The Zythophile

I think I have a new favorite foodie blog (well, more like ale and lager blog, but let’s not split hairs):

The Zythophile

Read, for instance, this fascinating post on the spurious history behind the “traditional” ploughman’s lunch served in pubs the world over.  I feel seriously vindicated now, as I never liked the pissant little bits of lettuce and cheese and pickle that comprised a ploughman’s lunch anyway, and always wondered how that rabbit food could be considered substantial or hearty enough for a field laborer to eat for lunch.

Also awesome: Fraudulent Ale Questions, where the author debunks various myths about beer, including some myths that I’ve never even heard of, such as:

Medieval ale-conners wore leather breeches and tested ale by pouring some on a wooden bench and then sitting in it and seeing if they stuck to the bench.

Apparently quite false.  Who knew?

And, of course, there’s a short but sweet section on the underappreciated art of beer and food pairing.

The beer snob in me has found a new home, folks!

The Red Lion Pub, England

…called so, of course, to differentiate this post from my not-so-favorable review of our very own “Red Lion Pub” right here in Houston.  No, no.  The Red Lion Pub in Holmes Chapel may as well exist on an entirely different planet from its cousin in Texas.

On our first full day in England, we set about on a drive down the narrow, winding roads past hand-laid stone walls and brilliantly green fields full of fat sheep.  Richard drove me through the posh streets of Prestbury, alongside the immense, 21st-century monolith that is Jodrell Bank, underneath viaducts and train tracks until we reached his second hometown in Holmes Chapel.

Holmes Chapel
The main street, Holmes Chapel.

I say second hometown, since his childhood was — as so many of ours were — divided between places.  He spent his youth in Bollington, a mill town up the road, and his adolescence in Holmes Chapel.  The village is older even than Alderley Edge, having been recorded in 1086 in the famous Domesday Book as “Chapel Hulme.” Coming of age in Holmes Chapel leant him a keen familiarity with the three local pubs: The Red Lion, The George and Dragon and The Swan.

The Red Lion Pub in Holmes Chapel
The Red Lion.

The Red Lion was his pub of choice, located only a short walk past the church and grocers from his house.  In his youth, he spent many a lunch there with his schoolmates and many a long, cold night surrounded by friends.  Richard recalls that it was the epitome of a tatty, well-loved old pub: worn and slightly-sticky carpets, very basic bar and low, sloping ceilings.  When we first approached the place on foot that day, Richard presciently remarked, “Looks a bit spiffed up.”

Red Lion Window

Entering The Red Lion was like walking into an expertly decorated hotel lobby, perhaps an Aspen boutique hotel, with trendy fabrics and cushy armchairs all perfectly akimbo.  Richard stopped, mouth open, marvelling at what was clearly a different Red Lion than the one he left behind over six years ago.  While I admired the upmarket window treatments and flower arrangements, my poor husband stared blankly at what I imagine was his utterly destroyed adolescence.

A Pint of Bitter, Please
A pint of bitter, please.

The Red Lion is one of many pubs that’s been bought out by the large chain Ember Inns, which is itself under the umbrella of its enormous parent company, Mitchells and Butlers.  Ember Inns operates over 2,000 pubs throughout the UK.  This may seem like a large number, but keep in mind that even the tiniest of villages — like Holmes Chapel, for example, with a population of only 5,600 people — has at least three pubs.  Not having any frame of reference within which to judge, I can’t say whether or not this is a good thing.  I enjoyed the non-pubby atmosphere of the place more than I expected to, given my innate hatred of chains.  That hatred was mollified by the fact that the building itself doesn’t seem to have changed any (according to Richard) except for the new decor and presence of a higher-end restaurant inside.  Richard, to this day, remains mostly ambivalent towards the changes.

Wild Mushroom Dish Closeup
Wild mushroom risotto in puff pastry with vegetables.

The food itself was wonderful and very inventive.  Take, for example, my meal: a wild mushroom risotto inside puff pastry.  A bit on the starchy side, yes, but — delicious!  Oh, so delicious.  Who would have ever thought to put risotto inside of puff pastry?  Ember Inns, I suppose.  The main dish — containing five different types of wild mushrooms — was served with a side of roasted sweet potatoes and butternut squash (the English seem to love their roasted root vegetables, which I wholeheartedly support), some roasted potatoes and a side of mashed potatoes with gravy.  Okay, so the side selection needed a bit less…starchiness, I agree, but you couldn’t argue with that main dish.

