Location: The Red Lion Pub, Houston, Texas
Date: November 10, 2007
If you formed an opinion of the Red Lion strictly based upon the piss-poor grammar and misguided attempt at political humor showcased on the front page of their website, you probably wouldn’t be too disillusioned during your visit to their actual restaurant. I, however, only recently discovered their website and was therefore unprepared for the disappointment that awaited behind the heavy, wooden doors.
Before we begin, let me kick things off by saying that I love English cuisine. I might be in the minority on this, as most people seem to think that English cuisne is too starchy or bland for their tastes. But give me a steaming Cornish pasty or delicate Yorkshire pudding any day of the week, and I’m hot to trot. I don’t find English food to be at all bland, provided that it’s been prepared correctly. Like anything else, it can be cooked appallingly poorly and presented in a likewise unpalatable manner (such as Scotched beef, which can easily look like someone sicked up on top of a pile of mashed potatoes). But when it’s done correctly, it is something delivered straight from the Gods of Comfort Food Heaven.
I’d been to the Red Lion on many, many occasions prior to this evening’s meal, but always for a pint or two of Boddington’s after dinner or before a movie. Once, Richard and I made the mistake of ordering their $4.00 papadom basket, which sounded like a deal amidst their sea of overpriced menu items until we received our basket and saw with great chagrin that it contained exactly three papadoms, each roughly the size of a small corn tortilla. That should have been my first indication that you don’t always get what you expect at the Red Lion.
Down to the evening’s dinner, then, after that long detour.
- The fish and chips that Richard ordered was positively huge. We knew that it would be, having seen other diners’ portions prior to ordering, so we told the waitress that we’d be splitting it. After all, our companions were ordering enough dishes to sample from, so we weren’t missing out. The waitress was kind enough to have the kitchen split the fish and chips order into two beautifully presented plates. We really appreciated the thoughtfulness.
- The beer garden/outdoor patio area is splendid, with comfortable seating for groups and gorgeous, mature weeping willows. You would never know that your back was to one of the busier sections of Shepherd Drive. In the cooler months, the fire pit in the middle of the patio makes it so cozy that you don’t ever want to leave.
- The interior itself is as close to an authentic English pub as we’ve been able to find in Houston (or anywhere else in Texas, for that matter). There are a few touristy touches that I could do without — the bright red phone booth and any number of Hail Britannia tchotchkes lining the walls — but on the whole, it’s dim and warm and inviting and mostly everything a pub should be.
- They have an excellent draft beer selection and they know how to pour a pint properly.
- And finally, their Sunday special roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is actually quite divine. It’s the one meal that I will give them full credit for: it’s very, very, very good. I think the roasted parsnips are what sent me over the edge; for Richard, it was just the entirety of the meal and its ability to transport him back to his childhood home in Holmes Chapel circa 1983.
- It took us at least fifteen minutes to even catch a waitress’ attention long enough to get a menu at our table. And then another fifteen minutes to get that waitress to come back and take our order.
- The food is pub fare. This means that you shouldn’t really be charging $15.00 for a plate of fish & chips or $15.00 for an “Artisanal” cheese plate which is, essentially a tiny piece of Cheddar and an even tinier piece of Brie with some Saltines (ahem, “Jacob’s Cream Crackers”). Sorry, but it’s true.
- The Red Lion does not serve an entirely English menu. This isn’t a negative quality in and of itself. But if you’re going to divide your loyalties, make sure you’ve divided them well. The combination of English and Indian cuisines is nothing new, but the Red Lion’s inability to make them both hum is what transformed this into a negative for me. Neither category contains dishes that I would call extraordinary (aside from the roast beef mentioned above). Both categories have their feet firmly planted in the “good, yet still mediocre” soil. I’ve had much, much better Indian food at any number of establishments in Houston (no surprise, given our huge Indian population) and I’ve had much, much better English food as well. If you’re not doing either category justice, perhaps its time to pick a side and work as hard as you can at improving your efforts there.
- They also offer a limited selection of “American” food, which we’ve never bothered to try because it’s simply too expensive for what is, essentially, pub food. Also, if you can’t cook up a simple batch of fish & chips, I’m loathe to try your pan-seared duck breast.
- Their English menu is quite limited. There is the standard selection of English fare: Cornish pastie, shepherd’s pie, fisherman’s pie, bangers & mash and fish & chips. But it all tastes defrosted and bland. Only the addition of copious amounts of HP sauce and malt vinegar gave the fish & chips any taste at all. Same for the Cornish pastie and sausage rolls, unfortunately. There are no inventive items on the menu, no lesser known dishes: bubble & squeak, steak & mushroom pie, steak & kidney pie, any old kind of meat pies, toad in the hole, or a lovely full English breakfast would be welcome items. But, again: I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for these dishes, either, if the fish & chips can’t even pass muster.
- I keep talking about the fish & chips, I know. And here’s my problem with them: the fish had obviously been frozen. It turned to mush the second I put my knife and fork to it. White, fishy, soggy mush. I don’t know how it had even been fried up in the first place. The batter itself had no taste and was equally soggy — no crunch or crisp whatsoever. The chips tasted like off-brand Safeway frozen french fries. Again, no taste and soggy. It’s a shame, though, because the plates were — as I said — presented quite nicely.
- The Indian “Bahji” Onion Rings sounded delicious, but ended up having the same problem as the fish. The batter was soggy and almost tasteless, except for the faint undercurrent of curry. They were absolutely sodden with grease, dripping in it, so much so that one of our companions was sick later that night from the excess grease sloshing around in her stomach.
- And, last but not least, when I asked the waitress for some brown sauce, she returned to the table with a bowl of gravy. For God’s sake. Really??
Surprisingly, none of these negatives will prevent me from continuing to patronize The Red Lion. As I said before, it’s a great place to kick back with a beer. But I won’t be ordering food there any more. I’ve got The Bull & Bear, The Black Labrador, The British Isles and my very own kitchen for all of my English desires.