Whenever I think about eating British food, a litany of tired, insulting clichés inevitably jump to mind. Really, does anybody—other than British chefs and British nationalists—ever say anything good about British food?
It would be really easy for me to go to a British-owned pub, eat a soggy pot pie or lifeless fried fish, write a snarky post about it, and cross the U.K. off my list. But I feel like I’ve already been cruel enough to restaurants featuring food from British commonwealth countries (I still feel kind of bad about savaging poor Nelson Blue and The Australian, both of which are charming as hell if you’re just looking for New Zealand or Aussie beer), so I decided to make a concerted effort to find British food that I could discuss in glowing terms. No fish and chips, no pot pie, no bangers.
Luckily, the national dish of Britain is now… drum roll please… curry! According to Robin Cook, the former U.K. Foreign Secretary (equivalent to our Secretary of State), chicken tikka masala is the British national dish, which makes me really, really happy.
So you might be wondering: how the hell could Indian curry qualify as the national dish of Great Britain? It turns out that chicken tikka masala was actually invented in London by Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani immigrants who operated London’s curry houses in the 1960s and 1970s. Chicken tikka masala obviously has its roots in South Asian curries, but the British version of the dish was supposedly made creamier to “satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy,” as Foreign Secretary Robin Cook once put it. So yeah… chicken tikka masala is an authentic British phenomenon.
And as luck would have it, a team of Brits and Indians opened a pair of restaurants in NYC called Brick Lane Curry House and Brick Lane Curry House Too, specializing in curries prepared in the style of London’s curry houses. Brick Lane is mostly known for its (thoroughly un-British) Phaal challenge, as seen on the TV show Man vs. Food: the restaurant gives you a free beer and a place in their Phaal of Phame Fame if you manage to choke down a plate of their hottest curry… which is so toxic that it’s prepared by a chef in a gas mask.
Brick Lane’s “British” chicken tikka masala, for better or worse, requires no gas mask. As one might expect from an authentic British dish, the chicken tikka masala ($10 for the lunch special, served with rice, naan, raita, and a small fruit salad) was pretty tame. I love a good, fiery curry, but this was more like a slightly peppery, mildly creamy tomato sauce, with far more sweetness than fire. And I guess that’s exactly the point. Meat with gravy, right?
Since Brick Lane’s ownership group includes both Indians and Brits, I couldn’t resist trying another dish, even if it wouldn’t be anywhere near as “British” as the chicken tikka masala. I tried the chef’s special lamb kebab roll ($9), which consisted of a beautifully fluffy piece of naan stuffed with spiced lamb, onions, peppers, and chutney. This dish, thankfully, had a nice bite to it; it had the fire of a good curry, but with the solidness of a great burrito.
The lamb kebab roll was obviously inspired by the Indian side of Brick Lane’s ancestry, and it’s hard for me to pretend that the sweetened, tame plate of chicken tikka masala is anywhere near as good as a well-executed chunk of spicy Indian-style lamb. But I think we can all agree that even an overly sweet chicken tikka masala is a huge upgrade over a soggy, pub-style chicken pot pie.
Brick Lane Curry House Too
235 East 53rd Street, Midtown
Subway: Lexington-53rd (E, M trains)