January-February 2011

The British Invasion

Againn Tavern, a British gastropub, serves good food from both sides of the pond.

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A popular restaurant is a tough act to follow.

When Againn Tavern, a British gastropub, opened in June in the long-running Houston’s space on Rockville Pike, a lot of people were upset, according to Executive Chef Wes Morton. “Customers got very emotional because we weren’t exactly like Houston’s,” Morton says. “It’s definitely been an uphill battle.”

Not only that, but other diners kept comparing Againn Tavern (pronounced Ah-gwen, meaning “with us” in Gaelic) to its edgier downtown sibling, Againn DC. “We are a tavern in Rockville,” says Mark Weiss, CEO of the Whisk Group, the Bethesda restaurant management company that owns the two locations. “We’re not trying to be downtown.”

That means serving more families than expense account attorneys, adding a kid’s menu and pacifying the Houston’s crowd with options such as ribs, steaks and burgers. Still, the menu includes many British staples, and boasts an impressive beer and spirits list (including a $175 shot of 30-year-old Scotch). The restaurant also buys local and organic ingredients whenever possible, and makes practically everything in-house.

In trying to please everybody, it has become a hybrid, with something for both American and Anglophile tastes.

So which cuisine prevails? While hoping for a clear winner, I found good food and OK food from both sides of the pond.

Rule Britannia: In my mind, it’s hard to ruin anything with mashed potatoes, the edible equivalent of a soft blanket or a hot bath. That’s what’s on the soothing shepherd’s pie—flavorful, braised Shenandoah Valley ground lamb covered with a golden-brown mashed potato crust.

The bangers and mash was a similarly comforting experience, its sausages surrounded by those creamy potatoes and splashed with onion gravy. (The sausages could have been more memorable, given the labor involved: They’re homemade with pork from Garden Path Farms in Newburg, Pa., and seasoned with garlic, pepper and fennel.)

Completing the British trifecta of traditional dishes is the fish and chips. It comes with a pretty emerald mound of mashed, marrow-fat peas—but underneath those good looks is a bland and cold condiment. Skip to the fish, which bursts with crunchiness on the outside, a terrific contrast to the moist, silky flesh within. As for the french fries, they’re thick-cut, salty and addictive.

Sticking with tradition, I also tried the full English breakfast at Sunday brunch. The top-quality ingredients in the simple meal (two eggs over easy, diced potatoes, toast, bacon, sausage, marinated tomato) showed that sometimes the less we mess with food, the better.

More complicated preparations were involved in the a la carte basket of homemade pastries, which on this morning consisted of a cheese biscuit, pumpkin muffin and apricot-ginger scone, served with little pots of butter, jam and Devonshire cream. If pressed to identify a favorite, I’d have to go with the scone, but I’d gladly wake up to any of them.

When it comes to British beginnings and endings, forgo the charcuterie selections (with the exception of the assertively spiced pork terrine) and save your calories for dessert, specifically the sticky toffee pudding. Stout ice cream that really tastes of beer is set atop a steamed, gingery pudding cake and surrounded by a moat of warm toffee; the spices, flavors and temperatures work surprisingly well together.

Another musBistro orb lights and brick walls create a cozy atmosphere.t-order is the Banoffee pie, a British dessert of bananas, caramelized milk, graham crackers, cream and ganache, cleverly served in a mason jar.

God Bless America: So many Caesar salads these days are overdressed collections of romaine. But Againn Tavern’s is a delicate standout, with lightly coated greens, chopped, hard-boiled egg and slivers of white anchovies.

The crispy brussels sprouts starter—flash fried and sprinkled with salt, lemon juice and curry—will convert even the most avowed haters of the vegetable. It helps that the little heads are charred until they’re nearly black, making them unrecognizable from the over-boiled side dish that has given them such a bad name.

Weiss says the restaurant is selling a lot of pork ribs, burgers and steaks. Having tried them all, I’d say skip the Tavern steak, if the cut that day is a beef shoulder petite tender. (Our waiter described it as flank steak, but it wasn’t. Regardless, it was tender but tasteless.) But the ribs are the proverbial fall-off-the-bone type. The meat is smoky, and while the dish won’t win any barbecue competitions, it’s a respectable contender.

The burger—a manageable-size, lightly packed patty made from grass-fed Virginia beef—is a definite winner, though, and served with a mop of caramelized onions and cheddar cheese on a brioche roll.

Finish with the all-American apple crisp with burnt honey ice cream. Made with local apples and served warm, this is a cozy close for a cold winter evening.

The Whisk Group spent $1.9 million on the renovation here, and I’m not sure where the money went. With leather booths, bistro orb lights and an open kitchen, the space is smart and comfortable but pretty nondescript. I guess I was hoping for an English tavern look. The bar area, on the other hand, is a handsome place to knock back a couple of Glenlivets. Lockers over the bar for Scotch bottles rent for $500 a year.

As for the service, the staff is well-meaning, but the kitchen and servers need to work a bit on their timing. At dinner one night, we waited so long for additional charcuterie toast to arrive that the entrées came before the appetizer was half eaten. At brunch, a party seated after us was served and finished before we even got our main courses. But what really ticked me off was that on two separate occasions, a hostess with a Cinderella complex was cleaning the carpet while the dining room was in full swing.

All in all, though, whether you’re headed for a banger or a burger, this is a pretty good place to eat. Not smashing, perhaps, but I’m sure Houston’s fans and downtown diners will find something to fancy.

Againn Tavern

12256 Rockville Pike (Towne Plaza), Rockville
301-230-9260
www.againntavern.com

Hours

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Prices

Lunch: salads and sandwiches, $8 to $16; entrées, $16 to $24.
Dinner: entrées, $19 to $36.
Kid’s menu, $7 to $10.

Reservations

Recommended, but will take walk-ins; member of Open Table

Beer and Wine List

Beer from England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Wales, in addition to American craft brews. International collection of wines. The restaurant also has an extensive selection of Scotch, whiskey and bourbon.

Favorite Dishes

Crispy brussels sprouts, Caesar salad, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, hamburger, ribs

Favorite Desserts

Sticky toffee pudding, Banoffee pie, homemade breakfast pastries

Good Place to Go For

Meat and potatoes (American or British style) on a cold winter day

Parking

Shopping center lot

Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.