We all know the jokes about English cuisine whereas France is recognized as a gastronomic superpower. Yet, England has worked diligently in recent years to overturn its reputation as the Land of Spotted Dick and Mushy Peas. Has progress been made? I set out recently to visit both London and Paris to perform a side-by-side comparison — and to also take a family vacation. My completely unscientific analysis follows.
Round One – Pub vs Café
London: THE PUB
Dining in a pub can be fraught with quirkiness. Most seem composed of tiny rooms with 5-foot ceilings, beams against which you will bang your head, and the occasional tree growing up through the floor. They cannot serve children after 7 p.m., but they will tell you that it’s cutting it too close if you arrive just before 6. This does parse with the widely accepted fact that the English hate their children. To place an order, one has to fight through the throng at the bar to order from the bartender, who will then inform you that they are out of half of what you wanted to order. Then, one goes back to the table to get an alternative option and return again to wait at the bar, only to learn that they just sold out of the Hunter’s Chicken. Finally, one orders Fish and Chips for everyone. Multiple rounds of stout fill the 90 minutes between order and pickup.
Paris: THE CAFÉ
Hey, look – an actual menu that has things that are really in the kitchen; waiters that take orders and bring you your food; doors that open out on the street to let in fresh air and sunlight; a beautiful bar, burnished to a mahogany glow with glittering brass and mirrors. Meals are simple and straightforward, executed with flawless attention. One café we ate at offered foie gras as a garnish on the salad – a big plus in my book as it turns a salad into something I want to eat. You can spend as much money as you want for a fancy meal in Paris, but I am content eating every night in these lovely cafés.
WINNER: Paris. Hands-down.
Round Two – Food Markets
London: BOROUGH MARKET
This sprawling amalgamation is located on London’s South Bank. It appears to have grown organically betwixt the iron pillars of a rattling overhead train — like a commercially-zoned fungus. It is a warren of open stalls periodically interrupted by random storefronts. Imagine if a Harry Potter movie had an outdoor baby with Grand Central Station, and you get a sense of the general aesthetic.
Stalls sell everything from French Cheeses and Italian olive oils to prepared Indian foods and North African Spice blends. You see the trend? There’s not much specializing in actual English cuisine ( for good reason), but there is an English charcuterie stall. Our hotel has a kitchenette, so I opt to buy Heritage Bacon. Heritage here means that they keep a band of defoliated skin on the outside of the slab. When I attempt to cut it into strips the next morning for breakfast, the dull knives in the kitchenette are not up to the task. I have to hew misshapen shards off the lump with my jackknife, but they are delicious when cooked and have a rustic Game of Thrones appeal.
Paris: GALERIES LAFAYETTE HAUSSMANN
Looks to have been designed by Apple in Cupertino. The “market” is awash in Italian marble, stainless steel and acres of tempered glass. Step inside, and the first thing you see is a Pierre Hermé macaron stand. Eclairs by Pastry Chef Sadaharu Aoki that look more like jewelry than sweets, a life-size chocolate fox sleeping in a candy burrow with baby chocolate foxes snuggled against her— such are the things you will find at Galeries Lafayette Haussmann.
I don’t know what the hell I would do with a life-size chocolate fox, but I want one. Yet there is nowhere to eat here unless you pay a premium for table service. This is just a classy food museum with no random chairs an American guy can sit at to snarf down a butter and cheese baguette. I buy a Kugelhopf and a box of Macarons, and we leave to eat in the leafy park outside.
WINNER: London. There is no denying the superior quality and presentation of France, but the shaggy approachability of Borough Market makes it a more comfortable environment where I don’t feel like a slob wandering around and eating a donut while getting powdered sugar all over my coat. If I pulled this stunt at Galeries Lafayette, I think they’d call the gendarmerie.
Round Three – Our Fancy Meal
We’d arranged for a babysitter in both cities so we could have an adult night out in each. After accounting for the booking fee, the four-hour minimum, and the tip, London’s babysitting service came out to over $120, so babysitters please take note and consider moving to London. The Paris sitter was arranged through a friend and only cost around $80 for two hours. This sitter did not speak English, although she clearly understood the universal language of making-a-lot-of-money.
We chose this Michelin-starred restaurant for our big night out. It had become clear by this point that the best food in this city was anything other than English. To this end, any type of cuisine arising out of Great Britain’s bloody history of colonial domination comes recommended. In this case, we went with Indian.
Jamavar clearly displayed its Michelin pedigree. The clubby dining room was awash in sumptuous detail, down to the china and place settings. Service was deft and unobtrusive, and the food was very good. Dessert especially was a surprise – noteworthy considering that my wife is a pastry chef. I love the spice profiles of cardamom, clove, turmeric and the like. All this was a welcome respite from the typical monotonic brown fare of London. Still, I could not shake from the back of my mind what this meal was costing us in terms of babysitting fees.
Paris: Arnaud Nicholas
Arnaud Nicholas’s charcuterie-forward menu and international buzz puts it clearly on a Michelin track. When we arrived, we marveled at the charcuterie station, which mimicked a sushi bar, with exquisitely composed terrines and pates arranged like high-dollar finfish. Still, three courses of cold meats and spreads was a bit much. I like an app or a board of these, not a prix fixe menu. Midway through the meal, a group of US security contractors was seated behind us. Their discussions were initially fun to eavesdrop on until they turned to brothels, which made for an awkward date night.
When we left the restaurant and strolled down the boulevard, the sight greeting us at the next corner turned the night on a dime. We’d only seen the Eiffel Tower at a distance before that moment, but here it was in all of its iconic glory. As if on cue, the tower suddenly erupted in a storm of strobe lights from footings to pinnacle, where a rotating beam of light scissored the sky. For us, that was the sublime moment that touched our souls — even to the point we could ignore the peddlers who approached us selling cheap bottles of wine and portable travel adapters. This, in truth, was Paris.
Winner: Tie. London for food (?!); Paris for ambiance.
Clearly, the results are inconclusive. It looks like I’ll have to go back for more investigation. I’ve applied for a babysitting visa, so I can afford it and will write up the findings as soon as I get back. In the meantime, I’ve got my chocolate fox to keep me company. F&D