One of life’s clichés is that whenever foreigners go home, they make a beeline for favorite foods. To the neutral observer, those foods may appear to be available to the exile in their land of residence, but as anyone who has moved away from home knows: it is Not The Same.
No Australian will accept that there is any substitute for a Tim Tam or a Cherry Ripe. Americans will not find a bap or a scone to be a satisfactory equivalent to a buttermilk biscuit. If you’re a Brit there is nothing to compare to an Eccles cake or a malt loaf. If you’re an American who knows a Brit, no doubt you are bored to your back teeth of complaints about Hershey’s chocolate. And so on.
So, since I’m in London, tonight I went for a beef and Guinness pie, in the pie room above the Newman Arms in Fitzrovia. Yes, there are pies in America. They are Not The Same. Some claim it to be the best pie room in the capital: I could not bear witness to that but I will say I eat here at least once whenever I come here and have never been disappointed.
Apparently George Orwell and that notorious drunk Dylan Thomas were both regulars. George Orwell wrote a beautiful essay about the perfect pub, the imaginary Moon Under Water. Perhaps the Newman Arms was one that came close.
The front entrance of the pub isn’t in Newman Street: so you can either slip down Newman Passage to the cobbled alley and in the side door, or come in the front from Rathbone Street. Slip between the drinkers in the bar, not much bigger than a good-sized living room, and squeeze through the door in the corner up the spiral stair. Take your seat beneath the mounted antlers, and try to avoid eye contact with the ancient framed infants. The initial appearance of the banquette will prove to be a false promise, unsupported by its stuffing, and it will sink beneath you with a gentle wheeze. Settle at your table and order a pint of London Pride to sup while you wait for your dinner to appear.
The pie room confines itself to rib-sticking traditional cooking: pies, old fashioned puddings (steak and kidney!), served with proper veg: carrots, cabbage, a couple of new potatoes. Vegetables are not overcooked and the pie is a savory triumph, tender meat, a flaky crust of pastry and pliant layers beneath perfect for mopping up the gravy.
If you have room after your pie you can have a stodgy pudding: rhubarb crumble, sticky toffee pudding, proper custard. Custard!
When I moved to the States I thought the habit of a doggy bag or “shall I put that in a box for you” was absurd. Now that I have been more or less assimilated (resistance was futile) I wish the practice was more widespread. If the pie room is quiet I can sit and read for an hour, waiting for my digestion to make room for pudding. There are times when it’s busy or I’d like to get back to my room, and then I’d love to be able to take the pudding with me, recumbent in its box, and eat it just before sleeping.