By Amanda Grace Johnson - 12/17/09 12:44 AM EST
Though British gastropubs are oh-so-trendy right now, Againn has the goods to back up its warm, stylish décor and hiply attired management. The owner, Rockville-based Whisk Group LLC, quite obviously pulled out all the stops for the first of what it has promised to be many restaurants to come.
A knowledgeable sommelier aids with the selection of several scotches, and not one of them disappoints. The Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or features prominent caramel and vanilla notes and goes down so smoothly that you would swear it’s not even related to some of the heavier varieties. For a more complex flavor, I preferred the Alchemist Bruichladdich, with its spicy caramel notes and bright finish. The scotch enthusiast might prefer the Ledaig Signatory Vintage 14-year, with its heavy finish and intense smokiness.
It’s rarely wise to continue such drinking on an empty stomach. That being the case, don’t overlook Againn’s culinary offerings — you’d be missing out on soul-soothing dishes that warm up a cold, wintry day and redefine the term “stick to your ribs.”
One of the most reliable food groups to soak up liquor is starch, and the better-than-average bread that arrives at the start of the meal arrives well-salted and boasting a strong nutty taste. Its balance of crisp crust and soft center is sure to garner envy from eager bakers. Asking for another basket prompts a knowing grin from a server who is certain to have had the same request many times throughout the night.
To start, I order a Belgian endive salad with reservations, anticipating bitterness and underseasoning. But my cynicism is dispelled when a lovely and well-balanced plate arrives. The frail leaves are perfectly caramelized, and the plate is speckled with peppery watercress, adorable sliced pears, sweet pecans and mild Stilton cheese. Assembling each bite becomes a pleasure, and I’m sad when it’s over.
For another appetizer option, don’t miss the scotch eggs. Wrapped in meat, deep-fried and dipped in a creamy curried mayonnaise, the hand-held heart attacks are so sinfully good that it’s worth the indulgence.
Another starter, the Russet potato dumplings, is less reliable. The delicate dumplings — tossed with ham and scallions — are just shy of fully cooked on one visit. But on another night, they arrive done to perfection, like little bundles of savory satin. The steamed mussels appetizer borders on uninteresting but is still worth ordering, if only to dip that fantastic bread into the tart, organic cider broth.
As for main courses, Againn excels in the seafood arena. The salmon entrée stands out among the rest, mostly on account of its accompanying sauces and side dishes. Spicy horseradish crème may clear the sinuses, but it’s still mild enough for the casual diner. And the roasted beets, though simple, will make a convert of even the most avid non-beet-eater. Another winning seafood entrée is the local rockfish, grilled to perfection and served alongside comforting braised greens and beans.
A trip to a gastropub wouldn’t be complete without sampling a classic British staple — shepherd’s pie. I detect and am pleased to taste lamb in Againn’s version. Many American establishments use beef in its stead, but here the lamb fits in quite nicely. Another classic, the hearty bangers-and-mash (sausage and mashed potatoes) arrives swimming in a sweet onion gravy that offers unexpected hints of cinnamon. It’s a pleasant surprise, and the dish is one I’d definitely order again.
The menu also has a traditional corned beef. It arrives fork-tender and is nestled on a bed of mashed potatoes. The dish lacks the cabbage that customarily accompanies corned beef, but there’s no love lost. Braised carrots and celery root make a commendable understudy.
If one can muster a final course, desserts include sticky toffee pudding with stout ice cream, banoffee pie with dulce de leche, the Eton Mess (baked meringue with preserved lemon and huckleberries) and Chocolate Cambridge Cream (also known as crème brulee) with a jam cookie and pecan shortbread.
British food in particular turns more satisfying with the proper drink to wash it all down, and Againn’s interesting beer list likely has a beverage to fill that void. A glass of the Speakeasy Prohibition Ale, a red beer brewed in San Francisco, perfectly toes the line between sweet and tart, and its crispness is just the trick to cut through the richness of Againn’s entrées. Austria’s Eggenberg Hopfenkonig is dry with a slightly bitter aftertaste, and may be better suited for consumption during the hot summer months. By then, the restaurant’s reputation will certainly have preceded it.
But for now, Againn has established itself as a warm, cozy retreat from the cold. And I’ll most definitely be back, again and again.