HOOKED ON FISCHER’S

Jokes about GERMAN FOOD are the WURST.

Indeed, as Karen Krizanovich writes in The Civilian publication, “What do you think of when you think of German/Austrian food? Terrific strudels…heaps of whipped cream (schlag)…heart attacks…and a FAT ASS.”


It also doesn’t help the region’s image that, as Amol Rajan of The Independent put it, “Austria produced Hitler, a son that no civilized people would ever want to claim.”

So, starting out in the hole with two strikes against this part of the world, you can imagine what a delight it was for me and Joanne to discover great German/Austrian food at FISCHER’S, a wonderful little neighborhood restaurant and cafe tucked away at the top of Marylebone High Street in the heart of London.

The folks behind this place are not amateurs. Owners Jeremy King and Chris Corbin also created the wildly successful London restaurant, The Wolseley.

Fischer’s represents the recreation of a chic yet casual pre-war grand Viennese café with marble tile flooring…shiny dark wood-paneled walls…antique light fixtures…brass fittings…and large oil paintings of burghers (some in silly hats). I found it very convincing and unashamedly untrendy. The staff is alert and charming. Do not expect waiters in lederhosen slap dancing.


I had read about Fischer’s somewhere, and Joanne and I decided to check it out during the day. I was impressed with the understated class and coherence of the place and we selected our table for the evening (#36, a leather banquette corner table; tables 11 and 17 also have nice vistas of the action in the dining room).

The offerings are extensive: cured fish…fat smoky sausages….schnitzels….herring and strudels. The affordable wine list is “Mittel European” – Austrian, German, Hungarian and Alsatian.

The evening crowd from the Marylebone neighborhood appeared to be mainly professionals. A fair number of them were smartly dressed family folks, but kids were few in number (maybe because buggies and strollers are banned). It also appears to be a safe haven for celebs, as they’re routinely spotted here (see below). Nigella Lawson, the famed London food writer (who got choked by her husband at SCOTTS, as I wrote about in a previous WTF blog post) is well known at Fischer’s. Salman Rushdie dines here, too. So does supermodel Kate Moss.

As Grace Dent of The Evening Standard says, “Fischer’s evokes less of a planned destination….and more of an impromptu amble.” That probably fits well with the $50 average price per person…unless, of course, one gets deeply into the wine.

I love the bread service here. The offerings are chewy, heavy, and molasses-y beyond expectations, and come with a ramekin of incredibly rich paprika butter.


For starters, I opted for Chopped Chicken Liver with pickled cucumbers. Joanne said “Yuck” and ordered the Trio of Smoked Salmon – maple-cured, oak-smoked and beetroot-cured ($15).

Now we were on a roll and decided to order a third starter (Was that the wine talking?). It was terrific: three little open-face sandwiches on rye bread called “brotchen”…one with smoked salmon and goat curd, another topped with beetroot and pickled herring, and lastly an artichoke and caper rendition.

After a tiny (but crispy, spicy and tasty) Arugula Salad, Joanne selected Butter Poached Haddock with Asian-Indian spices ($26) for her main, and was very pleased with her choice.

I was on the horns of a dilemma. What really gets Germans going is their Teutonic dedication to cabbage, potatoes, pork, beer and schnapps. And in this regard, Fischer’s does not disappoint. And boy, was I up for it! They feature “Trenchermen’s Sausage Platters” where one can pick any two varieties – including knockwurst, frankfurters, veal bratwurst, wild boar and Kasekrainer (pork and garlic sausage stuffed with Emmenthal cheese) – along with German Potato Salad and “melted onions” (i.e. caramelized), plus sauerkraut and grainy mustard. All for about $20.

At the same time, the Schnitzel section was calling my name with Brunhildan passion. There was Chicken Schnitzel with “jus Parisienne.” There was the classic veal Weiner Schnitzel with lemon…and finally their house specialty: Schnitzel ala Holstein – veal pounded thin, breaded and fried, and crowned with anchovies, capers and a fried egg (with a half-lemon “bra” for squeezing).

