It’s a cliché these days to say that British cuisine leaves a lot to be desired, given the cultural sea-change in the last decade with award-winning restaurants and the deluge of food porn that graces our televisions. The fact remains, however, that it’s more the traditional dishes in the British culinary lexicon that strike fear and derision into the palates of other nations. And, rightly, we Brits cling on to these vestiges of our culinary culture. Sure, we rib them as much as the next man, a knowing smirk animating any description of Toad in the Hole to an inquisitive Frenchman, but we’re proud of these lard-based, heavily-pastried dishes, pubs and brasseries across the land have restored them as staples, chefs give them witty twists and supermarket ranges of pre-cooked meals are full of bistro classics. And, like any indigenous dish, we know that we can cook them better than anyone else. So you may think it ironic that the best shepherd’s pie I’ve ever had came out of Manhattan.
Although, that’s overstating it somewhat. True, it was in New York but the venue was Le Caprice, the very same institution that’s been part of the fixtures and fittings of Piccadilly for some 30-odd years. And, like its older London brother, Ed Carew’s restaurant carries all the hallmarks of its well-established sibling. For a start, it couldn’t be better placed. Forgive the vulgarity of the expression but it’s within spitting distance of The Plaza, gracing the ground floor of the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park.
As I walked in, looking every part the tailored English gent (from the waist up, at least), I immediately felt underdressed. The jeans didn’t help, admittedly. And the suitcase on wheels created an unwelcome obstacle as I attempted to wrestle it through the revolving door (I was in town for a short stay and in between beds). “Allow me, sir,” the doorman offered, as he deftly swept it from my grasp and ushered me inside.
Carrying through the London restaurant’s lineage, the décor resonated with the same two-tone chic, dark leather chairs and darker wall-panelling both contrasting with and complementing the crisp white table cloths and sheer lighting. David Bailey’s portraits of London’s 60s icon, Jean Shrimpton, completed the seamless Pond-bridging of the two restaurants and as I surveyed the room with my dining companion, Charlie, I saw we were in fine company; immaculately turned out well-to-do Manhattanites added a gentle drone of chatter to give the room a sophisticated ambience.
It’s encouraging to find among the unpronounceable, unidentifiable descriptions of dishes and their accoutrements on the menus of many a fine dining establishment that those who really know what they’re doing have no need for such pretentions and, in Le Caprice’s case, the first thing I saw that told me what I was in for did away with any such mystery: a burger. Further review began to reveal the overwhelmingly familiar; fish and chips, pork chops, skate…and I began to feel slightly dismayed. I know we’re emulating the London offerings but this looked like one step away from getting egg and chips in Magaluf.
Then again, I was forgetting that what they’re doing here is to do just that, offer the best of what Britain and Europe (note the distinction, America) had to offer. Arguably, rather than be put off by being served everything I’d practically grown up with, I should really be approaching this with the seasoned palate of the home-grown expert.
With that in mind, I selected the shepherd’s pie. Ha! If only they knew what they were letting themselves in for. I’ve had more of these for hot dinners than I’ve had…hot dinners. (You know what I mean.) I can knock one of these up with my eyes shut and impress anyone. My mother makes the definitive. I never order these in restaurants because I can, simply, get the best one at home. Why go out to be disappointed? More’s the point, why come to New York to be disappointed?
I wondered how they would tackle this. I imagined finely-piped potato, something added to it for a touch of flair (horseradish, maybe?), or perhaps the meat will have been marinated for hours beforehand. Was it all in the presentation? But what arrived was an assuming portion of, well, shepherd’s pie. No frills. No fanciness. Other than some greenery we’d ordered as a side dish there was merely a little jug of gravy, should I desire it. I took a forkful.
And my mouth nearly fell open.
It suddenly made me realise that everything about every shepherd’s pie I’d had in England (including my own) was bland, lacklustre and lacking. Here was a richness in texture and flavour I’d never thought possible. Yet, within there seemed nothing more than mince. I dissected it searching for a secret ingredient but it hadn’t seemed dressed with anything alluring, there were no carrots or peas added and the onion seemed non-existent. Sometime ago, Heston Blumenthal ran a series on television where he tried to create the definitive British classics. I can see why he never attempted shepherd’s pie, he probably came here and realised he couldn’t compete. I can’t wait to see what they’d do with Toad in the Hole.
Charlie, too, was equally smitten, although thoroughly absorbed in her blood-red burger. If British cuisine had been a challenge, imagine the competition if you’re going to order a burger in New York. Anyway, back to mine…accompanied by a fine Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Shea vineyards, I could have flown home a happy man there and then.
But there was more. Buoyed by renewed enthusiasm for British favourites, next up was a puff pastry rhubarb tart. Perfectly-textured, flamingo-pink fruit with just that bump of a bite to it, was dressed over glazed puff pastry so light the like of which would make Michel Roux hang up his chef’s whites. If only I’d had one more night in town I’d have gone back for the fish and chips.
If you’re after the best of British cuisine, book a flight to New York. You can go straight to Le Caprice from the airport, too. They accept luggage.
Le Caprice New York, The Pierre Hotel, 795 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10065-8402, United States. Tel: +1 (212) 940 8195. Website.