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The big interview: Avenue

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picture of Michael Blizzard

First the humble burger took London by storm, then BBQ pits and chicken wing pop-ups began to appear all over town. And it seems that, as time rolls on, we’re not getting any less starry-eyed about the Stars & Stripes.

It’s a trend to which no part of town, even the grandest, seems immune. Nuno Mendes' new restaurant at the Chiltern Firehouse has a distinctly American twist to its menu, while The Lockhart, also in Marylebone, has employed top chef Brad McDonald all the way from Louisiana (via Brooklyn) to perfect its down-home cooking style.

Now Avenue has re-launched under head chef Michael Blizzard with a new menu inspired by his time cheffing in New York and West Palm Beach, Florida. Paradoxically, when it first opened in St James's Street in the '90s, Avenue was proclaimed as being in the 'New York' style, but this was mainly due to its decor, not its cuisine (which was decidedly ‘modern British’).

Now, nearly 20 years on, has Avenue finally found its American soul?

“Many of the dishes that have been introduced onto the menu haven't been seen in London before,” said Blizzard. “We're using ingredients (like Littleneck clams, Blythburgh pork and Greekstone ranch beef) and flavour combinations (like pork muffins and pig loaf) that are different from other American-style restaurants here. It's not about the way the food looks, but the fact that it packs a punch in the flavour department - not that we don't try to make the food look beautiful on the plate too!”

Blizzard believes that Avenue's novel menu, along with its refinement of casual favourites like burgers, mac 'n' cheese and soft shell crab, will help it stand out from other 'Manhattan meets Mayfair' (or St James’s!) establishments. He says London diners are moving away from fine dining to find a more casual, less expensive eating experience, which could account for the sudden rise in popularity of American cuisine.

The chef's fascination with American food culture and his desire to work in the States started from a very early age. He finally got his chance to move across the Pond in 2004 and spent two years working at Daniel on New York's super-affluent Upper East Side before spending a year at its sister restaurant Café Boulud in Florida.

picture of Avenue

“America is such a huge country so there's loads of different cooking styles,” Blizzard explained. “Each part of the country has its own regional cuisine. When I went to Florida, even though it was just a couple of hours' flight from New York, the food culture was completely different. The home cooking there was fantastic. Little 'mom and pop' places at the side of the road, or a dingy crab shack that looked terrible from the outside, would turn out to serve the most wonderful food. They may be cooking something in a fryer that's years old but it tastes amazing. That's what I love about American food.”

It certainly seems to be this down-home rusticity that other London restaurants are attempting to replicate, with their pulled pork and numerous different 'slaws and heart-attack inducing cornbread. But is this infatuation with all-American cuisine a flash in the pan? Will we still see this kind of cooking in London's restaurants in years to come?

Blizzard believes that once a style makes serious inroads into the London dining scene it tends to leave an indelible mark. “I wouldn't say that American cuisine in London is a fad,” he said. “It's a trend, London goes through these trends every five to 10 years or so. It started with French cuisine and everyone wanted to eat in Michelin star establishments, then it moved on to Spanish food and the emphasis was very much on gastronomy in less stuffy surroundings. Now everyone is jumping onboard with American cuisine. New flavours and tastes are always exciting, but once a food trend gets to London it stays here and breathes fresh new life into the restaurant scene.”

He continued: “I wouldn't be surprised if in the next three to five years we see more big American chefs and restaurants, like Daniel, coming over here. They want to expand and they want to conquer London because, in my opinion, it's the best city in the world.”

If you're on the lookout for an all-American chef to inspire your cooking at home, Blizzard recommends following Michael Mina. He's a chef who cooks in the ‘New American’ tradition that inspired Avenue's menu.

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