The fish and chips at the new Firkin & Phoenix pub on Westheimer come with two huge trapezoids of fried fish that are covered with a batter that is so thick, it has waves in it where the liquid almost flowed off before the fish hit the hot oil. When I sawed through the thick, crispy batter, the moist, white meat underneath was obscured by a cloud of steam. You are supposed to eat fish and chips with your fingers, but the fish was too hot to handle.
As I cut it, a piece of fish slipped out of the crunchy coating. So I pulled the thick sock of batter back around the fish and stuck a fork in it to hold it together. Then, after a shower of malt vinegar and a generous sprinkling of salt, I shoved it in my mouth. It was way too hot to eat. After breathing in and out for awhile, with a dragon-like plume coming out of my mouth on the exhale, I was finally able to chew the cooled-off fish. Washed down with a swallow of Guinness Stout, it's probably the closest I've come to the real British fish and chips experience in Houston.
The Firkin & Phoenix is part of the Canadian-based franchise operation that claims to be the largest pub chain in North America. A firkin is a British barrel measure -- about nine gallons. The chalkboard in front of the restaurant says "Firkin Radical," and the menu says "Firkin Hungry?" The Firkin joke gets old pretty Firkin fast.
I had hoped to watch the college bowl game that night, but all the television sets were tuned to a pay-for-view martial arts event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Evidently, the UFC has a lot of fans in Houston, because the pub was packed with spectators.
While we watched replays of classic UFC skirmishes in which contestants bashed each other's faces into the chain link fence surrounding the ring, I ate a bloody eight-ounce Angus burger with bacon and cheese that came medium-rare, on the rare side as specified. It was served on a toasted Kaiser roll with the proper complement of lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard, onion and pickle. The pickle slice, a thin lengthwise cross-section artfully cut from the middle of a whole dill pickle, was a nice touch. The burger patty looked pre-formed and previously frozen. The French fries also seemed to come from the freezer.
The waitress had recommended the spinach and artichoke dip for an appetizer. It was hot, creamy and salty with plenty of artichoke hearts. It was served with tortilla chips rather than bread rounds, which seemed a bit odd in a British pub. The menu also included nachos, pasta and Caesar salad. Once upon a time, I would have railed that these generic menu items compromised the authenticity of the pub concept, but I have learned my lesson.
A couple of years ago I visited an ancient pub outside Galway, Ireland, called Paddy Burke's. The place has been in business since 1650. Looking over the menu of this legendary establishment, I was chagrined to find Buffalo chicken wings, barbecued spare ribs with Texas barbecue sauce, and Chinese spring rolls on the appetizer list.
So I guess it's fair to say that some of the items on the Firkin & Phoenix's menu are authentically unauthentic. And, truth be told, aside from the fish and chips, I wasn't terribly impressed with the British dishes anyway.
Firkin & Phoenix's hot roast beef sandwich on a French roll seemed like a good idea for lunch on a chilly afternoon. Along with several other sandwiches, it was listed under a section of the menu called "slices." The description summoned memories of restaurants in the British Isles where customers get cut-to-order slices from a whole roast beef off a "carving trolley."
Unfortunately, the hot roast beef sandwich that was set down in front of me on the bar was made with pressed slices of gray beef loaf that looked like it came from Arby's. There was also a side of generic-tasting brown gravy, a cup of slaw and a huge pile of previously frozen French fries on the plate. When I tried to pick up the French roll, the top and bottom slid apart due to all the gravy coating the meat.
It was too much bread for the amount of meat anyway, so I put the sandwich down, removed the top half of the roll, poured the gravy over what was left and ate it open-faced with a knife and fork. With some real roast beef, some real gravy, and some hand-cut French fries, it would have been a hell of a sandwich. At least I got a nice cup of tea with it.
Unlike most imitation British pubs in the U.S., Firkin & Phoenix does a nice job with the tea. In British pubs you generally get a real teapot and a cup and saucer when you order tea. The bartender at the Firkin brought me a stainless steel pot full of hot water and a mug, each on a saucer with a paper doily underneath. I selected my tea bag from a huge selection in a giant wooden box. If it wasn't quite a proper cup of tea, it was at least close.
I'm not entirely sure why I chose the Firkin & Phoenix for my first encounter with steak-and-kidney pie. Maybe it was because I have been on such an offal spree lately. The sweetbread and tripe tacos at the Tacambaro taco truck bowled me over ("Taco-Truck Gourmet," August 24, 2006), and I fell in love with the brain masala at Indika ("Montrose Vindaloo, October 12, 2006). So I guess I thought I would extend my streak.
Maybe the look of the place motivated my choice of entrée. It doesn't have the classy feel of worn wood and a roaring fireplace like the Black Lab. Neither does it have the wonderfully tacky feel of Pleather upholstery or fake Tudor timbers like the Red Lion. Instead, the red velvet-covered booths, etched-glass room dividers and shiny brass fixtures give it an upscale, shopping-center, franchise feel. Everything else about the place was bland, so how weird could the steak-and-kidney pie be?
The pie was served in an oval dish with a topping of puff pastry. The flaky crust tasted terrific with the brown gravy and overcooked steak chunks. And at first, the roundish bits of kidney seemed quite innocuous. Sure, the texture was a little rubbery, but the flavor wasn't too bad, especially when washed down promptly with a slurp of Boddington's draft ale.
Then I got a little braver. Fishing around in the gravy, I was shocked at how many large pieces of kidney there actually were. I picked a big piece up with my fork and ate it by itself. It tasted awful. In an effort to describe the flavor accurately, I picked up another big hunk of kidney and held it under my nose. This proved to be my undoing. I couldn't eat another bite.
There is a passage in Ulysses by James Joyce describing Leopold Bloom's love of offal, which includes the line, "Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faint scented urine." Unfortunately, neither my palate nor my nostrils found anything fine about the scent of urine in my steak-and-kidney pie. And there was nothing faint about it, either.
When the waitress stopped by and asked if everything was okay, I told her that the dish wasn't to my liking and that I wanted to order something else. I told her that there was nothing wrong with the way the dish had been prepared and that I wanted to pay full price for it. It was the first time I had eaten steak-and-kidney pie, and now I knew better. I asked her if she ever tried it.
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She said that the wait staff had tried each dish on the menu as part of their training, but she had eaten around the kidneys when she got to this one. I speared a kidney chunk on my fork, held it out and encouraged her to take a whiff. I was kind of surprised when she actually did lean over and smell my fork. She nearly gagged.
I got the shepherd's pie instead. It was a bland goo of ground meat in a tomato gravy covered with mashed potatoes. But I ate the whole thing just to get the taste of kidneys out of my mouth.
I would go back to the Firkin franchise for the fish and chips and a Guinness. But there are much better fake British pubs nearby. I think the owner, a Vietnamese-Houstonian named Vu Truong, would have been better off opening this franchise out in the "Energy Corridor," where the pub category isn't so well represented.
My biggest regret about the Firkin experience is that now I have to establish whether I hate steak-and-kidney pie, or if Firkin & Phoenix's was poorly prepared. Which means I am going to have to eat (and smell) some more of it.