Friday, September 19, 2008

Another Magical City

How many places can you go that are so old that people don’t even have records of all that has transpired there? How far from Italy can you get and still see remnants of Roman baths? Are there cities that were inhabited by both Vikings and Romans during different times whose primary defenses could be high walls and moats? And if such a place exists, what’s it like today? Could it be a vibrant city that finds little time for sleep? Are the streets perhaps lined with century old buildings with modern storefronts? And is it possible that there is still excavation going on where more is being learned each day? And more importantly, where could this place have anything damned good to eat?!

Well friends, Welcome to York!

York Minster Cathedral

What a gem. A small, vibrant and ancient city in the heart of England. Its known history is beyond rich and virtually inconceivable to us Americans whose history dates back just a few centuries. Walking the streets here is literally walking through time. The Roman occupation from 43 AD to 410 AD is more than lightly evidenced. They built a wall that surrounds the entire city that can be walked on to this day. The gates and bars that are strategic entrances are amazingly constructed and breathtaking to see.

After Roman occupation, there is little documentation of what went on here. There were actually several hundred years of unknown. Evidence suggested that city infrastructure fell off for a period and it is believed that people mainly farmed and lived in nearby local lands. Eventually, in a quest to bring Christianity to England, Pope Gregory re-established York in the early part of the 7th Century. For the next 2 centuries there was a continued settlement.

Another significant historic event for all of England was the Viking invasion and occupation of York in 866. Tiring of the long battles for this northern city, King Alfred of Wessex turned over the city to Danelaw 2 years later. This was the 1st true north and south division of Britain. The Vikings presence was significant because they advanced the city as a true and contemporary center for trade and marketing. Streets that were built then (Coppergate and Stonegate) are walked to this day.

Well the Danes fell to the Saxons eventually and while the history continues through the great British Monarchies, this city has continued to flourish and is now a major Euro hotspot. And what of the food, you ask? OK, so I have to admit that the Brits still find greater comfort in beer than food. And I think Pub fare is a direct ancestor of my middle school cafeteria lunch. But that being said, there were definite culinary jewels in this crown of thorns.

After a long day of touring the city, I was quite hungry. I was told by one of my new friends that I must go to the Blue Bicycle. This is supposedly the foodie destination in the city. After some directions, off I went. It was only a few minute walk from my hotel (actually the whole city was only a few minute walk from my hotel). Unfortunately for me, the rest of York’s visitors had heard of this place too because when I asked for a table for one without a reservation, I was practically scolded. Well, it WAS Saturday at 7 PM. So I made a reservation for the following night and strode off to take my chances elsewhere. Here’s the kicker. Just a few storefronts away was Mason’s Bistro Bar.

Apparently a newer player in the York food scene this unheralded place seemed eager to see me. It was small but charming. Now to be fair, I was set up to be disappointed. I was so looking forward to my original plan. Having a seat here felt like a consolation prize and I was still smarting a bit from the gentle scolding I’d received for not having a reservation down the road. But I ordered a glass of wine and perused the menu. I settled on a Salmon Gravadlax starter and a Braised Oxtail as a main course (after the tongue I’d had earlier in the week, I thought why not have a go at the other end?). Now I’ve made Gravadlax a few times and it was right tasty, but this was unbelievable. Presented in a Martini glass over some baby greens, this dish was as beautiful as it was delicious.

The salmon from this part of the world is more delicate that its American cousin and has a fitting place in this dish. The texture was creamy and the savory, elegant mouthfuls just melted away as they passed my lips. The perfume of the dill exquisitely enhanced the fish. In my 17 day trip, this was the only dish I would describe as succulent.

Next came the Oxtail. Now I said I was ready to be disappointed but the Nordic gods who once were heralded in this city were shining down upon me. This beast was tender with a hearty and beefy flavor. This almost indescribable dish was presented over some wonderfully mashed potatoes with a beef broth and a side of roasted root vegetables. This was comfort food, British style. And with the light nip in the air it was well received.

Making the meal even more enjoyable was the proprietor. He was a gentlemanly elder chap who knew his way around a conversation regarding American football. When he told me who his all-time top 3 quarterbacks were, I’d say he got it pretty correct. He also kept me company as I was dining alone.

Now as most of you may know, I’m not one to chat about desserts much. In this instance though, my eye was drawn to a plumb cheesecake. I’d never heard of such a thing. I gave it a whirl. Not the cheesecakes that we are used to texture wise and there would probably be a few New York Italians that would scoff but this was damned good. I found it sweet and plumby and could have easily eaten another.