I’m a sucker for wretched excess, so of course I caved and ordered the specialty – defying Mies van der Rohe, who famously stated that “less is more” – except when it comes to food, where “less is just less.”

I’m here to tell you: Fischer’s does PROPER SCHNITZELS.

Somehow I had room for dessert. All along, I had assumed that Fischer’s would offer a Sacher Torte (made famous by the Sacher Hotel in Vienna) – a dense, deeply rich chocolate cake laced with apricot jam and served with a massive dollop of schlag on the side. But it wasn’t to be.


Any disappointment we felt quickly vanished, however, when the server brought our strudels – Joanne’s with sour cherry, mine with apple, and both MIT SCHLAG.

They were the BEST we’ve ever had. As Andy Warhol once said, “A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better coke.” I cannot imagine a better strudel at any price.

And so, the Fat Assed Lady joyfully sings!

WTF,
Phil

Rules Still Rules

RULES claims to be London’s oldest surviving restaurant – open for business near Covent Garden since 1798.


As Marina O’Laughlin states in the Guardian, “We all know Rules, don’t we?”

Yes, we do. They have fed Charles Dickens…”Bertie”, King Edward VII of England…two James Bonds, Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore…as well as Paul Newman and Harrison Ford. They’ve soldiered through two world wars and countless domestic conflicts, all the while serving up classic English fare with a huge emphasis on wild-caught game.


On a previous visit, I asked how old the restaurant was. Our server instantly said, “About 20 years younger than your country.”

Rules actually has a kind of fixation on America, as they routinely claim that the reason they’re routinely dismissed by London’s “elite foodie intelligentsia” owes to the fact that they’re always jam-packed with American tourists.


So it’s with this understanding that Joanne and I periodically return to Rules – most recently just a few weeks ago.

Here’s my dilemma: I really love the food, but they piss me off!

Upon arrival, we were greeted at the podium by a pompous, condescending manager who treated us like we were trying to sneak past his velvet rope – even though we had a reservation.

First, he told us that they had no booth for us, as we had requested, and wouldn’t have one for an hour-and-a-half. He said this as I looked over his shoulder at a half-empty dining room.

Ultimately they did find us a corner table (#15) that was just fine, and as we were led there, the host told us that we had to be out in two hours as our table was booked again at 8:00 o’clock.


Our server was pleasant enough as she explained that they were out of prawns….out of hare….and out of pheasant. Again, this was at 6:00 PM. Somebody screwed up on the daily ordering.

I wasn’t particularly annoyed, as we had our eye on other offerings. (By the way: Parasole restaurants occasionally run out of evening specials. We’ll prep 15 of something, and typically they’re gone by 8:30, not 6 PM! Rarely, however, do we run out of a menu item). Clearly, Rules was not at the top of its game.

Having been warned that we’d better vacate by 8 PM, and denied the option of ordering a good chunk of the menu, I began to think that they weren’t going to be happy until we weren’t happy.

My suspicions proved correct. When our server took our appetizer order, she reminded us – for the third time – that we had to be out of the restaurant by 8 o’clock!

Now I was “RED-ASSED.” And I said to Joanne, “They don’t give a shit about us and our evening. They just want to churn tables.”


I summoned the manager and said, “You know, I could have chosen from any number of good London restaurants tonight – The Guinea Grill, the Ivy, St. John, Hawksmoor…but you know what? I CHOSE YOU! And here’s what your attitude is communicating to us: Get ‘em in, seat ‘em anyplace, and get ‘em out. We need this table, NOW!” And yet I CHOSE YOU? … WHY?”

Sometimes it’s hard to be a foodie: I wanted to protect my dignity. I wanted to give them the finger and storm off, but…

THE FOOD IS REALLY GOOD!

So what was I to do? Was the eating experience worth putting up with the abuse? Well, I keep going back, so I guess I have my answer. Apparently I’m not just a slave to food, but a glutton for punishment (“It tastes so good AND hurts so good!”).

