European Tour: Brixton, Continued

Our morning coffee stop in Brixton Market introduces me to the “flat white”, which to me is the ideal ratio of coffee to milk. It is sort of like a macchiato composed of more coffee by volume. Fortified, our party agrees on an objective: everyone wants a full English breakfast. A full English breakfast is a sight to behold. IMG_0493 The place we eat is called The Duck Egg, which appropriately enough offers duck eggs as well as the standard chicken eggs. Everybody needs an angle. I get a duck egg with bacon, sausage, beans, a grilled tomato, sautéed mushrooms, and a generous helping of toast. The bacon is similar to Canadian or Irish bacon: not crispy, more like chewier ham with extra pig-taste. The sausage is analogous to an American breakfast sausage, but with a couple different herbs I can’t pin down. Beans on toast is a perfect combination, and that’s how I consume most of them. The duck egg is not notably different from other eggs, aside from being larger. It is unclear how I am supposed to combine these ingredients, but they are each very tasty. I compose various bites: bacon and egg and mushrooms, toast and beans and sausage, sausage and mushrooms and tomato. I appreciate the fact that the hot sauce is an extra-spicy West Indian habanero concoction instead of a dull and strictly utilitarian Tabasco. As hungry as I am, I can’t finish it all. There is so much food. Like a full-on American breakfast, this breakfast makes you want to go right back to bed. Everyone else goes off to the Tate Modern, but I stay behind to work. Luke’s band is playing later, and I have opted to get everything done in the daytime so I can hang later. That way it will be like a reward to myself, instead of a nice daytrip that ends with me sitting on the couch while my compatriots go out on the town. Work takes pretty much the entire day. By the time everyone gets back, I am champing at the bit. We get there on the subway, or “the tube” as it is called by those in the know. I love the tube. Our trains arrive immediately, based on a scrupulously accurate timetable. They are clean and efficient. They feel more like home than the French ones, although I suppose my being able to read the signs goes a long way towards establishing this familiarity. The show is at The Lock Tavern in Camden. There will be food, and I have deliberately not eaten since my late and rather excessive breakfast. We have all been talking about getting some classic English pub fare like fish and chips, and I am down. But when I go up to the bar to order, I am stymied. They don’t have the normal things tonight because it is Sunday. On Sunday, you have Sunday Roast. Luke sees me debating the merits of the Sunday Roast. It is a bit pricey. He tells me he has just eaten it himself, and I am strongly advised to go for it. Luke is a food writer, and studies anthropology vis-à-vis food. He eats every sort of food, and has ingredients in his kitchen I have never even heard of, so I know I can trust his judgment. I am not disappointed. IMG_0498 Sunday Roast is a general rather than a specific term. It describes a hearty meal built around a large, slow-roasted piece of meat. I go for lamb shank. Everything on this plate is of exemplary quality. This is the sort of meal you start cooking early in the morning, or the night before. The lamb is perfect, among the most tender and juicy I’ve ever encountered, braised in a simple red wine sauce and topped with homemade gravy. Underneath it hides a delectable little mound of tender, hearty braised red cabbage. Honey roasted parsnips and some crispy oven fried potatoes provide starch. I always forget about parsnips; a grave oversight. They are delicious. There are also some green beans and a Yorkshire pudding. Yorkshire pudding is new to me, and it is not a pudding in the American sense of the word. It is more of a savory, chewy popover, baked to a perfectly golden-brown finish and seasoned with a bit of gravy. It has a surprisingly full flavor for something so simple, and it pairs well with the lamb. I wash it down with a Kronenbourg, which has been available at every place I’ve gone in Europe so far. It is light and crisp, a great complement to the heavy food. Between this and breakfast, I’m starting to form a schema of English cuisine. A lot of the food I like combines different sorts of flavors in stark contrast: sweet and spicy and tangy and salty and sour and et cetera. English food, as far as I can tell, just offers different variations on savory. I could see how this sort of thing might become tiresome to eat all the time, but right now I am thoroughly enjoying myself. I’m almost halfway through my lamb shank when Luke comes by to make sure I got mint sauce. I had not. He requests some from the bartender, and my mind is blown all over again. Lamb is often served with something minty, but this mint sauce is superb. It is mainly composed of mint, vinegar, salt, and sugar, and it cuts right through all the savory ingredients. The mint amplifies all the other flavors