In Miami, the word pub - like the word bistro - does not necessarily connote good cheap eats or a working-class atmosphere. English Pub, which sits next to the pink Key Biscayne Galleria shopping center on Crandon Boulevard, is veddy, veddy upper crust, with a clubby atmosphere and the obligatory high prices.
The building, a big Tudor house, faces Crandon and looks as out of place in South Florida as a bonfire pep rally - but that's not to say the structure is unattractive. I don't know what the original restaurant - opened in 1951 and torn down a couple of years ago to make room for the shopping center - looked like. But "Return of Pub" looks authentic, as if it were uprooted from Stratford-upon-Avon, complete with beamed ceilings, Queen Anne chairs, baskets of dried flowers, Priscilla curtains, and hutches filled with intricately patterned china and old books. Crocheted antimacassars serve as mats under each place setting. Although the Pub boasts that among its collection of antiques is Lord Horatio Nelson's bedpan, I was not inspired to hunt for the pot, and my dining companion refused to check around the men's room for it.
We entered through the bar, called the Jamaica Inn - all polished wood and glistening liquor bottles - which leads to two huge, connected dining rooms. My consort, not usually keen on prissy surroundings, admitted the place is beautiful. And it is. What irked him no end, though, was the menu cover, scripted in flowery Old English and listing dishes with extremely reasonable prices. For example: "Bodmin Moor" onion soup, made famous by Daphne du Maurier in her celebrated novel Jamaica Inn, for 95 cents. The cover is a reproduction of the original menu, used when the Pub first opened 40 years ago, so we could not help but compare former prices with the new, inflated ones.
A few of the original offerings remain, but an item called "Cockney fried chicken" at $2.95 has been replaced by "Sauteed chicken breast with shiitake mushrooms in a light cream sauce" for $15.50 and "Paillard of chicken marinated in herbs" for $13.95. Also relegated to the dustbin of history were the $2.95 weekday specials: barbecued prime beef ribs, English beef loaf, Lancashire hot pot, chicken potpie, and fish 'n' chips.
We passed over a mostly standard array of appetizers - gravlax ($7.95), escargots ($6.95), shrimp cocktail ($7.95) - for the aforementioned Bodmin Moor onion soup (now $3.50). An appetizer of artichoke cups filled with seafood mousse ($6.95) was tempting, and so was one called "Jacket pots" ($4.25), but this last, according to our waiter, was nothing more exotic than potato skins spiked with Parmesan and garlic. Likewise, the romantically named onion soup turned out to be de rigueur onions in light broth with cheese melted atop. But Daphne be damned if it wasn't delicious. The cheese arrived toasty and bubbly and glued down the sides of the customary Boston bean pot like melting candle wax on a wine bottle. The onions were thickly cut, plentiful, and sweet. The sole flaw was that, unlike the other diners (and more like Oliver Twist), we had been given no bread, and by the time we caught our waiter's attention, we'd eaten all the soup, and the small, hard-crusted loaves he brought held no appeal.
From the list of beef, veal, lamb, chicken, and duck entrees, my companion chose the last - "boneless" roast duckling with a sweet mango sauce ($17.95). I selected from the smaller fish-and-shellfish portion of the menu and settled on a dish called "Dover sole meuniere" ($18.95) because it sounded a little more English than the red snapper ($16.50), shrimp scampi ($17.50), or steamed Norwegian salmon ($17.50).
Both entrees included house salads and small sides of scalloped potatoes and a melange of zucchini and onion. Like the onion soup, the salads contained no unexpected ingredients, but they were chock-full of a variety of light and dark greens and red and yellow peppers, and were dressed in a slightly sweet, thick vinaigrette. Although I liked the taste of the salad, the dressing was so warm that the lettuce began to wilt before I could finish it.
My companion's entree was roasted perfectly, bronzed on the outside and moist inside, and the "sweet" mango sauce was naturally and subtly sweet. But his portion consisted only of three narrow strips plus a small leg (with bone) about the size of a chicken drumstick. This duck was so minuscule that the fat-packed fowl would neither satisfy a hearty appetite nor threaten any diet. My portion of sole was also paltry. The two narrow strips I received looked mighty lonely on the plate. In addition, the meuniere sauce - basically browned clarified butter, lemon juice, and parsley - was oily, and the sediment masked the delicate flavor of the sole.
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The homely side dishes contrasted poorly with our more continental entrees. The scalloped potatoes and the mixture of zucchini and onions were the sort of uncoveted vegetables an overly attentive grandmother would present to her grandkids before awarding them some dessert. The potatoes were so oozing in cream and butter they would have set my companion's "diet" back by months - if he'd eaten more than the one bite that repelled even this robust eater. Sad to say, but the zucchini-and-onion dish wasn't much better - a plain Jane combination with neither herbs nor a drop of sauce.
While many winemaking countries are well represented in the Pub's wine chart - with bottles from Spain, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Italy, and France - the prices list precariously toward the high side. They are, in my companion's jargon, "unpublike." A couple of Californians, including the Sebastiani chardonnay we selected, round out the less expensive end at $15 apiece.
Our repast improved considerably at meal's end, when our waiter came bearing the dessert tray, which was loaded down with all sorts of tarts - apple, kiwi, mango, chocolate, and the one we chose: sour cherry. The concoction was marvelous - a thin layer of walnut-studded crust, topped by a thin layer of cheesecake, topped by small, deep red cherries in a glaze. And the beauty of the dish was that it had a natural good taste, with very little sugar in any of the layers.
We washed down our cherry delight with coffee - decaffeinated for me. But I realized a few hours later, as the bedside clock ticked 2:00 a.m., then 3:00, then 4:00, that my java was not unwired. As I lay awake, I thought about the previous evening's meal. And as the wee hours wore on, I continued to re-create the meal in my mind. By 4:00 the place was looking like old England, all right - Dickens's London. And my thoughts were pretty much un-Pub-lishable.