Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and it's all organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, the police German and it's all organized by the Italians.
I remember the first time I dined at the home of my British sister-in-law (who was not yet my sister-in-law, which tells you how long ago this was).
Tracey is a fabulous cook who makes feeding a crowd look easy. This is remarkable when you realize that until they put in their new kitchen, she was producing course after sumptuous course in a space about the same square footage as my closet (with accordingly-sized appliances).
So a bowl of "salad" was passed around that first meal and I noticed it was undressed. Naturally, I reached for a bottle that was marked "salad cream."
For those Americans unfamiliar with British household products, "salad cream" is not the same thing as "salad dressing" -- unless the salad in question is cole slaw. This is something I learned the hard way (by tasting it).
And that's when I learned the sad truth about dining in Britain: "Salad" usually consists of a few leaves of lettuce, a couple of slices of tomato, and a sliver of red onion. And nothing else.
Now, it is possible to get a decent salad in the UK -- but finding one isn't easy.
Another funny thing about the Brits is their tendency to serve fried potatoes with everything. Curry and chips is also a popular dish -- and it works on the same principle as chili fries. But I still experience culture shock when I visit a Chinese restaurant and am asked if I want chips with my sweet and sour pork.
Aside from that, I have no trouble enjoying some fantastic meals whenever I visit my in-laws... even when the cook isn't my talented sister-in-law.
Inexpensive Dining in London
I even managed to find some entree salads -- especially on the menus of some of the quality chain restaurants.
Our hotel was situated in a neighborhood that was home to dozens of restaurants serving food from the Middle East and Indian sub-continent. Many of these were quite reasonably priced, but we had to skip them, because two of the members of our party can't tolerate spicy food.
Fortunately, we were able to find a beautiful little Italian restaurant near Marble Arch.
We had no idea that Caffe Uno is part of a large chain. All we knew is that we were jet lagged, hungry, and wanted to keep to a budget -- at least, as much we could in this very expensive city.
Caffe Uno satisfied us on every level. Megan had an American style pizza. My mother-in-law enjoyed a tasty (non-spicy!) pasta. My husband got his fill of grilled meat with delicious vegetables roasted in garlic and olive oil. And I had a salad of arugula, tomato and parmesan cheese (and what was left of Megan's pizza). The atmosphere was casual. The food was good. And the price was right: Dinner for four (including drinks, tips and that nasty 18% VAT) came to a little over $80. Not bad at all.
Our last night in London, we enjoyed a nice meal at the Trafalgar Square location of Prezzo, another casual Italian chain that reminded us of my US favorite, California Pizza Kitchen.
By this time, my daughter had recovered her appetite and managed to consume her entire pepperoni pizza. I toyed with the idea of ordering the "Classic Caesar Salad," but the inclusion of tomatoes in their version indicated that it wasn't as classic as advertised.
I opted instead for the Salmon and Avocado entree salad, which was exactly what I was looking for: a little protein, a lot of greens and a nice, light dressing served on the side. My only complaint is that the avocado wasn't ripe; it was hard and tasteless. Still, it was a novelty to try an avocado in the UK at all.
Italian Food in Cardiff
After London, we spent five days at my mother-in-law's home in Cardiff, which is the capital of Wales. We were disappointed to learn that our favorite city centre Italian restaurant had disappeared -- but over the years, many new and exciting Italians have opened around the city.
This trip, we decided to try Jamie's Italian, one of a casual chain from superstar chef Jamie Oliver.
This is where I had the best salad I've ever tasted in Britain - In fact, it's one of the best I've tried anywhere. Jamie's Beef Carpaccio and Rocket Salad consists of "finely sliced cured British beef," arugula (that's the "rocket" in the salad) and other baby greens, fennel, horseradish and roasted beets, dressed with a chili-infused balsamic vinaigrette.
I'm not a huge fan of beets, but they tasted sensational roasted and combined with the beef.
The rest of our party was just as happy with their orders, including my picky daughter, who may be a teenager, but prefers the simple choices on a children's menu. Thankfully, Jamie Oliver (who is, after all a family man) offers one. Fans of his "Food Revolution" series will be pleased to know that there isn't a chicken nugget to be found there. Instead there are age-appropriate portions of pasta, roasted chicken and a nice burger -- and all come with fresh greens.
