The British Are Cooking: D.C.’s Old-School Pub Fare Isn’t As Bad as the Jokes
Former French president Jacques Chirac once reportedlyjoked of the British: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that.”
Chirac—who said that England’s grub was second only to Finland’s in its awfulness—was at the time having a hissy fit after London edged out Paris to host the 2012 Olympics. Making matters worse for him: His outburst was roundly mocked for being out of touch. The British capital that will host next year’s games is now known as a culinary hotspot, full of imaginative, fusion-minded chefs.
All the same, the hoary old stereotype about bland, boring fare—with beans on just about everything—lives on, clinging to Shakespeare’s sceptered isle like sticky toffee pudding on your molars. Who wants to let something as minor as the transformation and globalization of British society get in the way of zany jokes about dishes with names like bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, toad-in-the-hole, frog in a puff, and, perhaps the most unfortunate title of them all, spotted dick?
The bemusement continues at D.C.’s Queen Vic, where a group of guys at the bar one recent evening are chuckling about the British delicacies known as pasties. “You know, those things that cover the nipples,” one quips.
Of course that’s not how you say it. The Cornish meat-stuffed pastry he’s referring to is properly pronounced like “nasty,” not like “tasty,” a subtle distinction that probably isn’t helping the U.K. to transcend its bad rap.
At the British-style pub on H Street NE, the pasty is a late-night special only, not entirely unlike the strategically placed piece of burlesque garb with which some bar-goers may humorously confuse the English baked good.
The dinner menu, though, offers an assortment of ale-house staples from across the pond, plates that honor the Chirac version of English culinary traditions. Or at least try to.
On this particular night, I am digging into the “Full Monty,” a heaping plate of fried eggs, plump sausage, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomato and a slab of the fatty English bacon known as a rasher. Oh, and beans—lots of them—stewed to sepia-toned satisfaction. It all comes with a crispy slice of fried bread.
You might recognize the name of the dish as the same as the title of a 1997 film about unemployed steel workers forming a male striptease troupe. I’m hoping that no one will see me naked after I’ve gorged myself on this hearty platter of proteins, which I suspect far exceeds the recommended daily allowance.
While quite filling, the entree is largely unremarkable for anything apart from its heft. The sausage is somewhat mild. The beans taste similar to those from a can. But the dish isn’t remarkably bad, either. The egg is perfectly sunny and runny. The tomato is nicely charred and not too mealy. The pork is predictably pleasing.
Other items are—sorry, exposure to so many anachronistic Anglicisms mean I can’t resist it—jolly good: The anchovy toast with white bean purée and upland cress nicely balances tang and salt. The beef heart tartare, served atop diced cucumbers, is substantially meaty with a slight peppery edge.
And this leaves me strangely disappointed. What sort of British pub is this? The place seems to be doing a pretty bad job of upholding bad cooking.
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A small colony of British-themed eating and drinkingvenues has planted the Union Jack in the District in recent years, with varying degrees of success. The forthcoming Brixton, prolific restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton’s planned pub across from Nellie’s on U Street NW, will only spread the empire farther.
Of course, the sun already set on other local examples of British culinary expansionism. Perhaps the most high-profile place was Commonwealth in Columbia Heights, chef Jamie Leeds’ attempt at an English gastropub. It opened in 2008, serving delicacies like stuffed pig trotters and deviled sweetbreads. Commonwealth scored a respectable two-star rating from the Washington Post before shuttering earlier this year.
One remaining contemporary, Againn, which opened in 2009 and describes itself as a “contemporary British Isles bistro,” carries on with the business of Scotch eggs and mushy peas. Wrapped in sausage and fried to a crisp, the eggs prove an acceptably salty bar snack during a recent lunch. Any inherent blandness is immediately rectified with a dip in the accompanying Dijon. The peas, all smashed up and slightly seasoned with sea salt and lemon juice, taste bright and refreshing. Not nearly as bad as the bland-sounding name of the side dish.
In addition to the Queen Vic, another recent joiner is Codmother on U Street NW, which staked its claim this summer as Washington’s premier “chippie,” specializing in the British barroom staple of fish ‘n’ chips.
Codmother was hardly the first place to serve up beer-battered cod in D.C. But chef-owner Tolga Erbatur’s subterranean fried seafood spot did attempt, briefly, to popularize the regrettably titled English delicacy known as spotted dick.
For the record: It’s a pudding, made from steamed beef or mutton fat and speckled with bits of dried fruit.
The dessert was originally part of Erbatur’s opening menu. But in early tastings, the imperial subjects—that is, Yankee diners—were not thrilled with the taste. Rather than embrace the badness, Erbatur chose to scrap the spotted dick entirely. He replaced it with fried Oreos, an American state fair staple that is far too gooey, sugary, and delicious to ever pass as British. Who says retro Brit-themed restaurateurs can’t be every bit as syncretic as their colleagues back home?
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Back at the Queen Vic, proprietor Ryan Gordon has recently tried to turn up the U.K. authenticity, bringing in a new chef with bona fide British credentials.
Hailing from London’s Bull and Last, with previous stints stateside at D.C.’s Indebleu and Capitol Lounge, Gloucestershire native Ian Reeves, 29, has just begun to make his mark on the menu. But expect more unusual cuts and nasty bits under his watch.
One new addition: the crispy pig’s ear salad, featuring fried pork auditory parts in oddly finger-like shapes, intermixed with bitter greens and slices of sweet red apple, topped with a soft-boiled egg.
Meanwhile, a recent nightly special featured veal sweetbreads with braised lamb shoulder, smothered in rich gravy, over Brussels sprouts and bits of bacon. “That’s my style right there,” the chef says. “It’s got the unusual bit, the slow-cooked meat.”
If this dish is any indication of the new chef’s intentions, the Vic won’t be harking back to the dark days of British food any time soon. The stringy lamb is tender and tasty. The offal isn’t awful, either.
Even Monsieur Chirac might like it.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
The Queen Vic, 1206 H St. NE, (202) 396-2001
The Codmother, 1334 U St NW, (202) 265-0709
Againn, 1099 New York Ave. NW, (202) 639-9830
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