Chinatown, Curry Hill, Little Manilla...New York is host to a slew of ethnic food enclaves, some more well-known than others. Among the lesser-known is a cozy corner of the West Village known, unofficially, as "Little Britain Boulevard." Nicky Perry, the unofficial neighborhood's official mayor, shows me the street sign that a civic insider made for her after an unsuccessful proposal to formally rename this strip of Greenwich Street just west of 7th Avenue.
I met Perry on an appropriately drizzly day at Tea & Sympathy, one of the three businesses she owns on the Boulevard. "It was my obsession," Perry tells me over a pot of tea and a plate of soft, featherlight English scones (the English call ours "rock buns"). She opened Tea & Sympathy 22 years ago after moving to New York and discovering that "there was no place to get tea."
"And," she adds, "Americans were making disparaging remarks about English food. What? That's nonsense."
Tea & Sympathy, which serves traditional British fare including Welsh Rarebit and Shepherd's Pie (a lentil-based vegetarian version is available) as well finger sandwiches, cakes and crumbly puddings, soon made converts of many West Villagers. "Once you've had real tea," she says, "you don't go back."
I tell Perry that I usually drink green tea, and she asks "Why?" When I mention "agave syrup" she calls into the kitchen, "We've had a breakdown with this one!" The diagnosis: I'm drinking crap tea.
"Here's the thing," she says, "English people drink their tea quite strong and quite flavorful and quite bold. And Americans are really used to the sweepings off the floor. 'Gnat's piss,' we call it."
Sipping my first cup of steaming-hot Typhoo, a blend dating back to 1903, I had to agree. Next door, at Carry On, Perry sells a number of loose and bagged English teas, as well as her own Tea & Sympathy blend, which will be available in bags beginning this week. The difference between her blend and Lipton, she says, is night and day.
"I mean, we love the Americans," she says, "but your scones, your tea, your chocolate, and your Republicans...We could do without those."
Another door down is Perry's fish and chips shop, A Salt & Battery (www.asaltandbattery.com). Head chef Matt Arnfield has been cooking fish and chips since he was 9, at his family's restaurant in England.
Although the store's slogan is "In Cod We Trust," Arnfield has been substituting line-caught pollock, haddock and sole for the traditional cod.
"It was overfished," he tells me, "We were selling about 300 lbs a week, and I'm thinking 'We shouldn't be doing that.' The pollock is a little further out to sea, but it's still from a day boat, so it's a day old. The company that I buy fish from, they have their own boat, so I can completely trust that it's being harvested correctly. ... It's all hook and line; it hasn't been bashed around."
He serves me a basket of chips topped with a fillet of crisp, fried pollock and demonstrates, proper seasoning: salt first and then a few shakes of malt vinegar to "wash the salt through the dish." He jokingly asks if I want ketchup and instead puts out his homemade tartar sauce, which is smooth and herbal.
Perry comes over and tears a corner off my fish. "THAT is fish and chips," she says. "Crispy, not doughy." That crisp, golden coating also comes wrapped around an assortment of molten English candy bars. Start with the Mars. Or for an interior layer of crunch, the Lion or Toffee Crisp.
A Salt & Battery delivers, but only within a short radius, to prevent against sogginess. Their delivery vehicle is a classic London cab that has been converted to run on used vegetable oil from the kitchen. "Except for the massive flatulence from the beans," says "Perry's husband, a fellow ex-pat whom she met when he was a customer at Tea & Sympathy, "We're actually much better for the environment."
Are you strong enough to meet A Salt & Battery's "I'm a Big Fat Ba$t@rd Challenge"?
If you can finish...
2 lbs of chips
1 lb of fish
1 serving of mushy peas
2 servings of tartar sauce
1 can of coke (regular or diet)
...in 20 minutes or less, you'll get your name on the restaurant's "Board of Heroes" and a t-shirt that says "I'm a Big Fat Ba$t@rd". Additionally, if you accomplish this before the London Olympics end on August 12, Metro will print your picture. So far, only one person has completed the month-and-a-half-old challenge: A Salt & Battery employee John Weeks.
If you go
Myers of Keswick
634 Hudson St.