Wild Mushroom Risotto in Pastry with...a lot of starches
I have now gained a solid understanding of why Richard thinks it’s okay to have chips (fries), mashed potatoes and roast potatoes all on the same plate as side dishes.

Richard ordered scampi (which he, once again, ate before I could get a picture) which is strikingly different from our own “scampi” over here: it’s battered and fried shrimp (a.k.a “prawns”) served with chips and peas.  When I mentioned to him that our version of “scampi” meant that the shrimp was sauteed in white wine and garlic butter, he just peered at me as if I were out of my mind.

Main street in Holmes Chapel
Heading back out to the main street.

We needed a long walk after eating so many potato-based items, and headed out from The Red Lion satiated, ready to attack the rest of the day with very little need for any other food, save a very light dinner that night.  English cuisine is wonderful in the sense that it fuels you to face all the walking that one needs to do on a daily basis, and seems to protect you from the cold from the inside out.  As we left The Red Lion, Richard seemed slightly sad.  I asked him what he thought of the new-and-improved pub of his youth.  He thought for a while before diplomatically stating, “Well…the food was great.”

The De Trafford Arms

I couldn’t quite think of how to begin describing such a wonderful and diverse trip as the one from which I’ve recently returned (pardon the absence…), so I decided to begin as I usually do: with a restaurant review.

Most of my readers will probably be unfamiliar with the little town that Richard and I were staying in during the England leg of our journey.  It’s a small village in rural Cheshire, only thirty minutes from Manchester by train.  It’s called Alderley Edge, and it was perfect.

The De Trafford Arms
The De Trafford Arms.

Alderley Edge has existed as a village since the 13th century and, while it has most definitely changed during that time– and even in just the past few decades — it’s retained an immense amount of charm, personality and warmth.  Richard’s stepfather was born and bred in Alderley and still maintains a residence there, which were lucky enough to stay in during our vacation.  The Alderley Edge of his youth was decidedly different from the Alderley of today, packed with Range Rovers and WAGs, but it’s still a beautiful village with a main street offering plenty of options for the intrepid diner and a glut of butchers and cheese shops for the intrepid cook.

Lambing Season
It’s lambing season!

The de Trafford family — one of the oldest families in England — has owned most of the land in the immediate area of Alderley Edge since the 15th century and, to this day, the brilliant pub at the end of the main street retains their name, the same name also given to The Theatre of Dreams: Old Trafford.  The De Trafford Arms is everything that an American — like yours truly — imagines an authentic English pub to be: timbered ceilings, pleasantly worn carpets, shining bronze footrests at the bar, old paintings and crackling fires.  In fact, the pub itself is only about 200 years old — fairly young by English standards — but you still feel as though you’ve slightly stepped back in time upon entering.

De Trafford Arms
Inside the De Trafford.

The first night that Richard and I visited The De Trafford, it was hovering around 34° outside and the smallest of snowflakes were slowly making their way down to the streets.  Wearing a scarf and winter coat is always a novelty to me, living in a sauna as I do here in Houston, and the trip down The De Trafford through the biting cold was a welcome and enjoyable change.  The twenty minute walk from his parents’ house led us through the quiet neighborhoods, past the train station and church, and finally down the brightly-lit main street to the pub.  We had only just landed a few hours ago and were still full from airplane food (BMI serves absolutely brilliant airplane food, I kid you not — even in coach! — I had cheese and onion spaetzle on the trip over and butternut squash risotto on the trip back), so we had decided to just get an order of chips and some beer.

A quiet nook.

The new trend in England is the much ballyhooed “gastropub.”  In nicer towns and villages, the gastropub seems to be the rule now, rather than the exception.  This means no more ratty pub grub or sad, little bags of crisps behind the counter.  Instead, the focus is on high-quality, fresh, seasonal, local food mixed with traditional favorites.  The gastropubs boast of their on-site chefs and proudly display their specials on chalkboards as you enter.  It’s a far cry from most of the pubs that we have here.

Lunch Specials
Today’s special is…

The De Trafford offers a limited selection of draft beer — just the standards, really (Carlsberg, Foster, Hoegaarden) — but they also offered something else I greatly enjoyed: a selection of rotating guest beers.  I quickly found my niche with the Jenning’s Cumberland Ale.  I am a huge fan of bitter, and England is truly the perfect place for me to indulge that preference.  I placed my order at the bar, where the adorable bartenders started briefly at hearing an American accent before expertly pouring a half-pint for me and a large lager for Richard. My small nip of Cumberland Ale was the perfect nightcap and the perfect beginning to a long and wonderful journey through Cheshire.

