By Elana Schor - 07/14/11 11:51 PM EDT
In fashion, politics and particularly food, there comes a time for every fad to give way to a return to the classics. The latest trend easing its hold on D.C. dining — thanks to a homey new H Street arrival called the Queen Vic — is none other than the British gastropub.
Gastropubs were on the verge of a big Washington moment in 2009, when Againn and CommonWealth drew crowds with pub fare elevated by high-end presentations and local ingredients. But the latter spot closed this year after veering from its U.K.-proud concept, leaving a niche that the younger and lower-priced Queen Vic fills with flourish.
You won’t find the American beers offered at other area gastropubs on the Vic’s menu, but they’re hardly missed, thanks to a clever complement of beer cocktails. The lager and lime packs a mellow, thirst-quenching tang that belies its deceptively simple recipe, and the elderflower liqueur in the La Manche yields a female-friendly take on the hoppy in-house India pale ale. Sweeter still is Noel’s Seduction, a rich mix of Guinness, Kahlua and hazelnut Frangelico that can, and does, serve as dessert for many a table.
Just because the Vic eschews artisanal $12 cocktails, however, doesn’t mean that its neighborhood feel can’t be anchored by locally sourced items. Some of the best dishes on offer are the seasonal specials, which lately included a farm-fresh cucumber salad spiked by whole-grain mustard dressing and chargrilled corn showered with just enough creamy clothbound cheddar to feel decadent in small portions.
Other standout starters are the white anchovy toast, its salty punch tamed by a fluffy coat of white-bean puree and curlicued watercress leaves; and the littlenecks and linguica, an Anglo take on Belgian mussels that gives a lager bath to clams and spicy nubs of Portuguese sausage. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra bread to sop up the fragrant liquid at the bowl’s bottom.
Gastropub-ish touches are also on hand, led by a downright dainty-looking crown of beef heart tartare and an undersized group of crispy fried oysters. The Royal charcuterie plate earns its name with a parade of raw meats and garnish ample enough for a table of four to share.
Yet the Vic’s more workaday, less buzzy plates — epitomized by the Full Monty, an authentic British breakfast also found on the brunch menu — are the real stars. Fish and chips here are flavorful enough to defy their grease, the flaky white protein redolent of black pepper and lemon as it slides from fork into a ramekin of lip-smacking, garlicky tartar sauce.
With that and other smartly done standards, executive chef Adam Stein hardly needs to mess with the pork-belly and organ-meat concoctions made popular by more posh gastropubs. Perhaps the only thing missing from the Vic’s greatest-hits lineup are Cornish pasties, the U.K.’s beloved hand-held filled pies, but their previous appearance on the menu suggests a potential revival.
One rule of thumb: When in doubt, ask a server. (Perhaps two: Ask for more of that tartare for your perfectly crispy chips.) The staff is cordial and knowledgeable without feeling the need to flog the pedigree of Stein’s more upscale creations, and on more than one occasion candidly steered me away from an ordering faux pas.
That breezy sensibility has a way of papering over the stumbles that do occur in the kitchen, which are often related to overcooking. Both the steak salad and the otherwise stellar burger, a blend of local lamb and beef with piquant onion jam, came out too well-done when medium was requested. But when servers slide an extra share plate over before one is needed or recommend an unexpectedly delightful new lager, much is forgiven.
The Vic also offers a pair of Indian dishes that nod to the culture’s pub-grub popularity. The chicken tikka masala would be at home on a full-fledged Indian menu, its fragrant ginger sauce pairing well with rice or chips, but the portions of vegan curry and raita — though it earned credit from my animal-free companion for catering to his oft-neglected subset of D.C. diners — would benefit from a ramping-up.
At brunch, the greatest hits among Stein’s pub classics are on offer, as well as a tea-worthy selection of pastries, hearty cornmeal pancakes and a respectable rendition of the meat-and-vegetable stew known across the pond as a “bubble and squeak.” Even run-of-the-mill oatmeal gets its U.K. makeover, dressed up daintily with berry compote and cream.
Those comforting touches make the Vic more than just a bar for bellying up to. In fact, recent visits revealed a dual culture that sees foodie-minded patrons flock during the dinner hour before giving way to British beer fans as the night goes on.
But what the Vic isn’t is too fancy for its own good — desserts such as the silky, not-too-sweet lemon custard tart and kooky “Eton mess,” a heap of strawberries in cream nicked by crispy meringues, make that plain. For diners who don’t need a prefix ahead of their favorite pub, Stein’s kitchen is a can’t-miss destination.