Newport Restaurant Week

Once in a while, something about the moment in which we live demands a shift in the way we eat. A previously unappreciated or unknown type of food gets swept, usually with a few modifications, into the culinary limelight because something about it resonates with the bigger picture.

Restaurants are often at the forefront of these shifts.  Chefs are generally more willing to experiment than the average home cook and the average eater is more willing to try something new when it doesn’t involve having to commit to learning new techniques, buying new ingredients and cleaning the dishes.

Individual people also play important roles in changing the American palate.  In the past, food missionaries like Julia Child, Rick Bayless and Ming Tsai have mined their personal experiences to push new tastes into the mainstream. Those experiences, whether spent in France as the wife of a Foreign Service officer (Child) or in Mexico as an anthropologist (Bayless) or in the kitchen of immigrant Chinese parents (Tsai), are the reason why we aren’t still eating Jell-O molds.

Usually, however, these cuisines were merely underappreciated. The kind of food Chef Scott Brandon serves at his Corona del Mar gastropub, the Crow Bar and Kitchen, is not as lucky; it is actively maligned.  The chef, you see, celebrates the most unlikely of gastronomic heroes – English food.

Yes…the stuff of a foodie’s nightmares and the butt of countless jokes: boiled-to-death vegetables, bangers and mash and toad-in-a-hole.  Peter Mayle, the English travel writer, described the food of his childhood as “color-coordinated – gray meat, gray potatoes, gray vegetables, gray flavor.” Bill Marsano, another writer, was less kind.  He said, “The British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.”

In the last few years, English food has quietly undergone a transformation. It is no longer stolid, heavy and tasteless fare, only fit to line the stomach in preparation for gallons of warm, flat ale. Now, gastropubs like the Crow Bar have taken the humble food of the English pub house and turned it into something worth craving. According to the restaurant’s Web site, Chef Brandon’s mantra is refreshingly simple, if unmistakably Californian: “Let the food speak for itself.  Don’t get twisted and you’ll be alright.”

The Crow Bar, like other gastropubs, relies on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and an eye for detail to make the most humble dish special. A burger gets made over with ketchup-infused buns, butter lettuce and Gruyere cheese. French fries get treated with duck fat and are served with a delicious truffled aioli. Yum.

There are times when the descriptions on the menu, as tends to happen in “good” restaurants, can appear a bit too precious. Everything is aged, or vine-ripened or organic. The meat is “nitrate-free” and the ingredients have a provenance as varied and international as the Jolie-Pitt children. There were a few moments when I wished that not quite everything was made in-house – mainly when I was given a small dish of “ketchup.” What I wouldn’t have given for half a bottle of Heinz. Some things shouldn’t be messed with. But as long as the quality of the food lives up to the number of adjectives in the menu descriptions, a chance to visit the dictionary can be useful for GRE prep. And when it comes down to it, the food at the Crow Bar and Kitchen is plain good eating.

Gastropub food is perfect for our times. It’s hearty and warm and fuzzy, a perfect antidote to the gloominess of the outside world.  Who cares about recessions and torrential rains, wars and deficits on a full stomach? The food is real in a way that the haute cuisine of the past wasn’t.  In a gastropub, the eater will never be confronted with a few stingy pieces of food forlornly swimming on a big, white clichéd plate.

It is no accident that in the movie Ratatouille, the food critic Anton Ego, a man so finicky that he retains the figure of a chronic dieter despite his food-centric life, is ultimately won over by ratatouille, the humble peasant stew that triggered memories of his mother’s cooking. That’s what makes gastropub cooking so great. It is food that combines the taste, quality and capacity to surprise that redeems haute cuisine with the coziness and approachability of home cooking and traditional pub food.