Let's get a few things straight first. The Queen Vic Pub (2712 Richmond), which opened on September 3, is nothing like The Red Lion. Yes, they're both pubs. Yes, they both serve a mixture of British and Indian food on their menus. But that's where the similarities end.
And although I've been a long-time fan of Craig Mallinson's pub on Shepherd -- for a while, it was the only place I could get a pint of Boddy's and some decent fish 'n' chips -- the Queen Vic has plowed entirely new earth and set a new bar for pubs (no pun intended) in Houston. This is exactly the kind of place Houston has been missing: an authentic gastro-pub that doesn't bill itself as such, with no pretensions and surprisingly delicious food.
The emphasis at the Queen Vic is evenly split between the drinks and that wonderful food. Like Anvil, the taps aren't labeled. Instead, the rotating beer selection is listed on a mirror that hangs above the simple, white, ceramic taps, centered in a massive and welcoming mahogany-colored bar. Last night, my dining companion couldn't choose only one from the well-curated selection, so he went with the build-your-own flight ($9 during happy hour gets you four decently sized samples) and ended up finding two new favorites: the rich, malty Spaten Bock and the more local 512 Pecan Porter.
Our bartender was clearly eager and enthusiastic about mixing drinks as well as having patrons at the bar. The "Jewel in the Crown" that he mixed up for me -- hand-crushing the ice along the way -- was a "girlie" drink in the truest sense of the word, but he served it up with a great deal of pride. Almost neon-pink and garnished with a single blueberry, it looked as though it would taste of Boone's Strawberry Hill. Instead, it was a warm mixture of buttery, subtly sweet flavors: spiced falernum, rum, bitters and a dash of housemade grenadine, perfect for a rainy evening.
With booze settled, it was time to tackle the food.
Chef Shiva Patel, a young woman who resembles Bollywood star Amrita Rao, came out of the kitchen at one point last night to rest for a bit at the bar. She looked weary but wore a smile.
"Are you the chef?" my companion asked. She simply nodded. "The food was...amazing," he gushed. Her smile grew even larger, and they began an earnest discussion of curries and spices. My companion was right; the food was amazing. And neither of us had quite expected it.
The menu is an amalgam of British and Indian dishes, but nothing on the menu is stodgy or rote. Every familiar dish has been reimagined -- whether on a small scale or on a large scale, almost reinventing the entire dish -- and refreshed in keeping with the restaurant's "modern pub" interior. Yes, it's still recognizable as a pub -- and, yes, the food is still recognizable as British or Indian -- but all of it is fresh and updated.
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We ordered a Buck Rarebit and a basket of chips to start, tearing into the chips first. They were redolent with thyme -- "You can really taste it!" my companion enthused -- and of solid construction (skin-on, which I love), but could have been crispier. However, as I learned yesterday from an overheard conversation between Ricky Craig and Bryan Caswell, potatoes are a bit dodgy right now due to the high sugar content; it seems most places are struggling with house-cut fries at the moment.
The updated Welsh Rarebit was an exciting change from the norm: Buck Rarebit comes drenched with a thick, almost buttery, cheddar mornay sauce and sauteed spinach on top of Texas toast. Thick, yellow yolk from the fried egg on top spread across as we cut into it. Almost in anticipation of it being too creamy, too rich, it's served with a bright tomato neem jam that slices through the fat like a hot knife.
A Goan shrimp and crispy okra curry was the other hit of the night. My dining companion -- a notorious curry-hater -- finally saw the light over this light, silky dish. Adapted from the more traditional Goan fish curry, the Queen Vic version features fat Gulf shrimp instead. Tangy tamarind, coriander and garlic stand out against the earthy, crispy okra and the briny-sweet shrimp. "All that curry means is 'soup,'" Patel gently ribbed my dining companion. "You just have to keep trying curries until you find one you like." And find one he certainly did.
There are more menu items still to come: tea sandwiches, little cakes and crumpets will shortly be introduced. The dishes the Queen Vic is currently serving up speak volumes about how those will likely taste, too. And I can't wait to try them all.