The charm of dirty food

Image of Susie Boyt

Last night I was surprised to see Haddock Monte Carlo staring out at me from a Piccadilly menu. I am told it is a traditional dish in which haddock is introduced to spinach and poached egg and a white wine sauce but it looks all wrong on the page. Haddock has no business being in Monte Carlo. It is a soothing homely creature; a cousin, after all, of the humble cod. A cod in the playground of the rich and famous? In a tax haven where the yachts are the size of mansions and the railway station resembles a pharaoh’s tomb? Haddock in Brighton, for sure. Haddock in Hove, I’ll allow. But Haddock in Monaco? Talk about a fish out of water.

And yet, of course, a haddock in Monte Carlo could enjoy a tremendous spree, hit the gaming tables, ace the roulette wheels, saunter down Avenue Princesse Grace, with an independent air, looking in at the Japanese Gardens. It’s almost a treatment for an animated musical. (I bet Grace Kelly never ate haddock, although you’ll be glad to know that at the Princess Grace Hospital in London there is a consultant who goes by that name.)

Everyone, I suppose, deserves a break. I know I do. Besides, is there a more soothing sounding dish to bring comfort and consolation, the morning after losing your shirt?

Comfort food, in London restaurants, reached a new high last year. I first got wind of this when I heard my nieces discussing their favourite hamburger spots. I mentioned a small chain with a high-class reputation which I had visited. “No, no, no,” they said, “we like either a super gourmet burger OR something really, really dirty. Those burgers are neither one thing or another.”

The word “dirty”, in restaurants, has lost its stigma entirely. This alarming little epithet, which used to imply severe hygiene infractions – roaches in the ratatouille, shoelaces in the noodles – is now a badge of honour. A dirty high-end diner dinner thrills and excites. Ribs and burgers and fried chicken, primped and pimped and preened, well beyond the imaginings of their down-home inventors, have been reclaimed as the food of the gods. High-quality meat drenched in syrups and farm-fresh fats are where it’s at. It’s daring, it’s gross, it’s wicked. But boy, is it good.

It is surely no coincidence that in a time when the headlines are screaming about the obesity crisis, the most fashionable new London restaurants are serving food that is not just unhealthy, it is actually dangerous. Dirty food is what the young and gorgeous eat when painting the town. It’s food from which you can expect a hangover, or at least a migraine. It’s carefree holiday food, an antidote to conscientiousness. Each mouthful shrugs off the litany of urban anxieties that try to beat you down on an ordinary Tuesday. It’s the dining equivalent of sticking two fingers up at the world, a wolf whistle and a flash of bare bottom from the back of a passing coach combined – but all, of course, with a Rolls-Royce veneer, for this is the best worst food you will ever eat. It may very well be your last supper.

The best worst has always had a certain charm: the handsome villainous cowboy you may try to persuade to settle down with you on a farm, but it just isn’t going to happen; the country and western singer’s hard-headed husband-manager, who makes her a star and then gambles away all her dough. Yet for every other Saturday night, these dinners, these men, where’s the harm?

Dirty food is a bit vainglorious. It’s certainly proud. The people who eat this fare often clothe themselves in deeply ugly garments because so great is the beam of their natural allure it simply cannot be dimmed – not by orange and maroon print synthetic fabrics, not by food that is 40 per cent sugar and 50 per cent fat.

There is, its fans claim, something pure about dirty food. It affects a certain modest, honest-to-goodness charm. It is simple, unadulterated – by vitamins or minerals anyway. “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young,” the artist called Ke$ha sings. Bless!

A cookery book I was lent recently, The White Trash Cook Book, features a recipe for a “high calorie pick-me-up” that involves pouring a bottle of Pepsi over a packet of dry roasted nuts. It may be the fizziest drink known to man. Will smart bars be serving this highly stimulating concoction come springtide? Will people add a shot or two of vodka and call it supper? It isn’t always easy to know where to place one’s hopes, in life.

Compared to all this, of course, Haddock Monte Carlo seems wholesome and normal and fitting and right. Go south, young fish!

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