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British Food for the Win

September 23, 2010

So after that last post, I felt that it was really necessary that I follow up on my hopes of finding a restaurant where grand chefs are turning seasonal food, typical to Britain, into gastronomic wonders and show the first solid proof of the amazing potential for this food.  And, admittedly, I was also in desperate need for some protein after spending the last two hectic weeks living on yoghurt and toast.  So after a bit of research, I picked a destination: a place called Arbutus, owned by Anthony Demetre and Will Smith (not the actor), discretely tucked away on a plain street in Soho.  Although fairly new, this restaurant already has a Michelin star and is renowned for its inventive fusions of British food with French and Spanish flair.  Yet, despite its grandeur, it is well liked for the less formal and stodgy atmosphere and lower, but only slightly, prices.  So I forged ahead, with guilty thoughts of spending money pushed from my head, only to be replaced by my stomach’s cry for real food.
Although discreet and dark on the outside, Arbutus had a very welcoming feeling within; its clean and simplistic white walls and overhead track lighting brought a modern touch to the masculine dark wooden tables and black leather seating.  My lovely waitress offered me bread and butter, which I hastily accepted and thoroughly enjoyed.  It was very obviously baked in house, with a thick, slightly charred brown crust encasing a chewy pillow-like interior.  Choosing my meal, however, was a trial and the cheaper, set menu tempted me sorely, but the a la carte was to unique to resist.  I considered more curious options like ox tripe and rabbit kidneys, but settled with a simpler, humbler meal: a beetroot salad starter and aged bavette of Hertfordshire beef for a main. 
The salad could have stood as a light lunch alone and was one of those dishes that tastes so complex in flavor yet is so simple with ingredients I wonder why I don’t make things like this at home.  A rainbow of warm cooked beets in ruby, ochre, and yellow and mounds of creamy goat curd lay scattered about bed of watercress and were accentuated by slivers of marbled pink and white radishes.  All was lightly drizzled with honey and lemon vinaigrette.  The combination of flavors worked perfectly.  The sweet earthiness of the soft beets was offset by the spicy crunch of the cress and radish.  The tangy cheese mixed with the floral dressing, creating a smooth mixture that, as I ate, combined with the red color of the beets, leaving pink swirls on my plate. 
After polishing off every speck of the starter, I received my main.  I immediately picked up my fork and knife, and the second I placed the knife on the glistening brown roast, it sunk in and the meat, so incredibly tender, fell apart into a steaming, succulent pool of threads.  Melted, flavorful fat coated each strand of the beef, providing a silky texture.  Alongside the meat were pieces of roasted butternut squash, sprouting purple broccoli, and shallots, rich in flavor and swimming in the winey, oniony beef broth.  Kent cobnuts added a contrasting crunch and sprigs of thyme brightened the whole dish.  I finished every bite though only now, in embarrassment, can I image the thoughts of the suited businessmen at the next table down as they watched me, this skinny girl, eating alone, inhaling a roast beef.  I was so stuffed I had to forgo dessert, promising the maître-d that I would return for sweets and wine.  I left in a slight meat coma, so happy to start off fall with such a perfectly autumnal dish, and dazedly headed home, properly fed at last.

So if the pictures and descriptions aren’t enough to change your thoughts about British food, I really don’t know what will.  My dish may have been root vegetables and beef, but its just goes to show you that some culinary knowledge can turn a peasant’s meal into a damn good feast.  I look forward to trying a few more places like this, including Arbutus’s sister restaurant, Wild Honey and hey, I may even order the ox tripe next time too!

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