Although the shepherd's pie at the newly opened Red Lion Pub on Shepherd is made with ground lamb, it manages to taste bland anyway. The sausages served with the bangers and mash are authentically British, which means the meat is cut with some kind of bready filler. And every plate seems to come with mashed potatoes and peas. But it's cold and rainy outside, and the bland comfort food hits the spot.
We order another couple of pints and settle back in our red pleather booth by the gas log fireplace under the faux Tudor timbers. A couple of Boddingtons help us see that this isn't just another fake British pub. This is an authentically fake British pub -- and a shining tribute to the tastes of the British middle class.
The man with the designer eyeglasses and the British accent behind the bar is founder and owner Craig Mallinson, the son of British folk singer Sarah Mallinson. According to a press release, the Yorkshire-born gent owned bars in England and Greece before establishing the Red Lion Pub in Houston.
Pubs in the British Isles range from the dark, ancient and time-honored to the sunny, suburban and silly. But based on my experience, outside of London, the average British pub looks like a middle-class family room with a big TV, chintz curtains and neutral carpeting. And the food is hot, filling and resolutely underseasoned. But to criticize the bready bangers, ubiquitous mashed potatoes or floury gravy is to condemn the British culinary aesthetic itself. And those jokes (e.g., "In hell, the British are the cooks, the Germans are the cops, and the French are the mechanics") are getting old.
In fact, for the past 20 years or so, the UK has been undergoing a remarkable culinary makeover. You'd think food snob Ted Allen from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy had been elected to Parliament and was running things. London is awash in trendy new eateries; English yuppies argue about where to get smoked salmon; people have thrown away their Marmite. Televised food shows like Two Fat Ladies and The Naked Chef have brought this new food consciousness to the masses, eventually changing even pub grub.
I e-mailed John Whiting, an expat American food writer who's spent the past 22 years in London, to ask him about the trend. "British pubs are taking advantage of a burgeoning interest in food, serving anything from Thai to Tex-Mex," he replied. "Alas, their ambition usually exceeds their skill."
It's nice to know that the quesadillas found in every British pub in Houston are authentic, anyway. At the Red Lion, you can get them with or without guacamole. But unfortunately, the Red Lion's international pub grub is competing with excellent international fare at other pubs in the immediate vicinity. As previously noted here, the psychedelic cheeseburger at Rudyard's Pub on Waugh is among the best burgers in Houston. And if you like thin-crusted crispy pizza, you're probably well acquainted with the stupendous pie served at Kenneally's Irish Pub right across the street.
But if pizza, quesadillas and hamburgers are too plebian for your tastes, you might want to move up to a "gastropub" -- the new trend in British fine dining. One of the fastest-selling cookbooks in the UK right now is The Gastropub Cookbook, in which food writer Diana Henry offers a guide to this peculiarly British institution, along with recipes for such gastropub dishes as belly of pork with black pudding and mustard mash, beef and wild mushrooms braised in Guinness, and Cornish fish casserole with saffron.
The food at the Red Lion on Shepherd may be too old-school to be "gastro," but there are British pubs in Houston that do fit the description.
The tops of the tables are of well-worn wood and the walls are decorated with dignified portraits here at the Black Labrador Pub on Montrose. The stale beer smells and sticky floors usually associated with British pubs are completely lacking. And the menu is quite ambitious. Welsh walnut salad with blue cheese, mussels in white wine sauce, and grilled orange and bourbon salmon are among the offerings.
We start off by sharing a bowl of baked potato soup, a creamy potage seasoned with cheddar, chives and meaty bacon. My dining companion orders "sole in its coffin," a macabre name for a delightful fish dish in which chunks of baked fish are topped with creamy wine sauce, sautéed shrimp and mushrooms, all served in the coffin of a hollowed-out baked potato. I opt for the traditional steak and kidney pie, a generous portion of tender beef and chewy kidneys baked in a casserole dish with a pastry shell. I wash my pie down with a Guinness.
My dining companion is too full for the "spotted dick," a favorite English dessert of pudding dotted with raisins. Instead, we ask our waitress to serve us a couple of the pub's specialty coffees in front of the fireplace. I like her Scottish coffee with single malt and Drambuie better than my Irish coffee with its single shot of Jameson's, but she refuses to share more than a sip. I content myself with memories of the excellent meal, the roaring fire and the scenery, which consists largely of blonds.
Some pubs in the UK serve as meeting places for particular crowds. Along with the neighborhood pubs, there are golfers' pubs, boaters' pubs, pubs devoted to teams like Manchester United, and pubs for singles on the make.
Houston pubs aren't quite as specialized, but they do have associations. Irish football fans congregate at Slainte downtown to watch important matches, usually quite early in the morning because of the difference in time zones. The dark and dreary Rudz, as the regulars call it, attracts an arty, bohemian crowd. And the natty Black Lab on Montrose draws blonds in cable-knit sweaters who loudly favor Aspen over Steamboat Springs.
Except for a few elderly red-faced guys and a couple of expat Brits, the Red Lion hasn't established a steady crowd yet. The last time I ate there, I was delighted to see a woman and her three young children having dinner at a nearby table. Perhaps it was the Monday-night $3 hamburger special that attracted them, but it definitely gave the Red Lion an authentic British pub vibe. I remember seeing lots of little old ladies drinking steaming pots of tea in British pubs during the afternoon, and families with children during dinner.
That night, we sampled an indifferent hamburger and a "roast beef dip" sandwich consisting of slices of overcooked roast beef on a soft white bread roll with a bowl of dark beef stock for dipping on the side. We also split a Cornish pastie, a delicate pastry dome stuffed with beef, carrots, potatoes and peas, which was beautiful but bland. Craig Mallinson is bravely resisting the British gourmet trend. Instead, he seems intent on re-creating the stodgy flavors of his Yorkshire youth.
We stopped by the Red Lion for dinner one other time, but we couldn't get a table. It seems the entire pub had been reserved for an "eight-minute dating" event. The contestants, who wore numbered badges, were drinking heavily and eyeing each other nervously across the bar. For the Red Lion's sake, I hope this doesn't turn into a regular event. It ruins the "public house" atmosphere.
Purity is probably a little too much to ask of Houston's pubs when, in fact, Britain's pubs are starting to resemble American bars. Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft are two of the most popular beers in British pubs these days. We Americans may not be very good at brewing beer, but we sure can market the stuff.
Traditional British pubs are disappearing, John Whiting wrote in his e-mail. The bars don't belong to local landlords anymore; they're owned by the big breweries, which are mainly interested in attracting young drinkers with loud music and American-style lagers, he said. "Lager has in fact replaced traditional bitter as the most widely consumed drink in Britain," Whiting wrote. "If the Red Lion wants to get really authentic, it had better lay on the Bud and install a disco."
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