Friday, June 18, 2010

English Food – WOW!

In a nutshell: Fresh, fabulous and amazing value!
Score: 5/5

England has a worldwide reputation for poor, stodgy, unappetising food. Maybe at some point this was true, but it is definitely not the case any more. There seems to be a real focus on fresh, non-GM foods in the UK and this can really be tasted in what you eat. Apart from a few notable exceptions (and these happen everywhere in the world), we had really friendly, genuine service and couldn’t complain about any of our meals. One of the biggest ‘wows’ was the prices, helped by the low exchange rate (5.3 Dhs to the £) it was possible to have an amazing meal with alcohol for less than Dhs 100 per person!

We spent a weekend on the Yorkshire Coast and were incredibly lucky to have glorious weather – sunny blue skies with the sort of fresh breeze that we never get in Dubai. Our first meal was at The Red Lion, near York on a small country lane where we had simple baked potatoes with fillings (prawn cocktail in my case) and 3 of us ate for less than £20 (Dhs 100) including drinks. A baked potato is such a satisfying lunch and it’s a real shame more places in Dubai don’t offer ‘spuds’ on their menus – where they do they’ve usually been in the oven for hours and are blackened to a crisp. Much healthier than a sandwich and just as filling.

Whitby is famous for its seafood and it didn’t disappoint. We ate at 3 of its well-known restaurants and each one was as fantastic as the last. Trencher’s is right opposite the Whitby Visitor Centre and I had an amazing fish pie full of fresh fish, seafood and a creamy but not sickly sauce. They are famous for their fish & chips and as well as having a choice of fish (haddock, cod and many others) you also have a choice of having it fried or grilled – a healthy fish supper. At £15 a head including drinks coupled with friendly and efficient service…we were stunned.

Half way up the hill from the harbour, Hudson’s has panoramic views out over the widest beach I had ever seen. If only the sea was Caribbean-warm and you could be sure of having the sort of weather we had, this would be a sun-worshipper’s paradise (the beach that is, not Hudson’s!) Wanting to try something local, I ordered the Whitby crab salad. The crab is caught off the Whitby coast and was amazingly fresh – no surimi-crab in sight – and the salad itself was varied and included new potatoes to make that little bit more filling. £10 a head…another example of unbelievable value.

The Magpie Café is, I was told, Whitby’s most famous restaurant and at weekends people queue down the road to get in there. After a fabulous meal, I would agree that standing out in the cold would be worth it – luckily we’d booked so went straight past the queue and in the door. My scallops were the freshest I’ve had in years and came with the coral (roe) attached, as it should be. They were accompanied by English asparagus (in season for only 6 weeks of the year) which had so much more flavour than the thin air-freighted Thai asparagus that I’m used to. I followed that with a seafood chowder which was more a creamy sauce with mussels, prawns, scallops and a white fish (not sure which!) in it rather than a chunky, thick soup. Regardless, it tasted amazing. Healthy eating seems to be well-ingrained in the UK now and the batter on the fish in the fish & chips was like a tempura batter, not a heavy stodgy one – and you could have poached or grilled fish instead of fried. For a 3 course meal with drinks you’re looking at £30-35 but that is still great value for the quality of food you get.

Our last day on the East Coast, we ate a restaurant called ASK! on the Scarborough harbour front near the amusement arcades. They had outside seating but with all the crab pots near by and it being low tide (low tide here means the boats are sitting on the mud), there were a lot of little flies so we stayed indoors. It has an Italian theme with pizzas and pastas, but of course offers the ubiquitous seafood and that is what I had…a salmon, asparagus and avocado salad. In a word…fabulous. I can’t stand salads that are 90% lettuce and this was on a small bed of mixed salad leaves with loads of the actual ingredients of asparagus and avocado with a generous salmon steak on top. Yum.

Even after we left the coast, I still couldn’t get enough of the fresh fish and fresh asparagus – or those great old country pubs. In the Yorkshire Dales at The Forester’s Arms in Grassington and The Dog and Gun in Oxenhope, I ate grilled trout with asparagus. Many people think trout is a fiddly, bony fish when it is actually delicate and meaty with bones only down the middle. Simon’s Gran tried trout for the first time in her life and couldn’t believe she’d been missing out on it all these years! It’s so hard to find trout in a supermarket in Dubai so I wanted to take full advantage…I’m missing it already now I’m back home. We also ate at Napoleon’s Casino in Bradford. You wouldn’t expect very fine dining in Bradford, in all honesty, but the food here was really good and at £15 for a 4 course meal you really had to take your hat off to them – especially when we trebled our money in the casino afterwards and our winnings paid for the meal!

We also spent a few days in London and had dinner at The Forge in Covent Garden the first night and The Princess of Shoreditch on Old Street in the East End the second night. At The Forge we had a 3 course menu (each course had a choice of about 4 dishes – all of which I wanted to try!) and a glass of kir for just £27 per person. The centre of London’s tourist district, fantastic food and such a good price! The only problem with London restaurants (and a practice that is growing more in Dubai too) is to cram as many tables in as they can possibly squeeze. Getting around all the diners to get to the toilet without knocking anyone’s elbow becomes a bit of an obstacle course. At The Princess of Shoreditch I ordered a chocolate fondant for my dessert having had a delicious asparagus with hollandaise sauce to start and wild boar sausages with mashed potato (bangers and mash in other words) for my main. Chocolate fondant is always a test and 9 times out of 10 I cut into the middle waiting for the chocolate to ooze out only to find it’s been overcooked and is solid in the middle. The Princess passed the test though – divine molten chocolate crept across my plate, success!

In terms of service, almost everywhere had really friendly, helpful staff. Genuine friendliness as well, not fine dining it’s-my-job-to-be-polite type service. One notable exception was at the Waggon & Horses pub in Handforth, Manchester where our meals took over 1 hour to arrive and when they did my Gran’s had been forgotten. When we called for the manager we expected profuse apologies – big mistake. He came over with a real attitude problem and was immediately on the defensive and extremely rude, basically telling us that we must not have ordered Gran’s meal and it was our own fault. Not a single word of apology – will we go there next time we visit my grandparents? No chance! At only £5 for a meal, you do get what you pay for sometimes I suppose.

So for all those people who write England off as a gastronomic destination: think again. If you want to go somewhere you can get amazing, fresh food, friendly service and that won’t break your bank then England could be just the place for you. Give it a go.


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