Restaurant News & Reviews

Pound for pound, a gastropub contender

Don't be alarmed when you open the menu at The Oxford and see shepherd's pie listed at 13 British pounds (about $19 at current exchange rates) and a burger going for nine pounds ($13). The pound sterling symbols printed next to the prices are merely a tongue-in-cheek nod to The Oxford's English pub heritage. The actual prices are in fact good old American dollars, and they're in line with the prices at other pubs in the area.

OK, maybe they're a little higher. The Oxford is not just a pub, after all, but a gastropub, which by definition aspires to a higher culinary standard than typical pub grub. The shepherd's pie, for instance, is made with a blend of house-ground beef that includes filet and strip-steak trimmings, using a recipe adapted from one developed by English superstar chef Gordon Ramsay. The burger is made with house-ground beef, too, a hefty 8 ounces of it. Optional topping combinations such as Stilton cheese and applewood-smoked bacon can be had for a surcharge of one pound -- er, dollar. Boar and cranberry sausages elevate bangers and mash, another public house staple, above the realm of the pedestrian.

Even more than the upscaling of traditional pub fare, though, it's the chef's inventive creations that set the gastropub apart from the mere pub. Executive chef John Anderson, who has worked locally at Margaux's and Herons, lives up to that standard with a number of distinctive dishes. Panko-fried avocados, for instance, a small-plate offering that stars ripe, buttery wedges of avocado in a crunchy, golden crust with a chipotle cream sauce for dipping. Chicken wings, fried and tossed in a light coconut curry sauce, with additional exotic oomph supplied by a sultana-peanut chutney on the side. A Stilton-sprinkled tomato bisque whose flavor is even more intense than its color.

Entrees are likewise varied, with options ranging from traditional rare roasted prime rib of beef to contemporary crab-stuffed shrimp with vegetable risotto and tarragon cream. In between, a number of dishes deftly straddle the divide. A smoked Cornish hen gets both a classic herb stuffing and a sundried tomato and goat cheese polenta. An otherwise classic rendering of beer-battered fish and chips gets a couple of subtle twists in the form of malt vinegar cole slaw and citrus remoulade. Make that three twists if you pick the optional house-fried American style potato chips instead of the default fries.

There are occasional misfires in the kitchen, though they're generally minor. Herb-marinated grilled halibut was slightly overcooked when I sampled it recently. Boneless braised beef short ribs were succulent that night, but the garlic mashed potatoes that accompanied them had a subtle but discernible burned taste. On another occasion, oddly, the garlic mashed potatoes tasted fine atop the shepherd's pie, but lacked any hint of the browning that defines a mashed potato crust. Still, the kitchen's execution generally lives up to the menu's promise.

The weak link isn't in the kitchen but in the dining room. I'm not referring to the décor, an eclectic British-accented study in leather, brass and dramatic lighting that's well-suited to the menu and the trendy downtown location. I'm talking about service, which in my experience has ranged from aloof and inattentive to cheerful and slightly more attentive.

The bar, on the other hand, more than lives up to its pub heritage with an impressive international beer selection, including a dozen well-chosen brews on tap. The wine list is more than respectable, too, as is the selection of single malt scotches and small batch bourbons.

The gastropub is a relatively recent development (the term is said to have been coined in 1991 by the owners of a pub in London), and the line between pub and gastropub is still blurry. It could be argued, for instance, that the chef-driven menus at pubs such as Tyler's and Trali qualify them as gastropubs. But The Oxford is the first in the area to put its money (pounds or dollars, take your pick) where its mouth is and call itself a gastropub.