LONDON -- Game on for eating well during the Olympics, which begins today, July 27, and run through Aug. 12. Already one of the best dining cities in the world, London has been spiffed mightily up for the Olympic Games. Billions have been spent on new athletic venues; streets have been reconfigured so athletes and dignitaries can speed to competitions via designated Olympics lanes. And along with the 36 sports in competition and 302 medals at stake, a slew of grand pop-up hospitality centers hosted by various countries are open. Who wouldn't want to kick back and nosh on some bitterballen at the Holland Heineken House?
Yes, it will be the Olympics of international eating: From Copenhagen's Noma residency at Claridge's, to a pop-up Japanese sake bar overlooking the River Thames, to the world's largest McDonald's seating 1,500, to an elegant pre-game tailgate-style menu at Bar Boulud, no one is going to go hungry or thirsty during the 2012 London Games. However, they might go broke.
In Knightsbridge at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, Bar Boulud (from New York City's Daniel Boulud) is offering an upscale version of American tailgate favorites. The restaurant is close to the long-distance swimming and triathlon competitions in Hyde Park; the cycling road race will pass by its front door. The house-made hot dog is quite posh: Nestled in its spongy brioche bun, it goes nicely with the crisp house rosé, from Domaine Sainte Maire. Mini-lobster rolls and pulled pork sliders, topped with jalapeno mayo, also are meant to be quick bites before heading out.
Tough Olympics sponsorship rules means that those signature Olympic rings aren't topping cupcakes at the food courts at Harvey Nichols or Harrods. Instead, London 2012 buttery shortbread biscuits (cookies to us), handily packaged in souvenir tins, are the most visible food-related tie-in. Tea towels, oven mitts and aprons all bear the Olympic logo, too. The odd-looking, Cyclops-like mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, dot the candy aisles at Sainsbury's, creeping out tourists and children alike.
Some of the most coveted culinary events are already fully booked, like Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's stint at the Visa VIP Lounge and the 10-day taste of Noma at Claridge's, the famed Mayfair hotel. Expectations are high for this extraordinary pop-up because Noma chef and founder Rene Redzepi himself will be in the house. Claridge's Art Deco ballroom has been transformed into a contemporary restaurant space with dark brown banquettes and the ornate crystal chandeliers replaced with a Daniel Chadwick mobile and a rustic, 5-ton wrought iron piece at the entrance.
Birch trees (a hat tip to Noma's beer made from birch sap) green up the space. Lunch and dinner seatings each will accommodate 170 diners. Priced at 195 pounds per person, exclusive of tax and service, each course can be paired with a natural wine (one German, one Austrian and two from France) selected to match Noma's delicate and fresh dishes. Although the menu is officially under wraps until Saturday's debut, celeriac, clotted cream, foraged herbs and oysters (served on a bed of pebbles) are among the ingredients previewed on Claridge's Twitter feed.
Whether Redzepi will surprise guests with live ants and/or live prawns, as he's done in the past, or a recent dish such as tall spicy green sorrel leaves folded over cricket paste and planted in a dish of icy nasturtium, local English produce and products will score in the culinary spotlight.
Around London, national sponsored houses will spotlight regional cuisines: In Hyde Park African Land promises music and food from several African countries. Close by the Russia.Sochi.Park will promote all things Russian (vodka, we presume), and is the site for several gala banquets. (Sochi is the host city for 2014's Winter Olympics). Along the Thames at the London County Hall, Arigato, a temporary Japanese sake bar, will have more than two dozen kinds of sake available for tasting from several breweries hit hard by the 2011 earthquake.
Restaurateurs will have to deal with major logistical issues: Staff may have trouble getting to work because of overloaded public transportation, and all deliveries to restaurants and caterers must be made at night. Some venues allow picnicking, with allowed items detailed on the now-impossible-to-get tickets.
A few food-related dustups made news just before the Games: Food vendors at the Olympic Park were asked to forgo making fries in deference to mega-sponsor McDonald's request, though chips in fish-and-chips were exempt. Chef Jamie Oliver and several health professionals doused the Olympic spirit via a London Times editorial, blasting pro athletes, including David Beckham, for peddling Burger King and other fat- and sugar-laden foods "... which are fueling poor health and obesity."
Oliver shouldn't worry about the fast food overload. At McDonald's 1,500-seat Olympic Park restaurant, they've added iced fruit smoothies to the menu to wash down the Quarter Pounders.