly incorporating meat into my diet.

Backing up a bit further, I should note that vegetarians actually take a fair amount of harassment/teasing from non-vegetarians.  Most people who enjoy meat seem to have a particular figure lodged into their psyche: the haranguing, ethical vegan.  Maybe they met someone like this in college, or maybe it’s just an idea they have, or maybe any discussion of food politics sounds to some like lecturing.  In any case, people feel the need to preemptively respond to this figure whenever they meet an actual vegan/vegetarian, who, if they are older than 20 or so, usually aren’t too interested in evangelizing about the joys of vegetables.  For some people this preemptive response comes in the form of exaggerating their love of meat.  Even so, after ten years of not eating meat, I was very curious to know what the fuss was all about.

So I did have high expectations. Apart from hearing friends talk, very seriously, how they could never become vegetarian due to this or that meat-centered dining experience, I also inundate myself with food tv, where not cooking meat is a faux pas, and shoving fistfuls of it into your mouth counts as entertainment.  Clearly there was something to this ‘meat’ thing.  The weird thing is, since I started eating meat, and haven’t really been able to figure out why it’s so loved.  For example, I was really curious about bacon, because I hadn’t had any pork growing up, and people seem to love bacon so much (see the above link).  So I’ve tried it, several times in fact.  And, I mean, yeah it’s ok, I guess.  Good with eggs.  But for the most part, I don’t really understand the point of meat – it doesn’t add (or subtract) from the dishes I eat.  Now, I’m sure this is me and not something about the meat.  I just have lost the taste for it, so it doesn’t seem so essential.  I even have difficulty telling different meats apart, so clearly I’m not a person to judge.  Rather, I’ve been trying to have a really good meat experience, something that would make me get it.

So, when looking at the menu of The Marksman, I just thought, ‘no more fucking around, vijay.’  Sort of.  Anyway, I got the pork belly.  It was a very intellectual eating experience.  With each bite I was trying to imagine myself as someone who really loves meat.  It seems that texture is very important?  The pork belly had a very crisp outside and was soft and tender on the inside, and I could see the appeal of that.  The taste was quite concentrated, which is something you obviously don’t get with tofu.  It’s something I get with quality vegetables, but maybe if you’re used to eating meat, vegetables have a less intense flavor (as my friend R helpfully pointed out to me a couple months ago (if you ask most people why like meat, they say something along the lines of ‘because it’s good’, which is not helpful).  And then the dish certainly felt substantial.  In fact I sort of expected to die near the end of eating it.  So I did sort of get it.  That being said, the part of the dish I liked most were the mashed potatoes.

So anyway, those have been my eating out experiences.  I hope to have a few more, especially when my family comes to visit.  If you have any advice on eating meat, please let me know.

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