and leaves the palate feeling pleasantly clean. It’s made by Colman’s, the same people who make that good mustard. I will have to keep an eye out for this back home. I’ve never seen it, but I didn’t know to look. Between this and last night’s goat, I’m prepared to assert that English food is amazing and haters are, at best, uninformed. Luke’s band is called Brunch, and they unfortunately don’t have any sort of web presence I can link to. They are fantastic. Not, I must note, entirely unlike Krill, albeit with more guitars and a deeper vocal timbre. They hit the spot, and I am disappointed I can’t buy a CD. I’m glad to see Luke doing his thing after all this time, and glad we can repay him for his hospitality in a small way by going to his show. Shows in the UK end pretty early, and we get back on the tube to return to Luke’s. One thing about the New York subway system that makes it superior to others is its 24-hour schedule. Luke says the only way to get around at night is on buses, and the buses are full of wasted people and generally unpleasant places to be. It’s a moot point, because nowhere we’d particularly want to go is open after tube hours, only bro-y clubs with velvet ropes and cover charges. The tube sets the constraints of nightlife. I’m getting peckish again, since I’m a meal behind for the day. Unfortunately, Luke says, late night food is tough in Brixton. Just on principle I refuse to get KFC or McDonald’s. I see a restaurant that advertises “peri peri chicken”, which sounds exotic and appealing, but the grill is off at this time of night. Right now, this place appears to be the British equivalent of Kennedy or Crown back home. Chicken fried several hours ago sits under hot lights awaiting its fate. I am dispirited, but nothing else is open. Julian is hungry too, and I figure if we each eat half of this gloomy pile of chicken and fries we’ll be full and not feel too awful about it. The restaurant is notably superior to its Brooklyn equivalent for offering barbecue wings, and making the sauce for the wings legit spicy. The fries suck, though, just like home. Thirty more seconds in the fryer would do it. Why don’t they allow these fries to blossom to their full potential? This meal needs all the help it can get. They can’t not know. They are passive-aggressively chastising us for having had the sort of night that necessitates eating here. Back at Luke’s we have a bottle of Jack Daniels left over from the last show, and we crack it open for a nightcap. It is, by our standards, still quite early. I feel the urge to make a cocktail, as is my wont, but there are no mixers in sight. There isn’t even ice. I settle on a few squirts of sriracha and a dash of honey. Everyone thinks this combination is vile, but I like it. It’s sort of like a strong Bloody Mary with whiskey. You could sip it slowly over the course of a full English breakfast. Bourbon is sweet, sriracha is spicy, honey binds the sriracha to the bourbon just a bit; it makes sense to me. Haters gon’ hate. If I had a stalk of celery, some ice, and a splash of V8, I could charge you eight dollars for this drink at brunch. A fool and his money are soon parted at brunch. Fortuitously, Carlos has purchased a meat pie, of which he offers us all a taste. It contains pork and blood sausage in a heavy, flaky crust. I think the crust is made with lard. The pie is pretty fucking tasty, but I can’t really distinguish the pork taste from the blood sausage taste. It’s just a bunch of meat encased in meat-bread. Not that that’s a bad thing. It just means I just can’t cross blood sausage off the list of things to try someday just yet. It can’t taste just like ground pork, that’s too easy. In the morning, we all agree to explore Brixton before it’s time to go play. I have a mission: to obtain a beef patty. I see all sorts of Jamaican infrastructure around here, including multiple produce markets and two extremely old and cool-looking record stores, so I know the patties must be real good. Everyone else goes to the coffee shop for a flat white and a pastry, but I’m determined. It’s pretty early, and several of the promising-looking places I see are closed. I am particularly disappointed about a tiny hole in the wall under the bridge called Grand Doubles. Doubles are one of my favorite foods, and as if that weren’t enough they also offer fresh juice and I-Tal specialties. Why must you crush my dreams, Grand Doubles? There is nothing in the immediate vicinity, but my spider-sense is tingling. I see a long residential block with what looks like a cluster of stores towards the end, and I set off in that direction. Lo and behold, I am greeted by the promisingly bright façade of Caribbean Spice Bakery and Restaurant. Caribbean Spice has a full complement of things I would want to eat, including the not-always-available festival. But festival is pretty heavy, and I know we’ll be walking around eating all day, so I control myself. I order a lamb patty, something I’ve never seen before. It delivers: heavily-spiced filling with hearty chunks of medium lamb in a deliciously flaky crust. This is what I was searching for. I wash it down with a Ting. I am sated, and I head back to rejoin my companions at the coffee shop. They are just finishing up, and we set off, Luke at the helm. I am starting to feel sorry we didn’t get it together to cook a meal during our time here, as I see some seriously amazing-looking butcher shops. There are a lot of outdoor tents and stands as well as permanent storefronts, and the streets bustle with activity. I am a pig in shit. There are so many different varieties of food available. I am getting a little emotional just looking around and smelling the smells. