Even in 2010, British cuisine gets dismissed as clumsy and leaden, despite the rise of gastropubs and Gordon Ramsay's sustained primal scream. Part of that may have to do with the great English tradition of self-deprecation. Few other nationalities are as dismissive of their own culinary tradition as the British, perhaps because they associate all their best dishes with childhood nostalgia, nursery rooms, and dribble bibs. And then, of course, it's hard to take food seriously when it sounds like a punch line.
'Bubble and squeak' and 'bangers and mash' don't evoke the elegance of even the most mundane coq au vin; they're more evocative of bad burlesque teams. But lately, British signature dishes are inching their way up the food chain, especially in London, where a new gastronomic patriotism is taking hold. One form of that patriotism is reflected in the sudden appreciation for, and popularity of, old-school restaurants that serve classic English meals in traditional settings.
The other manifestation of culinary pride is a fresh wave of young chefs who are busy reclaiming the British larder, recipe book and harvest. Focusing on dogged local sourcing and seasonal ingredients, these chefs are turning out inventive, updated versions of sticky toffee pudding, carving-trolley roasts and fish and chips, along with more arcane home-country dishes. Here is a short list of some of the best restaurants in London serving actual British food.
It claims to be London's longest-running restaurant, dating to 1798, and the dining room, hung high with old oil paintings and prints, looks like the kind of place where the Queen would happily park her big, shiny purse. If the decor hasn't changed much, neither has the menu- and that's a good thing.
The steak and kidney pie, the quintessential British dish, still comes served in a stiffly pleated paper ruff. The pie crust is golden and buttery, and it gives way to a velvety stew of tender meat and innards, swimming in rich gravy. The creamy pheasant pie is just as good, though save some room for the raspberry trifle, which is anything but a trifling thing. (35 Maiden Lane; 011-44-20-7836-5314)
Now a Rocco Forte Collection property, Brown's Hotel came in recently for a sleek redesign by Olga Polizzi. The resulting rebirth is most obvious in the Albemarle, the hotel's formal dining room, where the vaulted ceiling now arches over green banquettes and a collection of art by contemporary British artists including Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley.
That celebration of homegrown talent extends to the menu, which executive chef Lee Streeton and director of food Mark Hix have designed as a showcase of locally sourced British classics roused by their own contemporary artistry and trailing lots of regional place names. Braised pork cheeks in Burrow Hill cider come paired with a surprisingly light Cumbrian black pudding.
There are potted Morecambe Bay shrimps, a roast fillet of Cornish hake, deviled Kentish lamb's kidneys, and a lunchtime carving trolley serving leg of Corwen lamb. Yorkshire rhubarb jelly is drizzled with, what else, Jersey cream. (Albemarle Street; 011-44-20-7518-4004)
THE STAFFORD HOTEL
The hotel features impeccable rooms looking out on a 17th-century stable yard. The hotel's formal restaurants add to the country-house vibe with lots of swagged curtains and cutglass chandeliers. That sets the scene for Mark Budd's unapologetically aristo food, like roast wild mallard framed by caramelised pears and baby beets, and English John Dory dressed up with fennel butter sauce and shellfish ragout.
But it's the signature house fillet of Red Devon Beef Wellington that's a revelation; a bite of the thin puff pastry wrapped around tender beef, chicken mousse, New Forest mushrooms, tarragon, and black truffle oil is enough to make the case for this patrician classic. (St. James's Place; 011-44-20-7493-0111)
It isn't strictly a British restaurant, given its list of mittel-European schnitzels and its global selection of brasserie favourites. But this dining room may offer the best theatre next to the West End (including a revolving cast of off-duty actors as waiters), and a number of dishes raid the British larder with aplomb.
The salt beef, which pays tribute to England's Jewish culinary legacy, is layered up in rich, perfumed slices on rye. There is a meaty double lamb chop served with bubble and squeak (the cabbage and potatoes fried together in a homey mound) and a classic Welsh rarebit. And the treacle tart with clotted cream suggests why British desserts are some of the best in the world.(160 Piccadilly; 011-44-20-7499-6996)
THE NATIONAL DINING ROOMS
Located in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, under the direction of Oliver Peyton, the National Dining Rooms offer a range of dining options. You can sample afternoon tea and shepherd's pie at bargain prices in the Bakery, though hold out for the more formal dining room, where executive chef Simon Duff takes regional foraging to a zealous level and basically maps the countryside.
The resulting dishes range from grassreared Bickleigh White Park beef to Cornis Terras duck, a New Forest wild mushroom and chestnut crumble, and Meadows Farm lamb served with glazed baby turnips and pea puree. If you want to work up an appetite, start in the Gallery itself and tour those still lifes of homegrown apples, oysters and downy poultry all reappearing, with pride, on London's tables. (Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, 011-44-20-7747-2525)
The restaurant was a pioneer of the British culinary revival when it first opened in 1994, and the original Smithfield flagship dining room, situated in a former smokehouse near the Smithfield Market, continues to lead the patriotic charge. Forget any pretensions.
The monosyllabic menu changes regularly but always favours meat and offal and flaunts an almost Dickensian tone. Regularly recurring dishes include roast mutton and carrots, crispy pig's tail and watercress, and ox heart and beets. Desserts add more of a whimsical touch, especially a stellar bread pudding drizzled with butterscotch sauce and a fig Bakewell tart. (26 St. John Street; 011-44-20-7251-0848)
Situated in the former portico of a flower market, Roast comes surrounded by Borough Market, another thriving emblem of British gastronomic pride and the best place in town to assemble a picnic. But if you don't want to do the shopping yourself, dining at Roast, which uses a lot of produce from its adjacent vendors, can give you a table-side view of the marketplace. Gaze down on the fresh harvest while you plow through dishes that don't let the rump roast sideline all those ripe, glossy fruits and vegetables.
The payoff: Diver scallops come paired with Jerusalem artichokes and hazelnuts; grilled Cornish mackerel is lifted by rhubarb and mint; and slow roasted lamb is accompanied by kidney potatoes. There are also a number of vegetarian dishes, like turnip and potato cake roused by woodland mushrooms and poached egg, and a long cheese list, paying homage to the Market stalls again, that includes a subtle Montgomery's Cheddar and a Dorset blue. (The Floral Hall, Stoney Street; 011-44-845-034-7300)