British food often gets a bad rap. Traditional dishes don’t have the finesse that makes French technique a touchstone, nor the bounty of garden fresh ingredients that elevate Italian cuisine as the favorite of western palates. But my father’s family was from northern England, so our Christmas tradition was always standing beef rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, which is a popover variation for the uninitiated.
But across the U.K., you’ll find gastropubs offering the lure of tasty morsels to accompany pints of ale. Beer usually demands hearty dishes like bangers and mash or steak and ale pie. I must add, though, that I’ve often been disappointed. My companion of the past decade is a Brit expat, so I’ve been across the pond to London and Shakespeare country in the midlands of Warwickshire on numerous occasions (before COVID-19). Pubs are everywhere, but even in Covent Garden, in a half-timbered Tudor building that spawned Disney dreams, the meals have too often been underwhelming.
Jack’s London Grill
1050 62nd Ave. N., St. Pete
Pub snacks $5-$12; British classics $10-$13; dessert $6
We all know, however, of the ubiquity of “fish and chips.” Beer-battered haddock is a staple with British chips, which are usually thick and hand cut similar to U.S. steak fries. In fact, there are relatively few authentic British pubs across the Bay area. What I have discovered is that Jack’s London Grill is a takeout oasis which easily delivers the food that Brits crave. Take that, Covent Garden. Jack’s version is totally authentic and serves the fish with housemade tartar sauce. The crispy ale batter coats the flaky white fish to perfection. You might want to add some malt vinegar to your pantry, which is the preferred grace note for this dish across England.
Jack’s features two of my favorite British starters. The Scotch egg and the sausage roll. The egg is boiled until firm, but not quite long enough for the yolk to fully solidify. Then, the shell-less egg is encased in a layer of breakfast sausage meat, dipped in beaten egg, breaded, and deep fried. Jack also lightly bakes the finished product. These are easily quartered to share the soft, sunny yolk-filled pieces with the entire table.
The sausage roll wraps a hot dog-sized link in puff pastry and bakes it until perfectly crispy and seductive. It’s served with a small container of Dijon mustard mayo for dipping to add just a touch of creamy tang on the palate. Each warm bite juxtaposes juiciness with flaky crust.
My personal British gastropub favorite is shepherd's pie. I must confess that this harkens back to the potato turbate days of school cafeteria fame. Technically, the chosen protein dictates the title: shepherd equals lamb, whereas beef is cottage pie. Here, a ground lamb and beef mix is cooked with roasted garlic and rosemary, dotted with a few diced veggies and served beneath creamy herb-potato mash with a melted cheddar cheese top browned in the oven. In any case, it evokes fond memories and pushes all my comfort food buttons.
Bangers ‘n’ mash is another staple. Jack’s duo of traditional Irish sausages with creamy mashed potatoes and rich Guinness gravy is a winner. And then there is the array of hand made pies—all takeout ready in an aluminum rectangle topped with delicate shortcrust pastry. Each has a motif to identify its filling, e.g. cross-hatching or half moons, etc.. They’re all served with a side of yummy mash, rice, or a vegetable medley, usually thin slices of carrots and zucchini.
The steak & ale pie has thick, tender slow-braised beef tips in rich Guinness gravy. Equally scrumptious, but a bit lighter, is the creamy chicken, brie & leek pie. Boneless chicken and soft leeks swim in a creamy white wine sauce, finished with herbs and melted brie under the same flaky crust.
Curry, of course, is a staple of British cuisine as a result of the empire’s colonial reach. Jack’s Bombay chicken and lentil pie balances the spices that swathe the tender chicken and legumes in a scrumptious mild coconut curry sauce. All the pies are great takeout options.
The desserts (or puddings) change on a regular basis. Our individual bread pudding is disappointing. It’s overly brown and dry instead of infused with custard, but the apple crumble is simply delicious.
With craft beer production exploding in every corner across the Bay, it’s time to grab your favorite brew and swing by Jack’s for an authentic taste of England. Even though a vaccine is now around the corner, we’re still in a world where takeout rules and a safe trip to London is many months away. I can hear Jack’s Shepherd’s pie calling my name. How about you?
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