WHILE LIVING IN LONDON a few years ago, I discovered that virtually all of the stereotypes I had heard about the United Kingdom were true: it rains all the time, Britons have bad teeth, and their food sucks.
As both Paul Krugman and NPR have elucidated, the current cuisine was standardized during the Victorian era, when early urbanization and industrialization forced Londoners to eat canned goods, preserved meats, and root vegetables that store well. The culinary bastards that emerged from that period include lard-rich meat pasties, gravy-laden steaks and bangers, and unimaginative, oily fish and chips, sometimes served with a sad afterthought of mushy peas.
That’s why I was intrigued to discover The Fat Radish, a British-influenced eatery in New York City’s Lower East Side. Opened in October 2010, the restaurant is a spin-off of Silkstone, a premium event planning and catering company, and the brainchild of Ben Towill, Phil Winser, and Executive Chef Nicholas Wilber. With curiosity and high expectations, a friend and I decided to check it out.
The decor, inspired by “the original Covent Garden marketplace,” gives both a clean yet aged feel, thanks to the use of white brick and simple wooden tables and stools.
The Fat Radish’s eponymous crudités, in a bed of olive oil, proved bland and underwhelming, but it was soon forgotten with a stiff, well-mixed Manhattan. Sitting in one of the corners, I noticed how long and narrow the restaurant was. Like many of New York’s hip eateries, Radish’s popularity requires its patrons to sit awkwardly close to one another. A trip to the bathroom requires moving one’s table and gingerly squeezing between another guests’ table without knocking over precarious drinks. But this was no great feat for Radish’s diners—all skinny, fit-looking, Moscot-bespectacled professionals and locavores in their 30s and 40s, more Fashion Avenue than Wall Street.
This night, Radish was abuzz—waiters and servers swiftly whooshed down the narrow lanes between tables, disappearing down steps and quickly reappearing with a plethora of new treats.
One of those treats came towards our table, and, because I had fasted in preparation for this review, I had a small burst of hidden excitement. It was the Hedgehog Mushroom Crostini with Coomersdale cheese, and it did not disappoint. The mushrooms and organic cheese were perched above a thin layer of luscious, creamy, mushroom sauce. This happened to be one of those fleeting hors d’oeuvres, like insalata caprese or raw oysters, that whets the appetite, gives more delight than the entree, and leaves you wanting more.
And before I knew it, I had had the last bite. Upon looking at the menu, I noticed that most of the traditional British food was thankfully absent. The few standard-bearers that remain have been upgraded: mundane fries have blossomed into more complex versions cooked in truffle oil and duck fat; unhealthy meat pies have been substituted for an acclaimed celery root pot pie.
My friend and I decided to order the Montauk Diver Scallops and Heritage Pork Chop, respectively. If you’ve ever left a restaurant still feeling hungry, have no fear in Radish. The pork chop that came was an inch thick and weighty. Pink, firm, with a light drizzle of sauce around, it was sweet and rich. The scallops, on top of a bed of mashed sweet potatoes and Chinese broccoli, were equally pleasing, buttery, delicate, and more tender than most I’ve had. When the waiter picked up the plates, mine was clean save for a single bone. Radish discarded the greasy and oily aspects of British food and kept only the parts that mattered: heartiness and comfort.
Too full to order dessert, we got up to grab our coats, passing by Radish’s long communal table. Those men looking for restaurants to take a first date might be inclined to look elsewhere for fear of landing between two strangers and forcing small talk. Nevertheless, there was a steady stream of diners joining the snaking line even as we were leaving. Book early online.
There was a moment, in the time of the landed gentry, the time of Mr. Darcys and Elizabeth Bennets, when grand dinners were the norm of the elite. On large estates with the freshest livestock and produce, brilliant British cooks would labor all day to create elaborate feasts for their masters and guests. The cuisine lost its way somewhere between then and now, but with sustainable food in the hands of Chef Wilber, hope lies in The Fat Radish to reverse that trend. God Save the Queen.
Allen Tullos is a New York-based filmmaker. Follow him on Twitter at @allentul.
Photographs by Allen Tullos.
Previous installments of “Plates & Pints”: