Monday, August 22, 2011

The Food of Scotland - Part II

Introduction

If you’ve been paying attention, you saw my last blog post, The Food of Scotland Part I. Perhaps you view this post, Part II, as being derivative, and you’ve come to resent such serialized features. Well, that’s your fault for participating in a society that has learned to nurse every bit of value it can out of every concept. It’s why we have movies like “Harry Potter – The Leaking Gallows Part II Part VI.” (I could easily look up the actual title, but that approximation got a big rise out of my daughter Alexa, so I’m inclined to reuse it. See how this cheap retread thing works?)

So here are the categories of Scottish food I didn’t get to in my last post. Because I started with the most intriguing stuff, this post is really the dregs, the offal, the deli hash—dare I say the haggis—of the topic. You might as well read it, though. Heck, you’ve made it this far.

World Cuisine

When I’m in America, I don’t subsist on American food, any more than I focus on California Cuisine when I’m in California. Likewise, we were eager to try out Scotland’s versions of other countries’ foods. On our first night in Glasgow, we decided to try Japanese and went to a place called Wudon. Their version of the California roll has little pieces of Saltines and crumbled In-N-Out Burger in it. No it doesn’t. Look:

It was great, like all great sushi. I know that’s tautological but I’m going to stick by it. I especially liked the artfully carved wasabi. It was almost too pretty to eat.

(Incidentally, the only bad sushi I’ve ever had at a restaurant was at this all-you-can-eat place where it was made well beforehand and tasted like a refrigerator. My brother and I learned that all you had to do was power through all they had, and then they were forced to start making it fresh, and then it got good.)

There’s a UK-wide chain called Pizza Express. It came recommended and we tried it. I had pizza there.

As you can see, it’s kind of weird ‘za. Not much cheese, but it had some bacon. It sported the highbrow feature of fresh arugula (or “rocket” as the British call it, as if they ever put a man on the moon), tempered by a comfortably sweet and lowbrow ranch dressing. I liked it, though it must be said I like all pizza, even bad pizza. Even frozen pizza. Some time we’re going to have Trashy Food night at home, with Totino’s frozen pizza (the greasy stuff with the fake cheese), some Shasta soda, and maybe even some Fritos.

I’m not sure if pizza counts as Italian, but here’s some French onion soup we had at an Italian place:

It was really very good, and their special touch was not encasing it in melted Swiss cheese. What, French onion soup without Swiss cheese? I guess that’s the Italian way. Following that we had this lasagne:

You might think that’s obviously Italian, but really it was more like American: Franco-American to be precise. Yes, I’m saying the sauce tasted like Chef Boyardee. (Has it ever puzzled you that an American company putting out putatively Italian prepared foods would call itself Franco-American?) Anyway, the sauce wasn’t the only American part: the portion size—enough for a starving cyclist—made me feel like I was back in the U.S. The pasta was really mushy. But the whole thing was smothered in cheese so I can’t really fault it.

Speaking of American:

Full disclosure: we didn’t have this cake in Scotland, but in London where we stayed with friends over July 4th. The man of the house was English-born but had worked in the U.S. for many years. He married an American and took her back to London with him. So, an expatriate and a re-patriate, you could say. They made sure our Independence Day was a satisfying one. I gave the husband a stern lecture about taxation without representation, to which he replied, “Tell me about it. I paid your government plenty in taxes without getting to vote.” Now, you might think I’d be stumped by this retort, but I quickly and boldly fired back, “These colors don’t run!” Amazingly, he hadn’t heard this before and simply looked confused. His wife then sang, “Proud to be an Amer-i-CUUUUN!” Score one for the bluecoats! And how was the cake? Delicious, of course.

We had some really good Indian food in Glasgow, but I somehow neglected to get any photos. Without a thousand words to spare I’ll just have to let the matter drop.

Things we didn’t eat

As with our last trip to the UK, we didn’t eat any Mexican food. There was one place in Glasgow that was faintly praised in our guidebook (something like “If you have to have Mexican in Glasgow, this is your best bet”). It looked pricey, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Mexican food, it’s that cheaper usually means better, and fancy is often lame. So we skipped it, having topped up our blood Mexican levels at the surprisingly decent (and unsurprisingly expensive) taqueria in the San Francisco airport.

