Blah Blah Blah
Pub is a word derived from the term "public house," which is "an establishment licensed to sell alcoholic drinks for consumption on the premises and often serving meals as well," according to Webster's. It's touching to consider that proprietors who make their living with liquor licenses are so concerned about nutrition. But the food, usually laden with salt, simply parches mouths, setting them up for a good wash and rinse with beverages that can't be poured without a license.
Sherlock's pub was already 25 years old when partners Edgar Carlson and Larry Martin scooped it up in early 1995 in Houston's Westchase area. Being young and ambitious and a little daffy perhaps, the pair made their way to London for a painstaking study of the town's pub scene (hiccup). There's a lot to scope out in that regard. Pub culture in the U.K. has an interesting pedigree. It dates back to the eighth century, which means its roots perhaps dip deeper than a Dallas sports bar. In fact, pub culture is so integral to the British socioeconomic fabric that total annual pub revenue often surpasses that of the U.K. auto industry, which, given the fit and finish of your average British car, is an indication that most Brits know the best buzz doesn't come from a tuned Land Rover.
Yet there's a question as to how much historic public house parlance this pair of pub plutocrats absorbed. A look at the menu reveals a chicken Caesar salad, a chicken quesadilla, tacos and fried calamari--not exactly a lunge toward London pub authenticity (though a blood-pudding enchilada might be interesting).
And while Carlson and Martin weren't available for comment, Sherlock's does have a Web site, a destination ripe with information. For example, on the Sherlock's home page we learn there are three Sherlock's pubs in Houston, one in Humble, another in San Antonio and one in Addison (the one we'll be discussing). Carlson and Martin are also planning to plant a Sherlock's in Arlington sometime next spring.
But unintended insights erupt when you click on the page's "news" tab. This activates a pop-up window that bursts into your cyber awareness with the headline "news news here news news" beneath the "under construction" banner followed by line after line of the endlessly repeated words "blah blah blah blah..."
How fascinating the Sherlock's Web site should be so infected with the blahs, that it should so skillfully capture the sentiment expressed on the menu. Now, technically it's redundant to call British food blah, at least from a historical perspective, which is what pubs are steeped in, but this fare isn't really British anyway, or pub for that matter. It's bar food dressed up in pseudo Britannic duds, a chip dip in an MG Midget. Yet there are some spectacles of note.
British sausage roll, a clumsy hulking morsel of meat swaddled in puff pastry, was void of grease, and the flavors weren't repellent. Little plastic ramekins of mustard and a tarry sauce with cubes called Branston pickles, a dark, spicy/sweet vegetable pickle, were included. Most bars don't have Branston pickles, as they're harder to eat than pretzels.
Scotch egg was a compelling oddity: a halved hard-boiled egg encrusted in sausage meat and bread crumbs and fried into George Hamilton tan tones (the actor now markets his signature french-fry tinge on QVC as George Hamilton's Constant Color). The egg itself was feathery and moist, though perhaps not as plump and moist as an egg that was simply boiled. It was hard to pick up any meat out of the encasement, which consisted mostly of bread crumbs.
One thing that wasn't muddled by blahs was the sautéed mussels, a grouping of green-lipped shellfish in a deluge of white-wine sauce that floated jalapeño wheels, tomatillo specks, garlic and cilantro. The mussels were chewy, firm and clean, a pretty good rendition for a pub conspicuously outfitted with pool tables, dartboards and oodles of televisions. Not a single mussel flirted with that sludgy off flavor that makes you wonder if new life forms will soon be taking residence in your spleen.
Spinach salad was also a near-worthy entrant: a fresh heap of fluffy spinach leaves ribbed with an array of gently sautéed green beans. Couched around the edges were tomato wedges, hard-boiled egg halves and truly dismal black olive slices. Strips of parched and mealy blackened chicken breast were planked across the bean ribs, though a good application of dressing ameliorated that somewhat.
But where Sherlock's should score resounding pub knockouts, it founders. Chips and fish came with just two measly pieces of Icelandic cod encased in a beer batter that was soft and mushy instead of crisp and resilient, though both chips and fish neatly skirted greasiness.
More off-target was Sherlock's shepherd's pie (originally crafted as a leftover dish from the institutionalized "Sunday roast"), a bland, runny pool of vegetable chunks and ground meat so finely minced it resembled coffee grounds, and very well may have been. Amazingly, despite the crust composed of baked mashed potatoes, Sherlock's shepherd's pie officials saw fit to include a side of red potatoes. What? No hash browns, super spuds and gnocchi shooters?
Bangers and mash arrived as a delicious smear of buttery mashed potatoes with halved sausage links strategically planked at angles across the surface. The sausage was chewy and rich in gamy sweetness, which means either it was made of lamb or it was ripening. It was hitched to a ramekin of baked beans, mushy things presumably disgorged from a can whose main attribute was value pricing.
This pub stumble was compounded by dessert, a berry cobbler whose prime feature was a batter that seemed purposefully undercooked to leave the impression that fresh berries are most at home in a bed of slime.
Far from authentic, Sherlock's is a formulaic bit of low-octane Anglophile pettifoggery. The banquettes are cushy with well-lacquered tables. (Where are the coathooks?) The soffits are lined with bookshelves, home to a peculiar set of volumes including some by Erma Bombeck as well as ephemeral business/money books with titles like The Retirement Myth. No sign of works by Evelyn Waugh, John Stuart Mill or D.H. Lawrence. (Who reads in pubs anyway?) Instead of British-invasion stylings, the sound system drips AC/DC, Billy Squier and Aerosmith.
A red phone booth is perched near the front of the restaurant. The walls are lined with beer mirrors and a vast collection of pix depicting British luminaries such as Winston Churchill, Princes Di, the queen, Pierce Brosnan and the Mop Tops, though I searched in vain for a photo of Fat Bastard.
Carlson and Martin have parked their concepts under a Houston-based umbrella called Hospitality USA. Inhabitants include Sherlock's, Sherlock's units with grills, Baker St. Pub full-service restaurant/pubs and a separate creation called Big Texas Dance Hall & Saloon, currently in Webster. Hospitality plans to multiply this slate at a pace of two or three units per year.
Shortly after that, maybe that news button on the Sherlock's Web site will sprout some news. And maybe the kitchen will salt the food. All those blah blah blahs can make you sleepy. And they sure don't help drink sales.
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