By Elana Schor - 09/11/08 04:35 PM EDT
In America’s popular imagination, the British are too often defined by two stereotypes: bad teeth and unpalatable food.
But stereotypes are made for debunking. Just ask Keira Knightley, a U.K. star with a brilliant smile, and Jamie Leeds, the chef now busting food myths at her new British restaurant, CommonWealth.
At the bottom of its menu, CommonWealth defines its mission as promoting “good food, drink, and laughter” — literally increasing the communal wealth in gentrifying Columbia Heights. Leeds has competition for the title of local watering hole, with Tonic and Wonderland steps away, but she breaks from the pack with a more upscale and refined approach to the neighborhood pub.
So the dishes may sound heavy enough for heartburn, from Scotch eggs (rolled in pork, breaded, then deep-fried) to bangers and mash (coiled sausage with mashed potatoes in onion gravy), but don’t be deceived. Antonio Burrell, the former Viridian toque who runs the kitchen for Leeds, keeps portions small enough and flavors light enough to leave you room for CommonWealth’s stellar desserts.
Still, one should expect CommonWealth to immediately confirm the stereotype about beer-loving British. The beer list offers several old U.K. standbys, such as Newcastle and Boddingtons, in addition to Orkney and Riggwelter, obscure microbrews by the bottle that are dark enough to serve as dessert.
But the real pleasure behind the gorgeous copper-topped bar is cask-conditioned ales, which are preserved with little of the extra gas that comes from the pressurized kegs common in America. The result is a smoother, subtler sip that doesn’t fill the stomach as much as a traditional Budweiser draft.
Of course, Bud is available for those who prefer it, as well as a reliable lineup of wines. If adventurous drinking isn’t your goal, though, CommonWealth encourages any number of culinary experiments. During my visits, several nearby tables ordered meals with a British slang title without asking for translation from their server — and incredibly, all were thrilled with the outcome.
For those who prefer a little advance knowledge, the finger-licking “frog in a puff” is locally-made lamb sausage swathed in puff pastry, while the “bubble and squeak” is a cabbage-based vegetable hash, akin to savory succotash. The standout among strangely named dishes is those Scotch eggs, which come with a trio of addictive parsley, honey mustard, and spicy dipping sauces.
The portions at CommonWealth are not large, but the prices are higher than the average pub. To appreciate Leeds’s farm-fresh aesthetic, then, the best strategy is usually ordering one entrée and several smaller plates. The thick jacket potatoes, topped with bacon-and-crème fraiche and other rich pairings, are a good bet for hungrier customers, as are the buckets of thick, steak-cut chips.
Those hefty potato wedges are paired with slices of cod, battered in Smithwick ale, for a truly gourmet fish-and-chips entrée. Malt vinegar traditionally accompanies the iconic British pub dish, but I found myself reaching for the piccalilli, a mustard-infused vegetable relish that British pubs buy in bulk and Leeds’s kitchen makes by hand.
Another superlative entrée is the smoked haddock cake, also cured in-house and boasting a complex, earthy flavor. The tomato salad with pig’s ear contains enough salted red heirlooms to make a refreshing main dish on its own, while caramelized onion gravy adds welcome sugar and leavens the weight of the bangers and mash.
The service at CommonWealth is unfailingly welcoming, particularly the knowledgeable and approachable bartenders. Those expecting a traditional English pub, complete with grizzled proprietor and greasy place settings, may be disappointed to find an ambience that’s downright urban-hipster.
Servers wear fashionable dark uniforms and the black leather banquettes are accented by chic mirrors that run the length of the room. Tables in the bar double as boards for checkers or chess, and the family-style Sunday Roast menu aims to encourage all-ages dining as every new week begins.
The idea is catching on. CommonWealth’s “gastro-pub” concept, featuring gourmet takes on classic British dishes, is already a tradition in the U.K. The prettifying of formerly notorious pub food is so popular in London that supermarket Marks & Spencer now carries a line of “gastro-pub” TV dinners.
It may be too soon to tell whether CommonWealth can replicate the success of Hank’s Oyster Bar, Leeds’s Dupont Circle spot, and weave itself into the fabric of the neighborhood. Its kitchen is still working out some timing kinks, and dining on a spacious patio is sadly less relaxing with the neon sign of Best Buy flickering above.
But CommonWealth deserves a look from Washingtonians weary of drinking beer at the Brickskeller or eating a cheap pupusa on the run. Even those who can’t dream of trying tasty British food should duck in for dessert and tell themselves that a “sticky toffee pudding” is really just a sponge cake — with the most deliriously lip-smacking date sauce on the planet.