When I moved to London in 2010, everybody warned me about the awfulness of traditional English food. Friends declared pub life would be a drudgery of boiled beef and spotted dick. “The best thing that ever happened to English food,” my father advised, “was McDonald’s.”
Alarmed, I spent the first three weeks avoiding my corner pubs, The Bancroft Arms and The Palm Tree, and living exclusively on curry, pasta and sandwiches. But experience soon taught me that English food is not the bland mess of its reputation. The United Kingdom invented the gastropub in the 1990s and pioneered the farm-to-table movement, and even traditional meals have their delights: savory pies jam-packed with meat, veggies and Guinness; a basket of crisp, fresh fish and chips; creatively filled sausage links that rank among the world’s best.
A new Deep Ellum arrival is hoping that Dallas eaters see beyond the bland-Brit stereotype. Independent Bar & Kitchen is located, audaciously, on the same block as Pecan Lodge, and it serves a menu of refined European pub fare. Unfortunately, only at brunch does it fully satisfy my nostalgia for the real thing.
The first problem is an absence of draft beers from the United Kingdom; even bogus British gimmick pubs manage to stock Fuller’s London Pride. The German and Belgian-influenced dishes at IBK can be more easily paired with compatriot beers, like Blanche de Bruxelles with an order of moules frites, and an ample bottle selection helps but offers few bargains.
Chef Andrew Dilda’s menu includes a lot of pub comfort, and a few dishes that honor the European new wave by thinking outside the banger. There are hits and misses in each category.
One starter looms over the others in interest and calorie count: the Scotch egg ($9). The egg is wrapped up in sausage, battered, deep-fried and served with the yolk spilling out. It's an indulgence, but be warned: the Scotch egg plate is enormous and needs to be shared with four or five friends.
By comparison, meatballs in gravy ($10) are solidly savory but upstaged by more interesting tempura mushrooms on the side, and leek rings ($7) boldly retain the flavor of that underrated vegetable, but the batter falls off the leek at first bite.
The English-style banger is a sausage link so juicy that it’s fork-tender, standing out in both the classic bangers and mash main course ($14) and the sausage sampler appetizer ($15). That “wurst board” is a great starter, since it also includes a lamb sausage link with a red-peppery kick, addictive curried vegetables and horseradish-infused English-style mustard. IBK's mustard is flavorful but milder than the genuine article; in London, my dining companion would not have been able to eat a heaping spoonful all by itself.
The two best dinners are the bangers and the shepherd’s pie ($13). The latter is a rich, hearty beef and lamb stew topped with a “crust” of cheesy mashed potatoes. Its carrots, peas and other veggies retain their crispness even down at the bottom of the bowl. This will be a perfect wintertime meal, even if the side salad’s dressing is slightly too heavy on lemon.
On the other hand, fish and chips ($14) smelled and tasted a little too fishy on a Wednesday night visit, which made me wonder about freshness. Roast chicken for two, from a short list of sharing platters, is a tale of two dishes ($24). The side bowl of oyster mushrooms and other vegetables, tossed in tonkotsu ramen broth, is truly inspired. The chicken itself is juicy enough, but more or less all its flavor comes from Indian-style curry powder rubbed heavily on the skin. This bird feels like a good idea which needs some more experimentation and testing to get right.
Rabbit pappardelle ($26) and pork knuckle ($18) are two mains that don’t taste as cool as they sound. “Knuckle” actually means a very solid if unremarkable slow-cooked shank on a bed of spaetzle. The meat is braised in IPA, but don't expect a hoppy taste. IBK's rabbit pasta uses a whole roasted rabbit leg; at Gemma, the same dish is served more sensibly with boneless meat, braised to avoid dryness. Gemma’s pasta sauce doesn’t impart a cloying sweet aftertaste, either.
My favorite dessert is the addictive chocolate custard, or pot de crème, with peanut brittle ($7). IBK’s sticky toffee pudding ($7), honoring probably Britain’s single best culinary invention, gets all the flavors right but is, blasphemously, not served hot. Oven-hot sticky toffee pudding, with ice cream melting rapidly on top, is frankly my favorite dessert on earth. IBK can reach that high bar with a simple fix.
Independent’s MVP is the full English breakfast ($15). A classic fry-up, as they call it in Blighty, is an artery-clogging plate of U.K. pride which can make even Texas heart chambers thud in terror. It calls for fried rashers of ham, fried eggs, buttered toast, a link or two of sausage, some form of queasily unhealthy starch, grilled tomatoes and a bizarre vegetable side, usually a puddle of baked beans.
While the Pecan Lodge brunch line snakes around the block, chef Dilda is jazzing up this classic. The age-old cross-Atlantic debate about what “bacon” means is resolved here by serving both kinds, the English thick ham and, in a sticky-sweet glaze, the peppery American strips. Dilda also lavishes attention on an accompaniment most pubs overlook, the bizarre side. At IBK, the baked beans are curried, adding a nice flavor twist, and they’re joined by a delightfully light tempura-battered oyster mushroom.
“To eat well in England,” Somerset Maugham once wrote, “you should have breakfast three times a day.” Maugham’s definition of eating well might terrify dietitians, and his advice might not be true of England anymore, but it’s a good rule of thumb at Independent Bar & Kitchen. In winter, shepherd’s pie will beckon, but until then, and until that sticky toffee pudding arrives piping-hot, this is one bar where the hangover cure beats the hangover cause.
Independent Bar & Kitchen
2712 Main St. 469-872-6860. Open Sunday-Wednesday 11:00 a.m. to midnight, Thursday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
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