World's Largest Hoegaarden
When I say “small nip” and “large lager,” I mean it.

The next day, we were back at the De Trafford, enjoying lunch with Richard’s friends from the neighboring village of Wilmslow.  I opted for the scrumptious-sounding “Roasted Root Vegetable Tart with Melted Brie” and was not disappointed.  The tart was full to bursting with roasted sweet potatoes, winter squash and carrots, topped with some delicious slivers of that sweet Brie.  The plate also contained a large serving of steamed broccoli and cauliflower, a handful of crisp and refreshing watercress (although it may have been purely a garnish, I ate it anyway) along with some roasted red potatoes topped with a very mild pesto sauce.  It was a highly satisfying lunch on a cold day.  Richard apparently felt the same way about his lovely-looking Steak and Guinness Pie (steak, Guinness, bacon and lard inside a puff pastry — what’s not to love?), as it was inhaled before I could take a picture of it.

Delicious Tart
Roasted Root Vegetable Tart with Melted Brie.

Overall, The De Trafford Arms couldn’t have been a more ideal start to our little tour around Cheshire.  The staff were welcoming and friendly and the pub itself was charming.  On the other hand, it also quickly reminded us that it wasn’t going to be cheap to eat in England, given both the terrible rate of exchange at the present and the fact that even pub food is now pricey.  We weren’t going to escape England with full wallets, but at least we knew there was a lot of wondeful food waiting for us in return…

Three New Faces In The Crowd

I’m a little late to the party on this, but I felt it worth mentioning anyway…

Rhea Wheeler (the Houston entrepreneur-cum-restauranteur responsible for the award-winning Ibiza) is opening a “mixed-use” restaurant in Midtown that will include — among other things — private wine lockers, an upscale restaurant, a club and a sushi bar.  While that should be interesting in and of itself, what really intrigues me is the location.

No, it’s not new construction!  I know — unheard of!  It’s…wait for it…in the old Boy Scout headquarters on Bagby.  No news yet on what the restaurant will be called, but I’m giddy with anticipation.

The real estate and development hawks over at Swamplot have additional details here: Secret Midtown Boy Scout Sushi Location Revealed.  The headline itself just makes me giggle.

In addition to the mixed-use restaurant (which I’m not-so-secretly and desperately hoping will be Scout-themed — can you imagine the possibilities of the staff uniforms alone??), Wheeler is also opening a downtown gastropub called Hearsay and another Midtown restaurant, to be called the White House.  All three are being established in “historically significant properties,” which gives me a small hope that perhaps we won’t tear down every single structure built prior to 1980 during this building frenzy that has currently enveloped the city.

Hearsay will serve — as expected — gastropub fare, which is classic English pub fare done in a much more upscale manner and with the addition of unexpected, high-end menu items.  Gastropubs began making headway in the United States in 2004 after being imported from the U.K. with great caché, the food trend equivalent of The Beatles.  Houston, being a bit behind the times in most things, has been somewhat slower to cotton on.  As previously noted, The Red Lion has made a feeble attempt at this trend.  Let’s hope that Hearsay does a better job, because I’d love to have a quality gastropub in town.

The White House is still a bit shrouded in mystery, too.  All we know at this point is that it will be located in an eponymous white mansion on Austin at Elgin and will serve “Texas cuisine,” a descriptive phrase that annoys me almost as much as the hollow “California cuisine.”  We’ll see what comes of it.  As for now, I’m hoping for something a bit like The Inn at Hunt Phelan in Memphis which, despite its rather dull and pedestrian website, is actually beautiful inside and out.  The Inn at Hunt Phelan, a restored Civil War-era mansion, specializes in Creole/southern cuisine and their food is subtly magnificent.  You might see where I’m drawing a few parallels here.

Rhea Wheeler appears to me to be almost the antithesis of Tilman Fertitta (whose vile, greedy building projects and painfully, nauseatingly gaudy yet utterly-devoid-of quality restaurants are permeating the city).  Wheeler’s zeal for good food and his seemingly true appreciation for the city make me eager to support his restaurant endeavors, entirely absent of any acclaim that Ibiza has received.  That is to say: even if Ibiza weren’t the huge success that it is, I love the direction that Wheeler is taking and I’ll happily follow him along the journey.

The Red Lion

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. Continue reading The Red Lion