Okay, let’s go ……

Jay Rayner of The Guardian writes, “Rules is a theme park iteration of old London.” Here you sink into a “plushy” crimson velvet booth amid swirly red-patterned carpets. The tablecloths are starched white linen. You marvel at the wood-paneled walls, cluttered with hundreds of oil paintings, old portraits, humorous prints and antlers, antlers, antlers everywhere, reinforcing their game story. The interior is utterly overwrought, but I have to say it….”Rules is COZY.”


Joanne and I always go in the fall – me for the WILD GAME; for Joanne, anything but.

Rabbit and hare are served up in different ways – the rabbit is braised and accompanied by butter-loaded gratin dauphinois. The hare is a little more adventuresome – accompanied by earthy pheasant sausage stuffed with the innards of the bird (watch out Fergus Henderson; they’re meddling on your turf).

Rules is well known for their Pot Pies, particularly Steak & Kidney Pie, which I’ve tried and loved, with its thick, rich gravy and suet crust. I’ve yet to try the Wild Boar Pot Pie, but how could it not be excellent?

Shepherd’s Pie is a signature dish, and in a nice twist it comes with lamb, not beef, and a topping of butter-loaded mashed potatoes toasted under the broiler.

Seared Scallops and Pork Cheeks are an unusual pairing, but good (I always say, the best way to prepare seafood is by adding meat to it).

In addition to Guinness Beef Stew, which sounds great, they feature a Rib of Beef for Two, again with dauphinois potatoes, savoy cabbage, winter vegetables, greens and Yorkshire pudding. It’s a big, impressive statement and will run you about $42 per person. Check out the photo.

On our recent visit, we had appetizers of Rabbit Rilettes with pickled onions (I loved it; Joanne hated it). Since it was hunting season, I tried the Venison Carpaccio with pickled red cabbage, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and watercress. The red cabbage was a perfect counterpoint to the gaminess of the venison. Although I was tempted (Joanne, less so), the Beef, Kidney and Oyster Pudding sounded like an adventure. Next time.

For mains, Joanne had the Seared Scottish Salmon with Mussels (but, alas, no prawns).

During our previous visits, I’ve had several versions of partridge. This time I had Red Leg Partridge with creamed savoy cabbage and bacon. The meat was flavorful and tender – and tiny flecks of buckshot provided additional texture.

Amongst the other feathered and furred offerings was Young Grouse with red currant jelly, crispy bacon, gaufrette potatoes and bread sauce. I didn’t go for it. Grouse can be very strong, and the last time I had it in London was at St. John (where our waiter described it as having a “rather metallic taste”). Nicely plated and presented, but too gamey even for me.

We ended our meal with an order of syrupy Sticky Toffee Pudding with walnuts and crème fraiche, as well as a Flintstonian wedge of English Stilton Cheese from the trolley, cut and served with ceremony. Neither offering is to be missed.

So here’s my bottom line: If it’s fall and you’re up for a generous taste of game or comfort food, Rules occupies a rare position among restaurants: It doubles as a tourist magnet as well as a superb restaurant. But DO NOT GO in a bad or combative mood, because if you’re on the cusp of getting pissed, I guarantee they will MAKE you pissed.

Even KATE MIDDLETON, who has a “pinky vodka” drink named after her, goes to RULES. I’m certain that she is awarded one of the coveted velvet booths.


And she owns a gun!

WTF

PHIL

Dresses Upstairs, Undressed Mallards Downstairs

From my first trip to London in the ‘70s, I fell in love with the city – the hustle and bustle and the vitality really connected with this Minnesota boy. The pomp and pageantry of it all…the Changing of the Guard…the jet-black horses and their mounts wearing brass breast plates shiny as trumpets…the Tower of London….Westminster Abbey…….so, so different from Minnesota and the farm town where I grew up.


But perhaps because Pete and I had just opened our first restaurant, MUFFULETTA, what resonated with me most were the FOOD HALLS of HARRODS department store in Knightsbridge. I’d never seen anything like them; never IMAGINED anything like them.

