Smart Mouth: Eating eel at ease in London
The way some people talk about dining in London, you'd think that the only foods available were trendy, foreign or impossibly chic. Can you find a tasty, traditional meal there? Something that was enjoyed before the era of celebrity chefs, fusion menus and wine bars?
Well, nothing is more old-school London than pies, eels, mash and liquor. London's meat pies are almost rectangular, double-crusted, filled with ground beef and seasoned with just a tiny bit of salt and pepper. With plenty of mashed potatoes, a ladleful of that bright green parsley gravy called "liquor" and an optional side of cooked eel, they were once the city's traditional hot lunch.
True, in the hustle of the financial center, they've been gone for decades, replaced by the same modern quick-service establishments you'll find everywhere. (The first place I ate pies and eels -- on that street called "The Cut" -- is now a sushi bar.) However, a bit of searching turned up three classic shops that weren't far from downtown.
On Bethnal Green Road, two of the last remaining outposts, both called Kelly and both insisting that they're unrelated, held their ground. My first stop was S&R Kelly at No. 284. I almost walked past the very ordinary storefront and into a neighboring curry shop but spotted my error at the last second. The tile walls and plain benches looked as though they've witnessed the consumption of many millions of pies. Indeed, the owners claimed to have been at this location for a hundred years.
On offer was a simple plate; a "scrape" of mashed potatoes (always called "mash") and a small pie, all smothered in parsley gravy. The only other food choice was eel, either stewed, served warm with that same parsley gravy, or jellied, chilled in a sort of mild aspic. I chose stewed and was handed my pie, eel and potato on a plate with liquor poured over everything. The mash and liquor seemed as unseasoned as baby food, and the pie turned out to be roughly the same. Yet with a few dashes of salt and pepper and a splash of vinegar, the whole thing came alive.
Don't fear those eels! They have a pretty bad reputation here in the States, but Londoners have been eating them for centuries. Originally caught in the Thames and still found in waters all around Europe, they have the intensity of sardines and the texture of scallops with just a little bone in the middle.
G. Kelly at 414 Bethnal Green Rd. is another classic shop, minus the eel. I wanted to know why they didn't serve it, and when I asked, the woman behind the counter gave me a long dissertation on correct fish storage procedures. Sadly, I was busy eating my pie and mash and didn't take notes. G. Kelly did have one thing that S&R didn't: spoons. With a soup spoon instead of a knife, I was easily able to clean every last bit of parsley liquor from my plate.
By the time I got to Clark's Restaurant at 46 Exmouth Market in Islington, on a small pedestrian street filled with restaurants and boutiques, I had spent the better part of a day searching for pie and mash shops that it turned out no longer existed. Clark's was the real deal, though. In the same location for 48 years, it oozed tradition. It serves small and large pies, scoops (not scrapes) of mash, liquor and eels. Here, I tried a bowl of stewed eels with liquor along with a plate of pie, mash and more liquor. Clark's was also the most civilized of the three, offering napkins, knives and spoons with the eat-in meals, a touch that I, for one, appreciated.
Were there differences between the shops? Yes, small ones: drier potatoes, creamier liquor or more or less tender pie crust. All gave the same sense of old London, though, of food from a time when chili vinegar or hot mustard were the only spicy things that people ate, when life was slow enough that anybody had time to sit down to a hot lunch, and when food traditions hadn't yet been threatened enough to be called "food traditions" in the first place.