An abbreviated version of a famous joke goes like this: After you die, how do you know whether you've gone to heaven or hell? When you go to the great banquet hall of the afterlife, if you're greeted by the English while the French cook for you, it's heaven; if the French greet you and the English cook for you, it's hell.
A dining companion offered this as I nervously awaited our appetizers at The Cock & Bull, a Lakewood establishment that calls itself "a European-style wine bar/restaurant." The decor inside was a winning, if vague, mishmash of Anglo pub (ale ads and brass plates on the wall, upholstery with cows grazing in the heather) and French bistro (dark wood tables with pale tablecloths, cellar-like wooden shelves of wine behind the bar).
In the end, the English pub was the dominant cultural motif. Or at least, it seized the upper hand after I heard all the limey accents flying from the patrons on barstools as well as the lilt of co-owner and operator Noel Graham, who slung ale behind the bar with the hale and hearty loquaciousness of a pubmate from a Dave Allen skit.
Visions of scotch eggs, steak and kidney pie, and blood pudding terrorized my mind. As it turns out, the menu was as friendly as Graham. He opened The Cock & Bull a little over a month ago after spending a year at Daddy Jack's in Deep Ellum and, before that, considerably more time at the London Tavern and the original Mucky Duck. Luckily, the food here was far less English, vigorously seasoned, and prepared in combinations that could be ascribed to various European countries, albeit more influenced than indigenous. The staples (pasta, rice, chicken, shrimp, beef) are familiar to anyone who noshes regularly at so-called homestyle restaurants. And the prices compare favorably with Dixie House, Dallas' dowager queen of homestyle fare located just a few blocks down.
We began our meal with a tall glass of the house ale, an aromatic, bittersweet brew concocted closer to home than old London. Saint Arnold's from Houston is the stuff that Noel Graham served us from a handpump that advertised "Old Speckled Hen," a British ale. Graham asserted that this wood-handled, Prohibition-era pump was possibly the only instrument of its kind in the city. We didn't learn nearly as much about Saint Arnold's, but as an infrequent ale drinker, I appreciated the perfumey, not too yeasty flavor.
The appetizers turned out to be a high point of the meal. The shrimp and mushroom pancakes were browned to a thin, crispy-tender perfection; a creamy garlic shrimp sauce and a clear brown ginger sauce were ladled on separate parts of the plate over different pancakes, and the competition between clove and root, though they might obliterate one another if carelessly mixed, made excellent flavors in alternating bites.
Rectangular slices of pork liver pate, served alongside a small loaf of sliced bread ovals, were spooned over with a scrumptious, slightly tangy raspberry sauce. Pork, I discovered, made a pleasant alternative to goose, the animal I was accustomed to tasting in pate; it was heartier and didn't leave the pasty film on my tongue that often follows in the wake of the bird.
The smoked salmon plate was considerably more problematic. The Cock & Bull gets a gold star for presentation; composed on the plate with their various sauces doled out as modest, colorful rivers, the items fairly preened for the snap of a magazine photographer's camera. The smoked salmon was no exception, a series of concentric rings starting with a cream cheese and herb dip in the middle, a ring of capers next, and the pink slices of fish folded outermost.
The problem with the salmon plate was reflected in practically every dish during our meal; by the time it reached our table, the food was room temperature at best. A warning scrawled across the bottom of the chalkboard where the day's specials were listed said: "Patience...If you don't have any, go to Jack in the Box." This presumably was meant to reflect the obvious care that chef Bruce Stein took in his preparations, but by extension I had to wonder if all this attention to detail resulted in food that lingered too long away from the flame and 'fridge. The salmon was clearly marked on the menu as a "cold plate," and the wait was detrimental; smoked salmon slices beginning to get warm acquire a fishy aftertaste and a mushy texture.
As vigilant as The Cock & Bull obviously is about its ingredients, there was still some slack to be taken up. The salad de maison, served with a choice of three different house-made dressings, was a disappointing iceberg affair. The lettuce that John Waters referred to as "the polyester of greens," and that food guy Bert Wolf again and again reminds us gained its American popularity not for flavor or nutritional value, but because of its durability during shipping, doesn't deserve a place in such an ambitious establishment.
Equally lazy was the appearance of baby shrimp in what sounded like an Italian masterpiece--shrimp with vermicelli in garlic and herb sauce. These were the rubbery, flavorless sea runts you find in frozen stir-fry mixes, and they didn't even rate as an afterthought. The dish would've worked better as solo pasta in a sauce with a hint more prickly herb. Better yet, throw in some fresh prawns and jack up the price.
Two other entrees easily rescued our main course experience at The Cock & Bull. Chicken Scarborough over rice consisted of large, juicy breast chunks sauteed in a brown sauce of beefstock, tomato, basil, and onion. This was the kind of sublime dish that'll turn even the most dignified of diners into Henry VIII; the portion disappeared all too quickly under the competitive stabs of our forks. Grilled trout with shrimp and thyme cream sauce was equally divine. I didn't mind the baby shrimp in this heavenly sauce, generously spread over a tender filet.
When we asked the waitress about dessert (advertised on the blackboard as a mysterious "chef's creation"), we were informed that it was different every time she entered the kitchen. We ordered blindly, and were rewarded with what at first appeared disappointingly routine--vanilla ice cream and pears in a raspberry sauce. Each spoonful confirmed, however, that the ingredients were top quality--the flecks of bean in the ice cream ran roughshod over the notion of "vanilla" as a synonym for bland. Every bite of the fresh pear slices, poached ever so briefly, made a sweet snap in my mouth.
On the Saturday night we ate there, The Cock & Bull showed evidence of having already gained a following among Anglo expatriates in Lakewood, where Noel Graham lives. Once he works out a few of the kinks, his gospel of European comfort food should reach beyond the converted.
The Cock & Bull. 6330 Gaston Ave. 841-9111. Open for dinner Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
The Cock & Bull:
Smoked salmon plate $7.50
Chicken Scarborough $7.95
Grilled trout with shrimp and thyme cream sauce $8.95
Vermicelli with shrimp in garlic and herb sauce $8.50
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