October 12, 2014

Enough with epic sit-down dinners. T+L food critic Anya von Bremzen is on the move—snacking along with all of Europe.

The chef has prepared a degustation menu!

Why does this phrase incite me to bolt out into the street? I have nothing against degustations, or chefs—yet the prospect of four hours trapped at the same table frankly withers my appetite. À la carte is often no better: what if my entrée proves a $38 dud? What if I over-order, leaving no room for dessert? What if…? What if…? I want to break free.

It isn’t just cranky-critic me. As diners, we’ve all turned commitmentphobic. (Can you blame us?) During a recent stretch in Europe I was surrounded by like-minded souls happy to ditch the Big Meal in favor of grazing, snacking, noshing, progressive dining—whatever you want to call the deliciously DIY act of creating your own tasting menu, at a variety of different spots.

In Istanbul, where I have an apartment, weeks would pass without a straitjacket sit-down dinner. Instead we’d start with drinks and wood-fired pide (Turkish pizza) on the rooftop terrace of the Adahan Hotel; walk two blocks to smoky Canim Ciğerim for sizzling liver kebabs; then prowl the streets for a certain chickpea pilaf cart—before winding down with a glass of çay at a makeshift tea garden near the Karaköy docks with breathtaking views of Hagia Sophia. Since Ottoman times, Istanbul restaurants have specialized in individual dishes, so single-plate snacking makes perfect sense. Add a new wave of meyhanes (drinking houses offering little meze) featuring creative young chefs and you’ve got a snackstravaganza by the Bosporus.

In London I found a similar artisanal fast-food revolution under way, after sparking almost a decade ago. Here the chatter buzzed around Pizza Pilgrims’ new spot in Soho (yup, the cult pizza van has settled down!) and the black currant and mint flavor at the Marshmallowists, everyone’s favorite roving confectioner. In Marylebone I hopped aboard a Latin mini–tapas crawl, from crisp pressed pig’s head at the Argentinean Zoilo (run by an alum of El Bulli and Aquavit) to slow-braised country chicken at Ibérica (launched by a chef from a Michelin two-starred restaurant in northern Spain). Small ideas and mono-concepts loomed large. Middle Eastern food diva Anissa Helou, for example, spent a whole year researching the perfect lentil for koshari, the monumental Egyptian street dish of rice, lentils, pasta, and spicy tomato sauce under a blizzard of fried onions. It’s the single specialty at Koshari Street, the sleek Covent Garden café that Helou helped to launch.

But the real soul of London resides on the street, at the outdoor markets and clusters of itinerant food trucks. At the Kerb King’s Cross lunchtime market, vendor rotation assures constant new thrills—my pulse raced every time. What would today bring: Mama Wang’s red-braised pork cheeks, or Luardos’s chipotle brisket burritos? The excitement of the snacking hunt sends London gastronauts to Brixton (that Guyanese sweet-potato roti!) and Dalston (that Mussel Man!). And on Saturdays everyone gravitates eastward for St. John Bakery’s wondrous custard-filled doughnuts and Little Bird’s gin cocktails at the Maltby Street Market, a foodie block party under the railway arches in once-obscure Bermondsey.

Because here’s the thing: in our digital age of briefer focus, virtual contact, and Twitter-scaled payoffs, these food-vendor clusters (with their own bite- size wares) offer something essential and nurturing: human connection. The reclaimed patches of urban concrete and graffitied old warehouses revitalize neighborhoods and breed new communities. Or would you rather be stuck all night at one fancy restaurant?

In Copenhagen the latest such agora operates in the light-filled glass sheds of Torvehallerne. This food hall, farmers’ market, and social hub opened in 2011 on Israels Plads, a public square previously notorious for its drug dealers. My first day in town, I ran into old friends in the Torvehallerne queue for fried cod at Fiskerikajen, and made new friends with fellow devotees of Ma Poule’s duck confit sandwich. Surveying the scene from my perch at the Hallernes smørrebrød stall, I felt like I’d lived in the city forever. Then, after bumping into chef René Redzepi at the Coffee Collective (the world’s greatest roasters), I amblingly composed my own market-tasting menu of tapas, thin-crust pizza, and a Danish chocolate-marshmallow-marzipan marvel called flødebolle.

Ah, freedom—no set menu required.

Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor.

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