We didn’t eat any bubble and squeak (cabbage and potatoes fried together, named after the sound made as it’s cooked) because it wasn’t featured on any menus, I’ve never had it recommended to me, and we weren’t about to try cooking it ourselves. We also didn’t eat hasty pudding unless the porridge we made from a mix qualifies. (It was quick….)

We also didn’t eat any Subway sandwiches, though we saw plenty of Subways in Scotland. I read recently that Subway is now the largest fast food chain in the world. I remember the first one I ever saw, on Broadway near Arapahoe in Boulder. At first, being a dumb kid, I thought it was an actual subway station and couldn’t figure out why there weren’t any others. When I learned it was a restaurant, I mistook it for a creditable one-off like the nearby Mustard’s Last Stand. By the time I learned Subway was a giant chain, I’d also learned that even Mustard’s was a small chain. My idealistic naivetĂ© has continued to be pummeled ever since, with the latest and harshest insult being the closing of my favorite Berkeley joint.

The next thing we didn’t try was the amazing variety of crisps available.

video

In case that went too fast for you, there were pickled onion, cheese & onion, smoky bacon, prawn cocktail, tomato ketchup, roast chicken, and Space Raiders pickled onion. Doing a little research, I found that this Walkers outfit also offers crisps flavored like BBQ rib, Worcester sauce, and Chicken & Stuffin (whatever that is), and that in the past they’ve had Baked Bean, Marmite, Spicy Mango, Australian BBQ Kangaroo, Welsh Rarebit, and even Scottish Haggis. As a matter of fact, Walkers even test-marketed a Cajun-squirrel-flavored crisp.

As a patriot, I find all this a little hard to take. Surely Americans lead the world in consumption of crisps (that is, potato chips); how could we not also be the most innovative in developing new flavors? I took some solace in learning that Walkers is now owned by Frito-Lay. But still.

Speaking of strange flavors we didn’t try, when we went out for Indian we didn’t try the haggis pakora appetizer. I actually wanted to, but my wife Erin pointed out that we hadn’t yet tried regular haggis at that point (though we did get to it later), and also hadn’t yet tried the standard pakora. (There were other components to her argument as well; I believe the phrase “sick and wrong” came into play.)

One other thing we didn’t eat was blood pudding. To be precise: Erin and the kids didn’t eat blood pudding, and I didn’t have seconds of it (i.e., Erin’s uneaten portion). It came with our Full Scottish Breakfast and you can see it in my previous post. As I said there, the blood pudding was a chewy, mulchy little disk of congealed, salty pig’s blood, perhaps not as little as I’d have liked it to be, and my own portion was a bit of a struggle to get down. I hate to waste food, but then that’s arguably not food. (It’s possible that good blood pudding would be a totally different deal, but I’ll believe that when I see it.)

Kids’ Menus

We were pleased, as we’d been during our London trip a couple of years ago, to see kids’ menus done with some flair. Often, when in restaurants at home, we end up ordering our kids’ food from the regular menu because our kids don’t want chicken nuggets and I’m not about to buy them something I can make well at home, like hot dogs or grilled cheese. A good rule of thumb for kids’ offerings: when the food arrives, I should feel tempted to use my superior size and strength to seize my kid’s meal and eat it myself. Thus it was with this spaghetti Bolognese:

The kids’ choices at American restaurants often come with fries, a basic ice cream dessert, and juice or soda (which I think should be a controlled substance). In the UK there are things like side vegetables and actual appetizers (served as a separate course). Check this out:

Red bell peppers? I could see those inciting a tantrum in many an American kid. The little baked doodads had some name but I can’t remember it. Pizza holes? That’s not it. Anyway, they’re just balls of baked dough but they were a hit, and they gave the kids something to do, in the absence of crayons, while the rest of the food was being made.

Now check out this dessert:

That sundae was about the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted. (I taste all my kids’ desserts in accordance with the family Parental Tariff policy.) The chunks of caramel were Wonka-esque miracles of sugar reduction. About the only way to make this dessert more potent would be to supply a flame and an extra spoon. Meanwhile, check out the little frothy teacup. That was merely steamed milk with some cocoa powder—fun to sip, but not very substantial. I suspect it’s designed as a gateway beverage to expensive cappuccinos for when these kids graduate to the standard menu.