That was the last good salad I had during our visit to the UK.
Jamie's is a little bit pricier than the Italian chains we sampled in London, but so worth it! I hope to return on our next visit to Cardiff.
Low Cal/High Protein Choices at Cardiff's Zushi Sushi Bar
I'm not saying I didn't eat well for the next two weeks. If that was true, I wouldn't have returned home carrying an extra five pounds. But it's hard to keep to a diet on a vacation, and if you rely on choosing one daily low-carb/low-cal/low-fat meal to maintain your weight, you are going to have a tough time in England and Wales.
One of my favorite dieting tricks when eating out is to choose Japanese. Sushi is high in protein and low in fat -- and if you order sashimi (which omits the rice), you can avoid carbs, too. I was pleased on this trip to see lots of new sushi joints all over London.
But good Japanese food is hard to find outside the capital.
Zushi wasn't the first sushi bar to open in Cardiff -- but it's one of the few that has managed to stay open for more than a couple of years. Its location in City Centre -- near office workers and new loft developments -- has probably helped.
This is one of those conveyor belt places, which I tend to dismiss here in L.A. But if you're craving Japanese food in Cardiff, you don't have a lot of other choices -- and while they've added a number of cooked foods to their menu, it's still authentic (not a fried potato to be found). And this time around, there was a full complement of sushi chefs preparing the dishes, and it all tasted fresher.
Plentiful Indian Cuisine
Good Japanese food may be hard to find in Cardiff, but good Indian restaurants abound. So on our last night in Cardiff, we left Megan with her grandmother and had a dinner that WASN'T Italian.
Juboraj has six locations in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. The closest one to my mother-in-law's home is located near Roath Park Lake. The setting is so pretty - and the food so fantastic - that we've never felt the need to try any of the others.
it is possible to stick to a diet at an Indian restaurant. All you have to do is order tandoori-cooked chicken and skip the rice, the naan and any heavily sauced dishes. But my feeling about that is, why would you WANT to?
After a week of choosing foods according to my daughter's limited palate, I was salivating over the thought of something curried. Juboraj is the kind of place where my diet discipline goes right out the window and I go straight for the most calorie and carb-laden foods on the menu.
Ironically, my favorite dish there is one of the most mild: Lamb Korma, with a thick, creamy, sweet sauce that demands to be sopped up with lots of rice and naan. I've had plenty of kormas here in L.A. - but none compare to the sheer luxury of the dish served up at Juboraj.
Traditional Pub Fare
Reading the list above, you might get the impression that I don't like traditional British cooking.
On the contrary: I love it. I love it so much that I returned home to the States five pounds heavier. And that's the problem: it's hard to stick to a diet over there.
The Brits get a bad rap for their cuisine, and I guess it's understandable. After all, one of their closest neighbors is France. 'Nuff said. It's hard to beat the French in the kitchen.
But the days of stodgy English cooking ended a long time ago. Few alive today remember wartime rationing. Fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful. The British people are big supporters of organic farming, so locally produced meats and cheeses are displayed with pride.
Americans think of pubs as equivalent to bars -- but most pubs also serve food... and some of them are remarkably good.
On this visit, we had a fabulous meal at the Gwaelod Y Garth Inn. Located just outside Cardiff (near Castell Koch), the menu is typical of this new/old approach to British cooking. The menu ranges from traditional Welsh fare like laverbread to duck and chicken breasts stuffed with all kinds of wondrous fruits and grains.
I ordered the salmon with dill sauce, which came with a choice of potatoes (of course!) and fresh vegetables cooked to the point where they were most tender and flavorful. (You know what I mean: These were NOT boiled until all the flavor had been sucked out of them.)
According to the Inn's website, the Gwaelod Y Garth is the pub that was portrayed in Hugh Grant's old movie, "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain." However, it wasn't filmed there. By 1995, the area around Cardiff was so built up that the film company had to go to northern Wales to find an appropriately quaint village to stand in for the one modeled on Taff's Well. The film doesn't really say much about how good the food is at this pub... but it is a nice portrayal of the Welsh and a good rental, if you are so inclined.