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing today, in the sun, among friends. We pass a fried chicken restaurant with a hand-painted sign in the window advertising “Guyanese Roti”, but it is closed. This is a shame, as Luke says they have the best goat roti in the business. I’ll just have to come back. IMG_0501 The other major cultural presence besides Jamaican and Trini around here is Portuguese. Luke steers us towards an arepa stand where an old man presides over a flattop with studied precision. I don’t order one, but am given a sample of someone else’s, and it is perfect. If you live in New York, you’ve probably only had arepas at Caracas or that place by Marcy Avenue that I think has since closed. Arepas at Caracas are delicious, but the experience is more about the toppings than the arepa itself. This guy’s arepas need no window dressing. He serves them plain or with a dash of thin, scallion-heavy salsa. They are amazing, soft and pillowy and sweet. The tangy salsa blends with the sweet corn and reveals new depths. IMG_0502 I’m impressed with how simple the whole thing is. Just when I’m about to buy one, I notice a bakery stand across from the arepas. They advertise “guayaba con queso”. Sold. IMG_0503 Guava and cheese is a classic combination even at its worst, and the execution here is top-notch. This pastry is no more than a few minutes out of the oven, and offers a perfect balance of flaky exterior and tangy-sweet innards. I am pleased with my decision. I can’t resist getting another patty for the road, largely because the sign on this place is so amazing. photo (15) It’s not quite as good as the other one, but still a solid cut about your standard Tower Isle. It’s not really a fair comparison, because Caribbean Spice had just opened when I arrived and this place has been open all day. They mostly do jerk chicken anyway, so that would be the thing to really try if I were in any way still hungry. I get a good vibe from Brixton. It’s a real neighborhood where people seem to know each other, and it feels immediately comfortable. It feels kind of like Ridgewood. I could live here. I feel fortunate to have had Luke as a guide. You don’t always get a concrete sense of place on tour, from someone who appreciates the same things you do. It’s a real treat. Our show is at Birthdays in Camden. We take the tube there. Before the show we have dinner with Eleanor, our European booking agent. Only Carlos has met her, and it’s good to put a face to all the emails. Not that I have any other European booking agent experience to compare, but Eleanor seems like the real deal. She got us some real good gigs in places where people do not know us. Dinner is burgers, tasty but far too juicy for the weak buns, which are immediately overwhelmed by grease. Eleanor eats hers with a knife and fork; the only one of our party who does not leave her plate looking like a crime scene. She pounds this unmanageable burger with tidy precision. We like her style. Birthdays is the loudest room we’ve played in Europe, and it feels great. The bass and kick drum go right into your chest cavity and make your blood jiggle. We make a strong showing, and Eleanor is pleased. For the first time on this tour, I actually know some people at the show. Three friends from different areas of life are here: one from college, one from high school, and one from a show on our last tour. My college friend has gotten engaged since last I saw her, and her fiancé is in attendance as well. She mentions he’s running for Parliament like it’s not even a thing. He buys me a whiskey soda. I don’t know his platform, but I hope he wins so I can say I had a drink with an MP. Our mellow is rather abruptly harshed-upon when two security guards gruffly inform us we have to leave. They have an incongruously military vibe for this otherwise warm and friendly place. It looks like there will be no post-show hanging, and I say my goodbyes. The guards stare daggers at us while we load out, as if to silently accuse us of taking too long. Dicks. Our lodging for the night is in Kensington, which is sort of the Park Avenue of London as far as I can tell. I am pleased to see that the neighborhood is asleep and thus unable to see and judge my scruffy visage. They’d probably call the cops. An old friend from high school has put me in touch with her friend from college, who has graciously agreed to let