Thus far this was my favorite place. I walked out with a much higher spirit that I anticipated. I then pub crawled my way back too my hotel because I had another full day in York.

After another day of sightseeing and pubbing, my dinner reservation at The Blue Bicycle was at hand. Like most buildings in York, this establishment has a rich history as well. There’s a downstairs area that during the 18th century was a place for ladies of the evening to entertain their gentleman callers. The carved out wall spaces are still there. I am told this practice has since ceased (OK I asked).

It took me too long to realize the Blue Bicycle in front was not a coincidence

For a starter I went with another Salmon dish. This was more of a ceviche style that was marinated in lime and brown sugar and served with a Vodka and Beet mousse. This was over cucumber and pickled fennel. Here’s a “Louis Loves Food” first. I didn’t like this dish at all. As wonderful as this dish looked on the chalkboard, it was way too busy for me. Not only that but I didn’t see how the elements blended or complemented each other. I was also blasted a couple of times with lime juice that went to my nose. And the salmon tasted like some raw salmon that was just placed in the middle of this cacophony. Strike one. Now to be fair, this did come from the specials board which is often a place where a chef can whimsically play with his entrées.

Well disappointed with my starter, my main course is set before me. I was now staring at 3 beautifully rare slices of Lamb loin, a pumpkin puree topped with wilted spinach and black pudding (yes, a blood sausage). Knowing that every hill top in the UK has a herd of sheep on it, these are fresh and local. These lamb graze on open pasture that is remarkably lush with an unending supply of fresh grass. The end result is a tender and more delicate flavor. Distinctly different than its American or even New Zealand cousin. I loved each bite of this. The black pudding was different than the Scottish version I’d had or even the ones I’d eaten since (black pudding is part of all traditional British breakfasts). It was more delicate and less dense. It had a moistness to it that I hadn’t appreciated with the others. There was nothing bad to say about this dish at all.

Ok, so how do I rate the Blue Bicycle? Well it was excellent really if you take away the appetizer. And considering that it’s not a menu staple, I would say I would return. It was a bit pricy though. In fact most of the UK was. My Lamb alone was 22 pounds which is about 40 dollars. That’s high even by UK standards but even modest restaurants were more expensive that you and I are used to in the states. And if my boss reads this (she does at times), I did not expense the Blue Bicycle dinner.

No food discussion of York would be complete without a quick Yorkshire Pudding reference. So to accompany the Haggis, black pudding, and various Ox parts we have enjoyed, Yorkshire Pudding was also born from the impoverished English (there must have been a lot of poor people here at one time). The difference is that Yorkshire Pudding is made with normal ingredients and it is NOT pudding. It’s sort of a cross between a puff pastry and a dinner roll. The idea is to fill up on this bread component so you eat less meat, a practice not lost on today’s restaurants. It is traditionally served doused in onion gravy but there are many variations. Yorkshire pudding is made with a batter. It is added to a super hot cooking vessel of some sort, often cast iron, which has been greased with pan drippings, traditionally from an accompanying roast beef. It is then baked off for 15 to 20 minutes until it puffs and rises. The result has deeper brown edges than most rolls and the pan drippings sort of meld into the crust making for a very savory flavor. As the old saying goes, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a pub or restaurant that serves Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding. I probably ate this 4 or 5 times over 3 weeks and loved it. This one was my favorite. It was from a Carvery (original name for a buffet style place where the bloke cuts your meat from a CARVING station) called Russels. Also for this one, I chose Ham instead of the Roast Beef. The accompaniments listed below were delicious as well.

Clockwise from 12 o'clock: pickled zucchini and pearl onions, ham with gravy, caramelized onions and fennel, Yorkshire pudding, dressing and braised leeks

Well folks, I’ve taken you through York and it was really exciting. I’m less than an hour from landing in Tampa. I haven’t seen Lisa or Olivia in 17 days and I miss them terribly. I can’t wait for the hugs and a rousing game of Candyland. I’m only home a few days before heading off to New England and then Houston. I plan on spending some time back in my kitchen so I’ll get back with you very soon.


1 comment:

Andrew said...

Hi, great post. York is one of my favourite places to visit in the UK - its a great mix of rural beauty and a vibrant, historical centre. That Yorkshire pudding looks amazing! We stayed at this hotel in York, and the food was amazing - cant wait to get back!