The Londoner serves up pub grub the way the Brits only wish they could
Some decades ago, there was this little chippy up on Hampstead High Street, a short walk from our London flat. It was here I first encountered Britain's symbolic pub dish, fish and chips: a choice of cod—if memory serves—or plaice, battered and dripping grease, rolled with soggy fries in an old newspaper.
Such were the Brits' hygiene requirements at the time. At the butcher's across the road, slaughtered rabbits hung in the window all day long. Crusty French bread filled baskets jutting into the aisles of our local market, there for anyone to touch. In fact, daily bread deliveries to the restaurant below our flat would sit on the stoop, absorbing exhaust fumes, until its staff arrived to haul the loaves inside—and that was a well-reviewed French destination. And that chippy folded its take-away orders in newsprint—The Times, to be precise—rather hoity wrapping for a rustic fish and chips joint. Guess nothing else absorbed oil like England's staid daily.
Fish and chips at The Londoner in Uptown hardly seems kin to long-ago tradition. White meat ends up firm, flaky and perhaps a bit on the dry side. The shell turns out reasonably crisp and seasoned just to the point where the salt and pepper—especially the pepper—begin to obtrude on the palate without dominating it. Fries achieve a brittle, golden brown texture. Although lacking the pillow-soft interior, they still beat most of what passes for french fries in the city. Despite all the grease involved, the combination hardly feels heavy; you will, however, fill up rather quickly. It's a more than adequate reminder of why fried fish and potatoes became a pub staple in jolly old England.
Wedged into a two-story home next to the old TABC (Thomas Avenue Beverage Company), across from the former 2900, this is the fifth iteration of Barry Tate's British-style tavern—and the one most reminiscent of an old public house. His first was a bar on Greenville, but he moved it to confined space in a narrow Addison strip center. This proved inadequate to deal with its popularity, so Tate changed locations, this time to a stand-alone setting half a block away, hocking his car to raise funds to complete the transition on time. After a failed venture in the city of McKinney, Tate last year began work on the current operation, again leaning on credit cards and whatever he could to finish renovation.
He's justifiably proud of the look. "This one came out as the best one I've ever done," he says.
To start with, he and chef Stephen DeSandro peppered the menu with pub grub such as chips and curry or onion bhaji—though local tastes may soon force some of these from the menu. The crust on the bhaji can be sodden and the onions a tad slippery, but British-style curry seasoning finds a welcome space to work, layering in gritty, pungent undertones to each bite. The powder matches up nicely to a cucumber dip spiked with chunks of vegetable—and a sneaky wave of heat that reaches out and forms a common bond with the curry.
Not bad, but also not a very popular starter. "I was giving it away to people," Tate says of the bhaji. "When they tried it, they liked it."
Well, it's all so very British: fish and chips, curry, other Indian adaptations. But Uptowners haven't latched on to the menu's theme. Instead of true pub favorites, they prefer things they understand—in a setting that makes them feel worldly. So Tate is looking at dropping bhaji and perhaps some of the other frightening dishes in favor of sandwiches.
"I should have put in more appetizers," he explains. "I'm a bloody idiot; I wasn't thinking—not that I ever think. Back-to-basics bar food, wings...that's what they want."
So the menu will change to some extent. In Addison, the restaurant offers Scotch egg and the English breakfast—including baked beans and tomato—with no complaint. But this is Uptown, where atmosphere counts more than authenticity.
Fortunately, the homey room and two patios (one up, one down) make this place more inviting than anything else in the neighborhood. It has the feel of a real "local," the kind of place you can stop by after jogging or in full nightclub regalia. On the second of my visits we found a spot on the street-side patio and watched guests lounge with their dogs—a code violation, unless they've applied for a variance. Hopefully that's the case, for it makes a comfortable setting even friendlier. My guest ended up being distracted by a couple of 20-somethings engaged in conversation about, well, threesomes, to put it delicately. From what I understand, the young man's girlfriend wanted to invite other women into the mix. And judging by his apprehension, the reason had more to do with her needs than a nod to his fantasies.
Who knew Uptown was as swinging as Plano?
Ambience is what you want from a pub—unabashed and honest—and you get it at the Londoner, much like the food service. Something billed as English brisket, which I never encountered during my time in London, seems effete compared to hunks of barbecued Texas beef: sweet vinegar dressing and a lot of greens dominate small slices of meat. Its only punch comes from a small dollop of horseradish. Coconut encourages curry fries into softer, more interesting ground than one would expect. A more intricate coconut-milk curry serves as background for chicken tikka masala, the classic British-Indian favorite. Smooth and mild, with a trace of vegetal bitterness tracked by modest pricks of black pepper-like heat, the sauce puddles around sizable pieces of tender (and bland) white meat. It's a competent version of the dish.
They offer shepherd's pie, as well as other odds and ends. And it would be a shame to see this kind of character yield to the dull panacea of American-style pub fare. Although, to be fair, it's hard to imagine hip young folks diving into an order of beef pasty. Based on the rough Cornish miner's meal, this is an oversized pastry brimming with chunks of tender-enough meat and random vegetable bits. The broth wanders through flavors associated with mirepoix, brine and vinegar—not something that suits every palate and hardly elegant in presentation—but nonetheless distinct. But the crust comes out flabby, as if obesity held it back from flaking up into a light, memorable shell.
So be it. You don't find better in most pubs around England, really. These are plates to accompany pints of beer—filling and hearty, but not very sophisticated. Service bounds back and forth between jaded and amateurish. Tate has had problems staffing dependable, competent people in his past attempts. A bartender at his first Addison space duped customers by tacking a little extra to credit card bills until he was caught and deported. Other issues trailed the owner to his McKinney establishment. In this case, service falls generally into the straightforward, pleasant treatment category, fortunately.
But for a pub, it's a reasonable dining experience. As a beer joint...well, the selection's not that grand. But the setting, with its step-up street patio and upstairs balcony, is difficult to top.
The Londoner 2909 Thomas Ave., 214-979-2333. Open daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $$
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