By Caroline Benveniste
Recently, while in London, we (my husband and I and about 10 other people) took a wonderful East End food tour. This was not really a surprise, as we’d previously gone on an Eating Europe’s tour in Amsterdam, which was equally brilliant. I didn’t know much about the East End, which turns out to be a neighborhood with a long immigrant history. Our engaging guide, actress Madi Dunne, explained that, in the 1700s, Huguenots who fled France settled there. In the early 1900s, there were over 135,000 Jews in the area, and when they moved out in the 1970s, Bangladeshi immigrants replaced them. In the late 1990s, the area was the largest red light district in Europe. Slowly, things began to improve as people involved in food started to move in.
Madi took us to eight food purveyors that spanned a wide range of cuisines and dishes. I enjoyed it so much that, when I returned to New York, I kept thinking about it. Slowly, I realized that I could design a reasonable facsimile with establishments (mostly) in the West Village. Here is the proposed itinerary:
Bacon Sandwich: A bacon sandwich contains back bacon, which is cured pork loin with a small amount of pork belly attached (American bacon is called ‘streaky bacon’ in England). We enjoyed ours at St. John Bread and Wine (94-96 Commercial Street), a nose-to-tail restaurant and one of the gentrifying food pioneers in the area. The sandwich was served with homemade ketchup, but we were told that brown sauce is also an acceptable accompaniment. Bacon sandwiches are on the menu at Tea and Sympathy, and if you ask nicely, they’ll bring you brown sauce on the side.
Bread and Butter Pudding: We went to The English Restaurant (52 Brushfield Street) for pudding, which in England just means ‘dessert,’ but in this case it was actual pudding. Bread pudding was developed during lean times using old bread, but this one was made with brioche and served with custard sauce—“naughty goodness,” we were told, and it was. In the Village, a Bourbon Biscuit Bread Pudding is available at the recently-opened 33 Greenwich, and while not exactly the same, it is just as decadently delicious.
Cheese: Our next stop was The House of Androuet (Spitalfields Arts Market, 10 Lamb Street), a chainlet of French cheese shops. Unlike the ones I’ve been to in Paris, two-thirds of this store was dedicated to British cheeses. We tried a muslin-wrapped unpasteurized Somerset West County Farmhouse Cheddar (cheddar is the most popular cheese in England), which was nutty and assertive, and a three-month-old Stilton. In the Village, at Murray’s Cheese, (which, like Androuet, has caves for affinage) you can try the Neal’s Yard Dairy Montgomery’s Cheddar and the Colston Bassett Stilton.
Fish and Chips and Mushy Peas: Poppies (6-8 Hanbury Street) was our fourth stop, and there we tried the food that kept the British fed during the Second World War. The fried cod and chips arrived in faux newspaper (the real thing was banned in the 1990s for health reasons) and we each got a dollop of mushy peas on top. A Salt and Battery on Greenwich Avenue specializes in fish and chips and also carries mushy peas, should you want some.
Cask Conditioned Ale and Cider: We walked around the corner and stopped at that most British of institutions, the pub. This one, called The Pride of Spitalfields (3 Heneage Street) was crowded inside, so we stood outside and tried Bow Bells, a cask English Pale Ale from Truman’s Brewery. It was relatively uncarbonated, unfiltered, and served at room temperature, but pleasant nonetheless, with orange and lemon notes. We also had a cider called Orchards, which was not as sweet as most ciders found here. On Bleecker Street, the Blind Tiger Ale House carries cask ales and ciders on tap; the dark wood interior is reminiscent of a British pub.
Curries: Brick Lane is synonymous with Indian (actually Bangladeshi) restaurants, and we went to the oldest curry house there called Aladin (132 Brick Lane). We ate Vegetable Bengali, Chicken Tikka Masala (apparently the U.K.’s national dish), and Lamb Bhujon (prepared with tomato puree, coriander, and fenugreek). The vegetable curry was my favorite; I found the chicken a bit too sweet. For similar curries, head to Surya on Bleecker Street which serves colonial Indian cuisine.
Bagels: Coming from New York, I was quite skeptical of English bagels, but I was wrong to be. Two bagel stores on Brick Lane are all that is left of a once-bustling Jewish community. Beigel Bake (159 Brick Lane) is open 24 hours, and is famous both for its bagels and its salt beef, which is prepared by boiling beef in salt and spices for four hours. The resulting product tastes like a cross between corned beef and pastrami. We had a beigel and salt beef sandwich with mustard and a pickle; a number of people on the tour thought it was the best thing we’d had. You could order a corned beef sandwich at Murray’s Bagels, but to get an approximation of the artisanal salt beef you must travel to Mile End in Noho and order a smoked meat sandwich, ask to have it on a bagel (bagels are made at the sister establishment Black Seed), and add a pickle.
Salted Caramel Tart: Our final stop was Pizza East (56A Shoreditch High Street), a trendy restaurant owned by the Soho House Group. There, we ended the tour with a slice of salted caramel tart which had a layer of caramel at the bottom, and above it a layer of chocolate ganache. Yum! It was, in my opinion, the best thing we ate. The closest one I could find in the Village was a miniature salted caramel tart at Le Pain Quotidien. In this version, the caramel is gooier and there is more of it and less of the chocolate. It may not be as amazing as the Pizza East version, but it comes close.
One last item of interest: At the The Pride of Spitalfields pub, there was a resident cat named Lenny. The Blind Tiger Ale House does not have a cat, but Myers of Keswick does. Their cat, Molly, was briefly famous in 2006 when she went missing and turned out to be stuck between two buildings. The story was covered extensively, even abroad, and during the ordeal crowds congregated outside the store. It took 12 days to rescue her, but she is fine and you can see her standing guard as you browse the shop’s large selection of British comestibles.
Learn more about the East End Food Tour by visiting: eatinglondontours.co.uk/east-end-food-tour/
The West Village establishments mentioned in this article are listed below:
Tea and Sympathy
108 Greenwich Avenue, near Jane Street
33 Greenwich Avenue, between Charles and West 10th Streets
254 Bleecker Street, between Morton and Leroy Streets
A Salt and Battery
112 Greenwich Avenue, between Horatio and Jane Streets
Blind Tiger Ale House
281 Bleecker Street, at Jones Street
154 Bleecker Street, between Thompson Street and LaGuardia Place
500 6th Avenue, between West 13th and West 12th Streets
53 Bond Street, between Bowery and Lafayette Street
Le Pain Quotidien
Multiple locations, including 550 Hudson Street, near Perry Street
Myers of Keswick
634 Hudson Street, between Jane and Horatio Streets