Weirdness

Dining out in Scotland was occasionally weird, due either to the food or the service. Sometimes it was good-weird, as with the brilliant haggis (and haggis stromboli) I described in my last post. So it was too with this offering (from the kids’ menu) which was called a battered sausage:

In advising Alexa, the waitress had described the battered sausage as “quite lovely,” and after tasting it I have to say, it really was delicious. It’s just one of the oddest foods I’ve ever seen.

Another oddity was the tea Erin had at the Japanese place. The tea itself was pretty standard green tea; what made it weird was the giant tea bag, easily the largest I’ve ever seen. In this photo it’s hard to appreciate the sheer size of the thing unless you know that the glass behind it is a full-size mug. This tea bag was the size of a chile relleno. Amazing.

In the overall experience category, the greatest weirdness was this Thai place we went to for lunch. It was really upscale, but the lunch special was reasonable—at least, no more unreasonable than any of the other places we went. (Frankly, the pound was murdering our weak dollar.) Though we went right at lunchtime, we were the only people in the place. It was opulently decorated, with large elephant statues made of marble; cloth tablecloths; cloth napkins; a coat check; and like five people waiting on us. It was absolutely dead quiet in there. Shifting your napkin on your lap was an audible event (bringing to mind those martial arts movies where every time a fighter swings his arm there’s this tremendous ripping noise). The staff never seemed to leave the dining room: when not serving, they would stand sentinel. We were afraid to talk.

Before the food came out, they brought these elaborate heated platforms to put the serving plates on:

When the entrees arrived, the servers set them down extremely quietly, as if there was a baby sleeping nearby. We were all pretty nervous by this point. They plated the rice from a serving bowl but then whisked it away instead of leaving it on the table, as though the sight of leftover rice was somehow disgraceful. I think the serving spoons were sterling silver. Here is the food. The main point of this photo is how worried Lindsay looks in the background (even though she’s gazing upon a plate of Pad Thai, everybody’s favorite).

The food itself was quite good. Erin didn’t trust the chicken (in the foreground of the photo) because it seemed too tender. I think she was just spooked in general. (I do wonder, though, if she wasn’t still reacting to a tequila ad from the ‘90s that showed a table of picked-over dishes at a Chinese restaurant with the broken pieces of a fortune cookie and a fortune slip reading, “That wasn’t chicken.” A five-foot-tall print of this ad was affixed to the bus shelter right outside an already doomed Chinese restaurant in our old San Francisco neighborhood.)

As the staff worked hard to make our Thai lunch enjoyable, the pressure really started to get to us. Perhaps this is how people feel who are unknowingly taking part in psychological experiments. Could there be one-way glass somewhere? Hidden cameras? It dawned on me that the place didn’t have any windows.

One thing we missed about American restaurants is how the check is always brought early, usually with the comment, “I’ll take that whenever you’re ready.” I’ve heard that visiting Europeans think this is terribly rude, as though they’re being rushed out of the restaurant. I think they’re mistaken, and that American waiters are entirely sincere—they’re simply giving us the freedom to be on our way as soon as we’re damn good and ready. Which we really were at this Thai place. Erin isn’t shy about asking for the check, but to our surprise the waitress—who had scarcely said a word up to this point—politely refused: “I can’t bring it yet because you’re not done eating.” She sounded vaguely pained, as there were a subtext: “They’ll fire me if I do!” If there were a Thai version of the French “C’est impossible” I’m sure she’d have used it.

Conclusion

Gosh, I hate to finish on a somber note. I’m sure there are people—brazen crime bosses, perhaps—who could have really enjoyed that Thai place. Overall, we found Scotland a great place to eat, from the haggis to the ale, the superior British bacon to the gorgeous mussels and local cheeses, the international fare, sculpted wasabi, and the improbably delicious battered sausage. I recommend you get over there and try it sometime. Bring the kids.

dana albert blog

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! You've done it again. What fun, seeing all the laden plates. Excellent prose too.
    Love from yo'mama

    ReplyDelete