By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
When Manuel Martinez, a Cervantes scholar, opened the Spanish restaurant Don Quixote in Coconut Grove five years ago, he expended considerable money and effort on transforming the dining room into a semblance of the town of La Mancha. If the food had been re-created with the same passion, I probably wouldn't be writing about the Firkin & Friar Pub, which moved into the voluminous two-level property July 4.
The cuisine at Don Quixote wasn't bad -- croquetas, paellas, creme caramel, and so forth. Then again, page 314 of my ragged old Roget's Thesaurus, which lists synonyms for bad, looks as new as can reasonably be expected from a 1982 edition. But page 368, with its apt adjectives for averageness ("middling, mediocre, neither good nor bad"), is worn thin as phyllo dough. Much of the fare at Firkin & Friar can be described with words from that page, but there are saving graces aplenty, beginning with the ambiance. Whether attempting to conjure up La Mancha or Manchester, restaurateurs in this town are far more adept at authenticating look than cuisine.
F&F is part of the Firkin Group. With 40 restaurants in Canada and 30 planned for the States, it is North America's largest pub chain (the "Firkin" stays constant but each location has a unique surname; this is the "Friar" franchise). Remnants of La Mancha remain, from the white windmill exterior to the balustrades of the former posada. Still, once you walk through the weighty wooden doors, you'll know you're in an English-style pub. An ample bar, shellacked in black, dominates the center of the room, and dark wooden booths and red velvet banquettes take up the front and rear of the 13,000-square-foot space; television screens are strategically placed about. Brightly colored poster-size labels of English lagers and ales embellish the tall wall behind the bar, and a smattering of casual Coconut Grovites can usually be found congregating around it. On weekends the party takes place upstairs, an intimate lounge with a bar, dining tables, a pool table, and a game machine that encourages patrons to take their best shot at a punching bag. At first thought this seems sensible as a means for aggressive drinkers to release their inner, alcohol-fueled rage. On the other hand, I wouldn't necessarily want to be around when an angry drunk, adrenaline pumping from pugilistic activities, runs out of quarters.
The selection of English, Irish, and Belgian beers is a knockout. Pints poured include Guinness, Beck's, Bass, Harp, Smithwick's Red Ale, and creamy Boddinger's Pub Ale (which a somewhat soused Englishman sitting outside highly recommended to us upon our arrival). Bottled beers also impress, with the entire Samuel Smith collection on hand. Bartenders and waitstaff are personable and accommodating, and a manager oversees the room, quickly checks in with each table, and bids diners adieu at the door -- better treatment than I commonly receive in much pricier joints. Firkin is a very friendly place, which is of utmost importance to a pub's appeal.
Food is not so vital; a plate of filling fare at a decent price is usually all that's expected. In this regard, F&F fulfills its function. As the menu says, let's "get firkin started." Appetizers are a potpourri of global bar snacks, including spring rolls, French onion soup, coconut shrimp, mozzarella cheese sticks, spinach and artichoke dip -- stop me if I mention something with which you're not utterly familiar. Bacon-wrapped scallops sautéed in garlic butter was a bit different, and rather palatable. Can't complain about the nachos either, a colossal heap (and I'm referring to the "small" size) of red, yellow, and blue chips blanketed by a shebang of accompaniments -- melted Jack and cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, red onions, black olives, jalapeños, guacamole, salsa, and sour cream. A glorious mess, just as it should be. Bruschetta brought garlic bread similarly slathered with salsa, chopped tomatoes, onions, and melted cheese -- just as it shouldn't be.
Salads ("lettuce firkin serve you") are satisfactory, the usual array of Greek, caesar, spinach, and so on. "Saucy firkin pastas" deliver routine noodle toppings of chicken Alfredo, primavera, sausage, and seafood. "Feeling firkin special? Check out the firkin blackboard for our daily specials": mahi-mahi, filet mignon, and beef pie.
"Firkin favorites" (let me know when you get tired of the "firkin" references. Oh really? Well, I suppose you're right; once probably would have been more than enough for me too) encompass English pub fare and American chicken preparations -- wings, fingers, and barbecue. The last refers to half a bird lightly marked on the grill and baked with a mildly cloying barbecue sauce. The chicken was plump and moist, and with rice and Greek salad (or fries and little onion rings) adds up to a complete dinner, though I suspect that for $11.95 you might do better at Pollo Tropical.
Two crisply beer-battered clods of juicy cod form the fish portion of fish and chips, with sides of pale fries, competent coleslaw, and tartar sauce of the abominable quality I mistakenly thought was used only in single-serving packets. A "Pints & Plates" page recommends light, grease-cutting Heineken for this particular dish.
Matching four pub plates with appropriate brews and imaging them together on a menu seemed brilliant, but with all of the exemplary beers here, the choice of Coors Light to pair with shepherd's pie makes a mockery of the list -- or shall I say advertisement? As it turned out, any beverage would have been fine with the shepherd's pie, a shallow casserole dish containing clean, savorily flavored chopped beef sweetened with fresh carrots, capped with mashed potatoes, and slathered in smooth beefy gravy. Does the reasonable $9.55 price grant the pie immunity from criticism over lack of a properly crisped crust? No. It wouldn't have cost anything to brown the potato topping. Does that make the brightly colored but frozen green and yellow wax beans on the side acceptable? Closer call. I'll let you decide. Steak-and-kidney pie, and bangers and mash (and beans) round out the British imports, while sandwiches and burgers complete the menu categories. The last are eight-ounce patties with a pleasant charred flavor imparted from the grill.
I'd rather pay a tad more and be served something approximating the "fine English fare" trumpeted within Friar's corporate logo, but I suppose I'm dreaming the impossible dream. Still, this is a swell place to grab a drink and a (wait a second, I have to consult my thesaurus) commonplace meal at a commoner's price. After all, it's only a firkin pub.