Had Professor Higgins cared as much about food as he did about spoken English, he might well have exclaimed, "Why can't the English teach their children how to cook?" English food has long had a reputation for being god-awful, and not just among tourists. Many years ago the British humor magazine Punch ran a contest in which readers were asked to invent a vegetable, describe its characteristics, and indicate how it was to be served. Time has obliterated all details of the winning entry except its method of preparation, which went, if memory serves, as follows: treat as any other vegetable -- boil it for hours and hours.
Everyone I've ever spoken to who has been to England has come back with a culinary horror story. My most memorable dining misadventure took place some 20 years ago during our first evening in London, when my husband made the mistake of ordering meringue for dessert. It was a hard meringue, about the size of a tennis ball, and when he tried to stick a fork into it, it skidded off the plate, wafted over several tables, and landed neatly halfway across the restaurant on the plate of a man who was polishing off a steak. My husband leaped to his feet and raced after it, arriving within seconds of its landing. "Excuse me," he said to the diner, who was staring at his dish in disbelief, "I believe this is mine," whisked it off the plate, and carried it triumphantly back to our table, thereby setting back Anglo-American relations another decade.
Despite its reputation, English food doesn't have to be bad, and can surprise even the most obdurate Anglophobe with fresh ingredients, a light hand on the seasoning, and a judicious use of real cream and butter with the barest minimum of flour thickening that any finicky globe-trotting gourmand would find acceptable. English food can even, on occasion, be very good, which brings us to the point of these ruminations.
The welcome news is that Chicagoans who yearn for the likes of cockie leekie, cullen skink, priddy oggy with scrumpy sauce, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding can now appease their cravings at Cafe Royal, an honest-to-goodness British restaurant; the chef, Alan Percival, hails from Nottingham and south Wales. Trained in English cooking, but with a solid background in classical French cuisine, Percival produces dishes that are both satisfying and authentic. Even the setting suggests the world of Charles Dickens, but with two important differences -- the tablecloths are clean, and the service exemplary. Unfortunately, a culinary romp through merrie olde England may prove a bit pricey for some, Cafe Royal's major drawback.
The restaurant occupies one half of a former candle factory, the other half being the Royal-George Theatre, under the same management. A flight of stairs to the right of the entrance leads down to a cozy little lounge called the Snuggery boasting a cruvinet, a nifty device that keeps wine fresh by replacing the air in an opened bottle with nitrogen. Here one can sample such normally budget-breaking items as Chateau d'Yquem by the glass instead of the bottle, an additional boon for those of us whose livers are past the point of being able to finish 750 milliliters of dessert wine in one evening. Upstairs, a series of corridors leads to several smallish rooms, not unlike a traditional English pub with its public and private areas. For a very private tete-a-tete, there's a small room for two, containing a table, two chairs, and a couch, the last presumably for apres diner. Alas, any amorous antics on that particular ottoman could only be accomplished by a pair of midget gymnasts, but its suggestive presence does add a touch of spice to the meal.
As soon as one is seated, Evian bottled water and a small bowl of rarebit surrounded by fingers of toasted light and dark bread are brought to the table. Dipping the toast into the melted cheddar cheese enlivened by English mustard and port wine keeps hunger pangs at bay as one contemplates the menu. On our first visit we opted for openers of salmon marinated in Guinness ($7.50), and crab cakes with mustard sauce ($5.50). Three glistening slices of tangy, slightly bitter, cured salmon accompanied by a muslin-wrapped lemon. half tied with a tartan plaid bow were perfectly textured, and the fresh citrus provided a touch of needed zip. The crab cakes were among the best I've tasted -- two nicely browned mounds chock full of fresh-tasting crab served with a small side dish of smooth, well-balanced creamy mustard sauce, and another muslin-wrapped, tartan-tied lemon half. The second time around, Mrs. Beeton's cucumber salad ($4.75) beckoned, four shrimp halves surrounded by cucumbers in dilled sour cream, a rather bland dish that might have benefited from a touch of tartness. Brawn ($5.50), two thick slabs of aspic-encased chunks of beef tongue, chicken, pork shoulder, and tete de veau, was meaty and full flavored but a bit heavy-handed, the aspic more dense and chewy than it ideally should be.
The two soups that we tried could not have been better. Cockie leekie ($3.50), described on the menu as a traditional 19th-century soup of chicken broth, leeks, and prunes (yes, prunes) was wonderful. Rich and intense, the broth a symphony of chicken and leek with just a touch of sweetness, it suggested curative powers well beyond the wildest of any Jewish mother. Cullen skink ($3.50), a cream soup from Scotland made with haddock, onions, and potatoes, deserves equal accolades. The fish tasted perfectly fresh, onions and potatoes contributing just the right balance of sweet and earthy in a pure cream base that managed to be both rich and light.
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding ($15.50) can hold its own against anything an English eatery can offer. We requested rare beef, and rare it came -- a tender, resilient slab of full-flavored, tangy beef flanked by puffy, eggy, popover-like Yorkshire pudding and sweet, slightly pungent, sauteed shoestring parsnips. Horseradish was incorporated into the meaty gravy served alongside, a plus for the dish, if not for the diner wishing to avoid gravy for whom horseradish is a sine qua non of roast beef. Horseradish as it is usually served can be overpowering. Cafe Royal's version provided a sharp foil for the beef rather than a fiery blanket.
Jugged hare ($19.50), wild hare cooked with port and brought to the table in a pot, was less successful. Tough and stringy, it bad a strong flavor that verged on gamy. With nothing to relieve the intensity of the thick winy sauce except a few lonely pieces of potato, it quickly became cloying. Diners ought to be forewarned -- it really is wild hare, and an occasional bit of buckshot may even show up in the dish to prove the point.
Two special entrees that appear from time to time deserve to be noted. Quail ($18.75) stuffed with veal forcemeat, flavored with sage and marjoram, surrounded by rice, shiitake mushrooms, peas, and sour cherries is competently prepared and a welcome version of the dish. Gaelic steak ($19.50) had more gristle than necessary, but came drenched in a magnificent whiskey cream sauce, which together with the fresh asparagus spears, watercress, and potato puffs that accompanied it resulted in a splendid collocation of flavors despite the less than perfect meat.
Desserts are all $3.75 and well worth the calories. That quintessential English monstrosity, the trifle, generally a hodgepodge of whatever is sweet and sticky in the kitchen, is a menu staple, but Cafe Royal's is one of the best versions you'll find anywhere. Sponge cake soaked in brandy, topped with slices of peach, strawberry jam, creme anglaise, and thick unsweetened whipped cream is how they put it together, and it provides a satisfying finish for those who like gooey desserts. The creme brulee is sweeter than other versions we've tried elsewhere. Pear charlotte, a heady combination of fruit, custard, and cake, and blueberry mousse, a puddinglike affair with intense blueberry flavor, are two other happy endings. The coffee is excellent.
Like everything else on the menu, wines are on the high side. Chateau Coutelin-Lalande '78 ($32) and Chateau La Tour de Mons Margaux '82 ($33), among the least expensive, nicely complemented the rich meaty fare.
Cafe Royal, at 1633 N. Halsted, is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. All major credit cards are accepted. Valet parking costs $5, or you can park in the lot across the street for $2.50. Call 266-3394 for more information.