us stay even though she’s never met us and couldn’t actually come to the show. This is the nicest apartment belonging to someone my age that I have ever seen. My friend tells me our hostess is some kind of lawyer. She must be the best in the biz, because this house is fucking sick. There are soft places for everyone to sleep, too. I am pretty proud of myself for my part in having hooked this one up. Our hostess is about to go to sleep, and gives us the run of the place. It is sometimes strange to enter the house of a professional-type member of the straight world on tour, like you’re trespassing. But this place feels warm and inviting, and I sleep a perfect sleep for the five or so hours we have before it’s time to wake up. I appreciate the bluntness of this sign, which I assume guards some sort of fuse box or elevator shaft. IMG_0508 The next day’s show is in Paris, at Espace-B. I am holed up with my laptop before and after the show, so I don’t get much of a sense of the neighborhood, but I console myself with the assurance that I’ve already done a lot of sightseeing in Paris the week before. The venue feeds us a tasty but strange meal of roasted chicken, spaghetti with curry sauce, and salad with no dressing. Europe loves curry, but only the Brits have any legit claim to it as far as I can tell. IMG_0510 One of our local guides from Lille comes to the show, and brings a friend. We know people! In Europe! We spend a while hanging out afterwards. This place is in no rush to close just because the music has ended, and a glass of very good Sauvignon Blanc is only 3 euros. Carlos tries to learn some French with mixed results. I basically just know how to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, and “cheers”. This is enough to get by most places. French syntax seems like it will require a serious commitment to figure out. I make a resolution to try a little harder next time we go somewhere where English isn’t spoken widely spoken. Obviously I’ll only be able to converse at a low level, and everyone will immediately know I’m American. But it’s a respect thing, people like when you make an effort. I had so much else to do to prepare for leaving, the language thing totally slipped my mind. Amateur hour over here. Our next show is in Hasselt, Belgium, but we’ll be staying in Brussels. We have an excellent local host we met via the internet. He is a fan, and a musician himself. His apartment is huge and has many beds and is full of cool instruments, including a Squier Bass VI and a ‘70s German Framus-looking thing to which he has added four ergonomically-positioned buttons to trigger a sampler. I didn’t even know Squier made a Bass VI. I want one. All this place would need to be thoroughly perfect is some sort of animal to interact with, like a hedgehog. Our host takes us to a tasty Lebanese place for dinner, where I get a chicken shawarma sandwich and we all split a bunch of side items. Lebanese pita is really thin and springy, in my opinion better for dipping and sandwiches than standard pita. I have to confess, I had never had labne before. It is awesome. I feel like it would be a great base for a sauce. You could throw in some fresh mint and cumin and put it on lamb. I’ll have to look into this. After dinner, it is still oddly light out, but we all agree it’s time to go to a bar and have some Belgian beer. The bar is right on the same block as the Maison du Peuple, where we played last time. Last time in Belgium was a memorable night that began with a Top Five All-Time Best wine and cheese plate and ended with me, bleary-eyed, eating a fresh Belgian waffle from a stand on the street as we loaded out at dawn. We danced all night with attractive Belgian ladies and the bar just wouldn’t take our money even though we were out of tickets. Belgians like to Go Out; it is what they do. But tonight is going to be different. No one is feeling like epic party times. We just want to taste some exciting new beers under the guidance of our host. The bar is crowded, and we stand at a high table outside. It takes so long to get served, we only get two beers, but they are both excellent. The first is a Gueuze, a lambic, light and fruity and a little sour. The second is a Blanche, which is by far the best white beer I have ever experienced. It has a slightly tangy, palate-cleansing quality, and none of the overwhelming wheatiness common among white beers. It is nice to be outside with these beers. It is a beautiful night. We are in a sort of town square, and judging by the relatively empty streets we walk down on our way home, it seems like everyone else is there too. We talk to some Belgian folks at the table next to us. I don’t remember what about, even. I want to hang out more, but I’m beat, and I know it’s going to take forever to get served again. We go inside to pay, and I successfully navigate the transaction with my shitty French. The cashier laughs and asks me where I’m from, but he also gets it. I am inordinately proud of myself.

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