Our critic is happy to find there’s more to modern American food than chlorine-washed chicken
William Sitwell at Two Lights in east London
TWO LIGHTS IN London’s Shoreditch is, in its own words, a restaurant that serves ‘food inspired by modern American cuisine’. It begs the question, of course, of what that is. Is it the food and philosophy of the likes of Alice Waters? She is the influential chef who, through her work with schools and via the menu of her California restaurant, Chez Panisse, seeks to persuade people of the virtues of local and sustainable agriculture. Her menu has artichokes and local ricotta, wild-nettle soup and duck breast from Sonoma County. Or is modern American food the food that most modern Americans actually eat? I’m talking burgers and fries, doughnuts, deep-dish pizzas and Texan BBQ – the food that the US President favours. And isn’t that modern American food represented by the products that US ambassador Woody Johnson IV would like the UK to import? His chlorinewashed chicken, for example. The chef of Two Lights, Chase Lovecky, would beg to differ.
So I reckon the battle lines are drawn. It’s Woody versus Two Lights. Let me run through their strategies and then you can choose which of them should be the true voice of modern American food.
The Two Lights manifesto is loud and clear and all over the menu. And don’t think that these guys have leapt out of their trenches waving carrots and tubs of broad-bean hummus. The food oozes with the scent of animal fat, of skin, of bones, of offal. And it arrives plainly and
without frills. The menu itself is clear. No one needs to come over and explain the concept. There are three sections: small plates, large plates and dessert. So that’s little portions, big portions and then pudding. Got that?
If Ambassador Woody had minions spying on the opposition they might tell him he had it in the bag. There’s the location of Two Lights for starters: on an uninspiring Victorian terrace of mismatched houses, adjacent to a heavily fortified railway bridge. The food is ordinary by design. Take the pig’s head, for example. It looks like something painful a school might inflict on you. On a dull pink plate, on a piece of greaseproof paper, comes a squared, whitebread sandwich with something crispy in it and some yellow sauce. Back at his palatial Regent’s Park residence, Woody might be rubbing his hands. But not so fast. Bite through that dull façade and you get a magnificent crunch of porky bliss. The gribiche – a punchy mayo – makes for a very intriguing mouthful. This is a great advert for a pig’s brain and I want more of it.
And what of the ‘crab and elderflower on beef fat chip’ – a lesson in straight-talking menu description. Two fat chips, crispy skin, waxy potato, holding sweet dollops of creamy crab. Beautiful. We also had mussels that came on flatbreads, covered in melting lardo (fat from a pig’s back), with slices of onion for acidic balance. Simple but effective, this was a dish of fabulous imagination.
Then came a pile of broccoli. It had a white anchovy sauce splattered over it, along with chicken skin and walnuts. This was a step too far for me. I’m not scared of broccoli and prefer to taste it, but this was obliterated by a wrecking ball of salty cream and crunch. If there’s a fine line between unpretentious flair and mess, Chase has just crossed it.
There was also a dish of ‘roasted half of St Brides chicken’ which may be a fowl raised on a patch of ground in east London, but was a very small bird and quite expensive at £36. Quality issues aside, I expect Ambassador Woody could get you seven chickens for Two Lights’ half of one. It came with a side order of decent gravy and something labelled ‘biscuits’. In the States, biscuits are in fact scones, in the same way that chips are crisps and cookies are biscuits, and one can only assume that Chase gets some kick out of the confusion. In fact, having scones with roast chicken is a sort of cultural slap in the face for a Brit. ‘We’ll take your scones with jam and cream and send them back at you with a wrong name and some chicken.’ All very American, you might think.
Which takes us back to my challenge. Whose food future do you want? Chase’s or Woody’s? I met some of the US ambassador’s press team last year and asked them about his interest in food. ‘He doesn’t eat. He only drinks coffee,’ one told me. So if you don’t mind, I’m plumping for the warmhearted, spirited, locally sourced guts and glory of Two Lights for my idea of tasty modern America. I suspect Alice Waters will be with us too.
Bite through that dull façade and you get a magnificent crunch of porky bliss William weighs in: old haunts I was sad to hear that Notting Hill’s Kensington Place closed last week. It opened 32 years ago and chef Rowley Leigh made his name there with dishes like chicken and goat’s cheese mousse. Maître d’ Tim Brice was once unable to give Michael Winner his favourite table. ‘Do you know who I am?’ stormed Winner. Brice then announced over the tannoy, ‘There’s a gentleman here who doesn’t know who he is. If anyone can help will they please come to the front desk.’
Above Crab and elderflower on beef fat chips. Below Broccoli, walnut, anchovy and chicken skin