Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Back from the UK with visions of food dancing my head

In past summers I've spent a lot of time in the UK, but this year I went there only for a week -- totally personal, too, not professional -- and I'm actually looking forward to a summer of reading, thinking, and writing in my own home. And in the next post, I'll have a research-related query for you all. But first, an update.

Bullock and I are just now back from our trip to the north of England where, as many of my Facebook friends already know, I attended a good friend's wedding in a borrowed dress and shoes (and no makeup, and unwashed hair!) because my luggage didn't get there in time. The fact that there was an attendee who lived locally and who had an extra dress in roughly my size was nothing short of miraculous. Otherwise, I might have gone to the wedding in the t-shirt and chinos I'd been wearing for about 36 hours straight. And not just any chinos, but coffee-stained chinos, the result of the flight attendant having spilled coffee all over me on the flight there. But it all worked out, and I actually liked the borrowed dress better than my own. England has many more cute dress options that the States, even in the English cities that are more or less the equivalent of Rust Belt City.

Speaking of which, I don't know why it took me so long to realize this, but much of the north of England -- especially Lancashire and Yorkshire -- have a lot in common with the upper Midwest. It's full of former industrial cities that hit hard times in the last few decades but are experiencing some renaissance now in the creative and cultural classes (think Chicago or Cleveland or even Pittsburg; and then Manchester and Leeds); the people are friendly, unsnobby, and hospitable; there are large Muslim populations in Dearborn, MI, and Bradford and Leeds; there's great Middle Eastern and Pakistani food to be had; and there is much beer drunk and much cheese eaten. No wonder I feel so much more at home in the north than in the south of England. Of course there are less savory similarities, too -- Yorkshire just elected a member of the British Nationalist Party to the European Parliament and Michigan is also frequently known as Militia-gan.

But one thing every city (and sometimes the towns and villages) in the north of England has that is missing in Rust Belt City is a slew of restaurants doing interesting and inventive things or just doing traditional dishes exceptionally well. The fact that the UK is having a cuisine renaissance is now practically common knowledge, and I've been noticing it and commenting on it for at least the last 10 years. In the north, especially, I've had amazingly good traditional, local food, often at small hotel restaurants and local pubs off the beaten tourist path. This trip I had tender, slips-off-the-bone-with-a-fork lamb at The Peasehill House Hotel Restaurant in Rawdon (a suburban village near the Leeds/Bradford airport); rich, tender duck confit salad at The Malt in Burley-in-Wharfedale (at the wedding reception); sweet and creamy mussels at Delrio's in York; mouth wateringly rich pork belly at the Hotel du Vin Bistro in York; and a lovely steak with a crunchy duck egg on top (the egg had been dropped into the fryer so that the whites fried up in the shape of wings, but the white stayed runny inside -- you wouldn't believe how good runny egg on steak is!) and a "trifle" of asparagus (a foam with crunchy peas in it) at J. Baker's Bistro Moderne in York.

But the best of all dinners was one I booked us for our last night. We were staying at the Crowne Plaza Manchester Airport (NOT recommended -- boo!) for our morning flight, so I did a bit of hunting on the internet to find an interesting and fine restaurant in the general vicinity. I finally decided on The Alderley at the the Alderley Edge Hotel in Cheshire, about 7 miles southeast of the airport, whose online menu suggested that they did interesting interpretations of traditional dishes, using mostly locally sourced ingredients. (If you're ever inclined to do the same -- though hopefully from one of the other airport hotels, NOT the icky Crowne Plaza -- I recommend taking the train from the Manchester Airport to Alderley Edge and walking through the posh and charming village to the restaurant, then taking a taxi back, since the trains stop running back to the airport at about 10 -- the taxi is about 15GBP and the restaurant will call it for you. We chickened out and taxied both ways, because we weren't sure what the walk from the station looked like, which really was a waste of money.)

Anyway, we were not disappointed. First of all, it was simply a lovely dining *experience*, the kind we can't get at all around here. Our coats were taken and we were first seated in the bar, where drink orders were taken and we were given a complimentary plate of amuse-bouche to go with the drinks. Then we were brought the menus, and the head waiter/maitre-d' (it was a small wait staff of three who shared tasks, but it clear who the top guy was) let us take our time as we hemmed and hawed over whether to go with the three course prix fixe menu, or a la carte, or go for the 6 course tasting menu. (There was little overlap between the three and it all looked SO good.) In the end we went a la carte because those were the dishes that excited us the most. (And here, I should say, if you go there and order what we did -- cocktails, inexpensive house bottle of wine, bottle of water, three courses each, plus coffee and petit fours -- it will cost you about 150GBP. It will cost more if you go off the house wine list (which is still quite nice, btw) -- that's where we cut a little cost because we not as much oenophiles as we are foodies. We knew we were splurging, but given the level of service and the wonderful food -- and given how much we like food -- it was worth it for us.)

And then once we'd ordered and we seated at our table, we had a leisurely dinner, perfectly paced by the attentive but unobstrusive staff, who had the rhythms of their restaurant down perfectly. And the food! Oh. My. God. The food! I really should've taken pictures, because it was all so beautiful on the plate, and just as rapture-inducing in the mouth. (You can see what I mean if you go to the website; you can also see the whole current menu there.) Just to give you an idea, for our entrees, I had the "Saddle of Roe Deer, Venison Hash, Poached Cherries, Pickled Sloe Gin" and Bullock had "Cheshire Spring Lamb, Three Ways with 'Shepherd's Pie,' Pickled Beetroot and Leeks." The "Shepherd's Pie" is in quotation marks for a reason -- not because of random quotation mark abuse -- because it was a miniature, almost bit-sized "pie" with a tiny little tart shell, a bite sized piece of lamb, and a dollop of mashed potato on top. (And then there were the other ways his lamb was prepared -- a lovely variety of miniature traditional lamb dishes.) And the pickled stuff was in the form of artfully sliced jellies that added color as well as taste to the plate. My plate, with its accompanying spring carrots and green onions looked liked modernist art, like a Mondrian done in triangles instead of squares and rectangles, but topped by the perfectly bite-sized array of oval slices of roe deer and the little ovals of the venison hash. And oh, was it good. The flavors seem kind of busy in my description -- so many things on a plate -- but it was all laid out so you could have a bit of saddle of deer with a cherry, or the hash with a bite of the sloe gin and a carrot.

I know for some people this might seem all too fussy, but I really appreciated the care, the craft, the art, and the thought in it all. I like the way it appeals to the eye as well as the nose and the tongue. I like the fact that it reminds me of other arts while I'm enjoying it. In fact, I think that's what characterizes this kind of cuisine -- it's food for thinking about as well as tasting. Or thinking about *while* tasting. And given the leisurely pace of the experience you have time to do that, to savor, to think, to discuss, to ruminate (well, hopefully not literally!). And I also like that with three courses, plus amuse-bouche and petit fours, I didn't feel horribly stuffed. I like the fact that I get to try all sorts of different flavors (and the appetizers and desserts were equally abundant in tastes) without over-eating. And alas, I still haven't found anything quite like this in and around Rust Belt City. There's an award-winning regional restaurant in the city 2 hours away from here that we like very much, but it requires an overnight stay, since a 4 hour round-trip drive is too much for one night. But this academic year Bullock and I have been quite spoiled with our trip to Paris and our trip to England, and now I fear we'll feel the lack of such restaurants even more. Sigh.

We also did all the touristy things one does in York and Leeds -- the Minster, the Yorkshire Museum, the Jorvik Viking Center, the Royal Armouries, etc., etc. -- and had a fun time at my friend E's easy-going, relaxed wedding and reception (once the dress issue was sorted out, anyway!). I also recommend the Hotel du Vin in York, if you can get a good discout rate. It was by far the most comfortable and modern hotel we stayed in (fantastic hurricane shower head! wonderful bed! and everything smells so good!), and it's only a 10 minute walk from the train station, as well as from Mickelgate Bar and the medieval part of the city.

Oh, and also, having learned about Eric Bloodaxe in all the York Viking-related museums, Bullock now wants to be known as Bloodaxe on the blog. But I thought that might be confusing for readers who pop in now and then. I suppose I could just attach the Viking nickname to the Western pseudonyn, like so: Bullock-Bloodaxe (with or without the hyphen). What do you think?

And yes, I will have some pictures, once I upload them from my memory card, and once Bullock gives me copies of his much better ones. I have a post brewing about one in particular. More later.

9 comments:

tempestsarekind said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip! I am jealous. :)

Somehow I've never made it to York. *Or* had lamb while I was in England. This seems very wrong.

Dr. Virago said...

Indeed, you must rectify both of these oversights at once! :)

owlfish said...

That sounds like such a good meal! The next time I'm in the area, I'll try to stop by The Alderley. Thank you for the recommendation!

Susan said...

Yum for the food. . . and isn't the Jorvik Viking Center a hoot?

c . . . said...

you articulate *exactly* why my partner and I love the sorts of meals you describe... the lingering full evening of sensory experience, the ability to really enjoy multiple courses without over eating, etc. the one thing i'd add from our list (who knows if it's on yours...) is that such lingering meals always lead to really good conversations. well worth the expense.

anyway, thanks for the lovely descriptions. wish i had reason to get to England!

Thoroughly Educated said...

So true about the those bleak, northen, indoostrial towns! I'd never thought of the analogy. Now I think of it, York was the first place I had a shockingly good bistro-y meal, way back in the late 80s, and had glimmers of things to come. Sign of things to come! Obviously I must plan another tour of the North that's all about eating.

Sisyphus said...

Drooooool! Oh, you are making me hungry! And making me want a beer and some cheese!

PS Eric Bloodaxe is a wonderful name, but I've kinda gotten used to Bullock, and it just looks confusing to bring them together with a hyphen --- I would keep wondering who this person was who just got married.

undine said...

I am going to save this post and use it as a rationale on my next proposal to the dept. chair about why I need to go to England.

Seriously, thanks for all this information.

Anonymous said...

Late on this, but Buffalo > Pittsburgh (> Los Angeles) > Yorkshire does have some sense in it. That was my hope anyway. But Bflo turned out to have the country's only Muslim terrorist cell! - TJO'D