Here’s the thing about food halls in London (and Paris, Tokyo, Seoul…): They tend to reside in department stores (probably due to the incredible density of the urban population in the city.) And while SELFRIDGES’ basement food halls are impressive….as well as the top-floor food hall at HARVEY NICHOLS, nothing – and I mean nothing – compares to HARRODS.

First a bit of background……

HARRODS, at one time the largest department store in the world with over a million square feet spread over 7 floors, opened in 1849 and suffered a fire in 1883 that destroyed the building. When it reopened a few years later, the building boasted a new palatial style – with cherub-adorned terracotta tiles out front, swirling Art Nouveau windows, and a huge Baroque-style dome.


HARRODS sold exotic pets from Africa, Asia and South America ‘til the mid-1970s. They sold cars for a while and even had a funeral planning service. During World War II, they stopped selling luxury goods and transformed the shoe department to manufacture parachutes and uniforms. HARRODS boasts of having the first escalator as well.

The food halls are on the ground floor, and they are immense. I don’t know exactly how big, but I would suspect that they occupy close to 100,000 square feet – about the size of a Target store.


I had never in all my life seen merchandising like this. Pick a category of food; Harrods utterly dominated it. Charcuterie, for example: so beautifully exhibited and so “nervy” and bold and robust. And there was a natural beauty and innocence – a “grittiness” in the presentation of these carcasses of hare and Mallard ducks on marble slabs, (accompanied by wines appropriate for game). Then there were the Christmas turkeys cascading upside down from the ceiling. You can imagine Charles Dickens writing about that.

The fresh seafood? It transcended a mere “display;” it was sculpture.

HARRODS divides its food hall into several departments, each dominating a category – meat, produce, bakery and patisserie, charcuterie and hams, candy and treats, cheese and so on…..punctuated by a dozen or so sit-down food venues, including spaces rented to excellent London restaurants such as BENTLEY’S SEAFOOD. (I’ll write about Bentley’s in a separate posting sometime.)

Then something happened.

Mohamed al Fayed, a wealthy Egyptian, bought HARRODS in 1985. If you recall, his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana were later killed in a violent car crash in Paris. He dedicated a shrine – more than that, a grotto – to them in the store. Check out the picture. I don’t know if it’s still there.


In 1989, Fayed introduced a dress code….no more flip-flops….or high-cut shorts…..or swimwear…or thong sandals.

Following the death of Dodi and Princess Di, Fayed observed that neither Prince Charles nor the Queen were shopping at HARRODS any longer (the closing of the flip-flop department might have been the last straw for them). In retaliation, he removed the Royal Crest.


Coinciding with Fayed’s other decisions, the food halls began to change around that time as well, losing some of the “earthy” merchandising that I had fallen in love with. The seafood “sculpture” replaced its freshly caught fish with jars of seafood products. The carcasses of wild rabbits and Mallard ducks were now fully dressed and stored behind refrigerated glass. The Christmas turkeys were butchered and cleaned up as well – no feathers, no head, no feet…..NO FUN.

In fact, most all of the meats came off the ornate marble carving tables and were moved behind glass. That’s also where the dry aging now takes place.

These changes might have been made by Mohamed al Fayed or the London Health Department, and undoubtedly they increased efficiency and safety, but they still left me feeling a little down, a bit nostalgic. I’ve always preferred earthy and gritty to sleek and polished.

I’ll get over it.

And I’ll go back time and again and again…because Harrods’ food halls remain as arresting and impressive, as huge and beautiful, as ever….more than anything you’ve ever experienced.


WTF

PHIL

Getting Burnt at Roast

While in London a few years ago Joanne and I set out in the early morning from our hotel near Hyde Park for a long, long walk. Our destination: BOROUGH MARKET, the 1000-year-old wholesale and retail market in the Southwark neighborhood in Central London. It’s on the same side of the River Thames as The Tate Modern and The London Eye, and directly across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The two-hour walk is mostly along the River Thames and the payoff for our trek, in addition to the market itself, was a seafood lunch at SWEETING’S across the river from the market (more about SWEETING’S in a later posting).


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