Gastropubs shake up British cuisine

January 14, 2011 8:32:01 PM PST
British food has traditionally been a punch line rather than a point of pride, but two new pubs are going to great lengths to try to change the stereotype.

First, there was Longman & Eagle. Then last week, ABC7's Hungry Hound featured Bangers & Lace. Now two additional gastropubs are off and running, but these two are specifically attempting to raise British food to new heights.

No one goes thirsty at Wrigleyville's latest pub, Blokes & Birds. There are traditional ales and lagers from around the world. But it's the food they're trying to shake free from its unfortunate stereotype.

"We are a contemporary English gastropub, so we're doing a contemporary twist on traditional English fare," said Daily Webb, owner of Blokes & Birds.

That means in addition to a daily stew special -- topped with shards of cabbage -- you'll also find a braised short rib sandwich, blanketed in horseradish-havarti cheese, sandwiched between soft loaves of ciabatta.

Cauliflower plays a starring role here: an enormous head is set atop sliced apples with caramel sauce then surrounded with smoked paprika.

There's even a nod to India, with a massive plate of chicken tikka masala.

"The British Empire was far-reaching and obviously there's a big Indian influence in the United Kingdom," Webb said.

The Indian influence isn't as prevalent at Owen & Engine in Logan Square but the local farmers sure are.

"We're proud that we are able to source ingredients from the farmers and recognize their hard work, as, everything they put into it, it comes to us and that makes our product that much better," said Charles Burkhardt, executive chef at Owen & Engine.

Iowa's Becker Lane pork loin is griddled, becoming the "rashers" in a hefty sandwich with peppery arugula and an organic egg, all on homemade bread.

Meat pies look like empanadas, but they're hearty and satisfying; so is the side of "bubble & squeak," containing potatoes, ham and cabbage.

The fish & chips are among the best in the city: batter-dipped haddock fillets are served over a pea puree, topped with a zesty gribiche -- a French-style mayo -- and served with excellent fries that come with a malt vinegar aioli. It's perfect food to go with an ambitious beer program, including some old-school, cask-conditioned "real ales."

"Refermentation provides it with a really natural, soft carbonation; very gentle, very easy to drink," said Elliott Beier, Owen & Engine's beer manager.

For dessert, a decadent banoffee pie, embedded with rum-soaked cake, bananas and toffee. It's British comfort food with a Midwestern approach to sourcing the best ingredients.

"When you only have a few things on the plate, each of those things have to be at the best they can be," Burkhardt said.

A bonus for Owen & Engine - it is directly across the street from the City North movie theaters and it is open for brunch. Both places also serve food late, until 2 or 3 a.m.

Blokes & Birds
3343 N. Clark St.

Owen & Engine
2700 North Western Ave.