In Cod We Trust

I've had a fondness for British pubs ever since I worked in one in California, even though that experience wasn't wonderful. The hours were long, the tips were horrendous, and the manager, who called me Jenny (a name I've always despised), gave out my phone number to customers. I got tired fast -- of the zit-producing miasma of fish and chips, of the nightly recital of the 21 imported draft beers, of the Tuesday night bagpipe band, and of the drunken, butt-pinching clientele, especially when they called me at home. So I quit. Whereupon I promptly became a regular customer, munching away on deep-fried cod soaked in malt vinegar and quaffing pints of those 21 brews, which tasted much better when you were on the other side of the bar.

Truth is pubs (even those in America) are culturally atmospheric -- corked walls and dart boards, well-worn bar stools, wood-beamed ceilings stained with cigarette smoke. Even when the food is mediocre and the draft beer selection limited, as it is at Coral Gables's latest restaurant addition the Crown & Garter Pub, the languid pull is undeniable, especially in a city such as Miami, where this culinary resource is in short supply (Churchill's Hideaway being the notable exception that, as it were, proves the rule).

Tucked away on Catalonia Avenue a block or two away from Ponce de Leon Boulevard, the Crown & Garter is less rowdy than you might think. On a recent weeknight it seemed most customers were there for a fast dinner rather than drinks (a jazzy "supper club" theme that takes over on weekends is apparently more of a draw). We partook of both, sipping black-and-tans (half Guinness stout, half Bass ale, the only two imports the pub offers on tap) with shepherd's pie, and hard cider (sweet on tap, dry in a bottle) with fish and chips. The pub is also bigger than you'd expect; the dining room and bar open into another room, which in turn leads out to the patio A a pleasant option for those more interested in dining than pubbing.

Inside the walls and ceiling are accented with dark wood; chairs, also wood, are surprisingly comfortable, given that the seats have been hollowed out for your butt (which, it's fair to say, may actually appear to grow after you put away what you've ordered). A big-screen television and a CD jukebox are modern elements; a pool table and dart boards provide more timeless amusements. (Management even supplies the darts, though I'd recommend bringing your own if you have them -- anything would be an improvement over these dime-store versions.)

Our meal began with a little taste of the continent -- German-sounding beer songs on the music system, French onion soup in the digestive system. The soup, a special that day, was dosed with a lovely display of onions, and featured a deep, caramel-colored broth. But the slice of store-bought whole-wheat bread soaking in it lessened the appeal. Worse, despite being topped with a piece of melted mild white cheese, the soup was barely warm. A bowl of chili didn't suffer from that problem -- its spiciness alone was enough to heat us up. A hearty blend of ground beef, plump kidney beans, and a savory gravy, the chili was served with shredded cheddar and a generous sprinkling of chopped onion.

Little else (besides a house salad) is provided in the way of appetizers. Generally, though, portions are healthy enough A and the food heavy enough -- to render the point academic. A serving of roast beef, for example, comprised four slices of the meat, medium-rare in the middle and well-done on the edges. Though it had good flavor, the roast was a tiny bit tough and a whole lot cold. A pleasantly lumpy scoop of mashed potatoes, hollowed out to hold a rich gravy, supplied starch; soggy baby carrots and wrinkled peas were the unfortunate vegetables.

The same roots and legumes nestled against a large square of authentic shepherd's pie -- a traditional casserole of ground lamb or beef crowned with mashed potatoes, then baked until crisp. This pie was overly generous with the spuds, which overwhelmed their foundation of juicy ground beef by a ratio of two to one. A spill of brown gravy over the top added salty flavor, but the dish remained bland, and we couldn't locate a bottle of HP sauce to help it out. Smooth and delicious, with a peppery afterkick, chicken pot pie was more to our liking: a buttery pastry crust that rode high over a creamy, almost cheesy blend of peas and diced carrots and chunks of chicken.

Though not traditionally pub fare, fish and chips often makes an appearance owing to popular demand, and the Crown & Garter's kitchen excelled with this street-corner favorite. A huge fillet of cod was encased in an herbed batter, then deep-fried. Crunchy on the outside, the flaky white fish was wonderful with a light shower of malt vinegar, though a side of homemade tartar sauce was too heavy on the mayonnaise. Finger-size French fries, greaseless and golden, completed the filling meal. Another unexpected treat was bangers and mash: two succulent pork sausages in their crackling skins, served on a plate whose rim was lined with tasty mashed potatoes. An unremarkable dollop of baked beans constituted the only negative note.

Caesar salad, however, was miserable. One of the "lighter" entree options (the other choices: several sandwiches, a burger, a hot dog, and sometimes a fish of the day), it served as an object lesson in what not to order in a pub. A bowl of soggy romaine was dressed with mostly oil, with no evidence of anchovy, garlic, or Parmesan cheese. Croutons, which expanded with the dressing before disintegrating, provided very little distraction from the lettuce.

Our waitress, who was efficient and knowledgeable, persuaded us to try the Crown & Garter's two desserts, both of which were cheesecakes -- one featuring white chocolate and the other tropical fruit. The latter, she assured us, had just come out of the oven. If that was true, the pub needs to turn up the heat a tad: This pineapple-and-guava creation was frozen in the middle. Moreover, despite their divergent ingredients, the two slices, ribboned with whipped cream, tasted nearly identical. Next time I'll stick to sweet cider and drink my dessert.

Of course, drinking one's meal is always an alternative at a pub; I've already seen some UM students doing just that in the Crown & Garter. And it may not be much longer until a butt-pinching, phone-calling crowd begins to gather, at which point I'll probably feel right at home.


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