Saturday, October 9, 2010

Takin' it to the Streets

I‘m overcome temptation at 9 o-clock in the morning, every day that I walk to class.  That’s because I have to walk by the street food vendors.   The two stalls, side-by-side, are the hot dog man and the peanut man.  And somehow, the smell of the two together is really quite enticing.  The hot dog man brings about a smoky sweetness with his grilling sausages and tangy, nose-tingling fried onions.  And then a sickly sweet smell emanates from the peanut man and his huge vat of bubbling caramel and nuts.  Yet I resist.  I have yet to succumb to the products of these good gentlemen.  The stories I’ve heard of street food poisoning haunt my mind and I overthink the cleanliness of these little booths and the cooking utensils.  And, as good as it smells, how will it taste?

But then, last week, my street food stall perceptions changed completely.

You see, this week is London Restaurant Festival. Normally this would be the most exciting thing in the world for me.  The restaurants have new menus, just for fortnight, awards are given, events held, and it’s all in the name of London food.  The bad news: the events are unbelievably expensive.  If there is one thing that needs to be said about London food culture, it is that it’s not for the frugal.  If you are okay with living on soup and sandwiches for the rest of your life, I’m sure you could get by, but if things like meat or homemade dishes are important to you, then it’s gonna cost a pretty penny.  So I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t exactly participate in this food festival… 

…That is, until I read an article about the Street Kitchen.  Award-winning chefs Jun Tanaka and Mark Jankel were really thinking about us poor college kids when they came up with this contribution to the London Restaurant Festival.  Instead of participating with their own restaurants, they decided to set up a mobile pop-up restaurant, called the Street Kitchen, in Covent Garden for two weeks, serving gourmet British style food for pennies.  The chefs said, “We thought it would be great to do something more accessible for the Restaurant Festival – fundamentally it should be for all Londoners.”  They were even inspired by the high-quality food of New York’s street vendors and hoped to bring that aspect to London’s notoriously lacking street food.  From this goals came the Street Kitchen and Tanaka and Jankel have been diligently cooking, grilling, and frying on their cart for the past week.  And with five gourmet menu options, including dessert, how could I pass this up?  The food is local, organic, cheap, and prepared by renowned chefs, and the money they make is going to charity. 

 So on Wednesday I finally got my street food fix.

I chose the grilled, smoked fillet of salmon, with roasted beets and potatoes.  And for six pounds, I could not believe the quality, especially of the salmon.  The smoky flavor was very interesting.  It kind of added a bit of that taste of burnt marshmallows, but in a really good way.  It was kind of sweet, kind of savory, and had a lovely salty fresh fish taste.  It was incredibly moist and flaky and served with a mustardy cream sauce and fresh dill.  The potatoes, seasoned with horseradish and the beets were superb accompaniments.  And I loved the laid back quality of it all.  The cooks inside the stall were relaxed and joking, having fun doing their job, and despite the fact that the food was gourmet, the atmosphere of the Street Kitchen was very unpretentious.  I will be sad to see it go, but am so happy I was able to participate in London Restaurant Festival, without putting serious damage on my bank account.

Oh, and as a little postscript, the Street Kitchen must have put me in a street food mood, because the next day, I succumbed to my senses and had to check out the source of a sweet smell coming from a little stall outside the Tube station.  It was The Belgian Food Company’s waffle stand, featuring Belgium’s lesser-known Liege waffles. These are NOT the classic waffles made from pancake batter that we have in the states.  Not at all.  These waffles are actually made from yeast dough, are left to rise, and are then coated in pearl sugar before being placed on the waffle iron.  What emerges is a much sturdier waffle, very tender and bready, yet sweet on the inside.  The outside however is what’s significant.  The sugar, melted from the heat of the iron, coats the waffle, and after being removed, hardens into a crunchy, caramel/burnt sugar shell.  After the first bite, I was in complete bliss, vowing never to let any street food prejudices stop me again.

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