Jokes about English cooking date at least as far back as Voltaire, who once took a poke at British cuisine by saying, “In England, there are sixty different religions and only one sauce.”
I married a Brit and I’ve lived in London, so I have at least a little hard-won expertise on that national cuisine. It’s true that I’ve choked down my fair share of flaccid boiled vegetables, overcooked hunks of meat, and lumpy sauces. But, all joking aside, traditional British food is actually good when prepared with skill. Even outsiders seem to be catching on as English-ish pubs proliferate in restaurant happy cities around the country.
Here in Philadelphia, classic dishes like sticky toffee pudding and mushy peas have been appearing on menus across the city for a while. Just last year, Stephen Starr opened the British-themed Dandelion Pub, complete with a Michelin-starred chef imported from the other side of the Atlantic.
Not everyone understands this sudden appetite for the world’s most maligned cuisine, but it’s no mystery to me. On a cold, rainy day, nothing warms the belly quite like a well-made steak and ale pie, with its tender stewed beef and beer-laced gravy encased in a flaky pastry crust. The Cornish pasty (rhymes with “nasty”) is the British answer to the empanada: chopped up beef and vegetables stuffed within a semicircle of rich pastry dough and eaten out of hand. And after trying Dorset apple cake at an inn in Charmouth a few years back, I have been on a quest to replicate the cake’s buttery crumb, with its flecks of diced apples and raisins and crunchy sugar topping. (No success so far.)
Our opportunities to enjoy these favorites were once limited by how often we could visit family overseas. Now, we can get many British specialties right here at home. But how does Philadelphia’s take on British fare stack up against the real thing? My husband, Roger, and I decided to find out.
There is, of course, The Artful Dodger in Society Hill. The place sounds a great deal more British than it actually is. It may be a notorious dive known as a tourist trap and haven for underage drinking, but it turns out this spot actually serves food. And some of it is even English. The menu includes both shepherds pie and fish and chips. For Philadelphia, that seems British enough.
The Artful Dodger reminded my husband of the sort of townie pub you’d find in rural England. The atmosphere feels dingy, with pale wooden booths, chairs, and tables topped with aging bottles of malt vinegar. The inexpensive food menu is secondary to the availability of beer. We ordered, and hoped for the best. Surprisingly, we liked the pie, a hearty casserole of ground beef and vegetables, moistened with a gravy of beef stock and Worcestershire sauce, topped with buttery mashed potatoes and baked until the top turned golden brown.
“This does remind me of something I’d get in a country pub in England,” Roger said as he washed a bite down with a sip of summer ale. Except in a country pub in England, the shepherd’s pie would be made with lamb, not beef. Technically, The Artful Dodger’s dish is what the English would call a “cottage pie.” But still, it’s a reasonably authentic and satisfying lunch, even for an expat.
We were less impressed with the fish and chips. Several bites in, with his brow in knots, Roger figured out why. In England, fish and chips are always made with meaty fillets of cod or haddock. The Artful Dodger uses flavorless slips of tilapia. The chips (really just plain old fries) are thinner than you’d get in England, too, and disappointingly greasy.
If The Artful Dodger is Philadelphia’s answer to a rural British pub, then The Dandelion is Philadelphia’s version of a hip gastropub–a stylish hangout, replete with a working fireplace and plenty of nooks and crannies. The design, with its abundance of dark wood, dim lighting, and assortment of old-world portraits and mounted stuffed animal heads, feels very English.
When it comes to food, The Dandelion scores high on both authenticity and taste. The Cumberland sausages are a standout. Two plump, browned sausages are served atop mashed potatoes covered in thick onion gravy. The chef buys The Dandelion’s sausages from Myers of Keswick, a British foods store in Manhattan. No chunks of apples, cheese, or spinach here. There’s just the perfect application of plain old salt to underscore the primal flavor of pork. The warm roast beef sandwich is just as satisfying: slices of warm roast beef layered with horseradish mayonnaise, beef gravy, and watercress folded between two slices of toasted sourdough bread.
We didn’t think we’d find a more authentic taste of my husband’s homeland, but them we ventured into New Jersey for The British Chip Shop in Haddonfield. This place is a dead ringer for a chipper in a wealthy small town like Cambridge. The restaurant is clean and tidy, and with its dark wooden tables and framed photos of London on the walls, it’s simple but smart. Football jerseys, ranging from Manchester United to Arsenal, line the walls.
In the UK, a chip shop sticks to fish and chips only, but this is a great place to find all the foods we miss, from sausage rolls (sausages wrapped in puff pastry and baked) to treacle tart, a dessert like pecan pie if you left out the pecans. “This is the best we’ve had so far,” Roger said as he dunked a hunk of fried fish into the pot of robust tartar sauce.
The batter is light but super crispy and deep golden brown, and, unlike The Artful Dodger, The British Chip Shop uses cod. The chips, too, are on point. We doused everything in Sarson’s malt vinegar, a very old and popular brand of malt vinegar in the UK and one whose presence on our table made Roger smile.
While none of these restaurants convinced us we were back in England exactly, some dishes came close enough to satisfy our cravings between visits to the UK. And given how crowded some of the restaurants were during our visits, it’s clear we’re not the only ones with hankerings for fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding. British food is comfort food, pure and simple, and many people are catching on to its appeal.
Does this mean the end to the British reign as the butt of culinary jokes? Probably not. Like any cuisine from any country, botched versions of British fare abound, and when they’re bad, they’re very bad indeed. But well-executed versions of traditional dishes are worth seeking out, and as the interest in British cuisine grows, those dishes will only become easier to find. Cheers to that.