A burgeoning empire gets British infusion
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Eric and Ian Hilton have a funny way of telling people they’re not empire builders: They keep opening cool places to eat and drink. At the rate the entrepreneurs are making their presence apparent, particularly in the U Street NW corridor, home to Marvin and Gibson, it’s only a matter of time before the neighborhood becomes known as Hiltonville.
Following on the heels of Chez Billy in Petworth is the brothers’ new Brixton, a ground-floor tavern topped with a lounge capped with a rooftop deck. The British-bowing retreat taps into Eric’s Anglo passion and contributes something different to the area. Where else can you get Scotch eggs and samosas followed by the possibility of sipping under the stars?
Served in a skillet, that Scotch egg is the size of a softball. At the center is an egg wrapped in pork sausage, everything rolled in panko and fried to form a crisp golden orb. A lattice of thin fried potato at its base distinguishes the snack from the usual pub grub. The soft samosas can’t compete with the beauties at Masala Art, although a tamarind gastrique gives the vegetable-filled packets some flair. I rarely order charcuterie boards anymore (it won’t be long before 7-Eleven starts pushing the sausage plates), but the paddle here shows some imagination with excellent pastrami-cured salmon displayed alongside the more common pate, duck prosciutto, dab of fig chutney and pickled vegetables.
If you’re waiting for your pals to arrive, belly up to the long wooden bar off the entrance. Its coffered ceiling, cream-colored lights and framed portraits of dour men in military dress suggest a gastropub across the pond, and if Jack Caminos is making drinks, you’re in excellent hands. You can’t miss the natty gent; he’s got an old-timey mustache and tends to sport a fedora. If there’s nothing that calls to you on the cocktail list, Caminos considers it a challenge to whip up something to wow you. And so it was that a recent blistering Saturday afternoon became a few degrees cooler with a customized bee’s knees sweetened with tea-infused honey.
I share the story to illustrate the unevenness of service at Brixton, where some waiters go out of their way to impress and others irritate you by not writing a single order down for a group, then end up asking guests to repeat requests.
With the exception of a salad here or pot de creme there, the short menu, executed by chef de cuisine Martha Garcia, highlights British pub staples. The most convincing accent goes to the sage-scented pork banger, a coarse and juicy sausage perched on a yellow lake of whipped potatoes that tastes as much of butter as spuds.
This kitchen should nail fish and chips, but we end up leaving most of the leathery battered cod on the plate. (The skinny french fries were quickly Hoovered.) Brixton’s beef Wellington is a deconstructed version, a pallid slice of filet arranged with a greasy cap of mushroom-lined pastry. Gordon Ramsay would curse both classics.
Surprise, surprise, though! Vegetarians are in for a couple of treats. One is a salad of heirloom tomatoes and sheer slices of cucumber moistened with a mint-fresh yogurt dressing. It’s elegant enough to audition for Food & Wine and the perfect chaser to summer’s heat. The other meatless attraction shows up in a stack of three metal containers that are spread on the table in front of their recipient. The Indian-flavored contents -- basmati rice, zesty eggplant curry, spiced peas -- are revealed like Christmas presents.
The kitchen takes a timid approach to seasoning. “Jerked” scallops are tender and sweet but not the least bit teasing. Eating the seafood with its underliner of mango chutney is merely pleasant. Same for the “Caribbean-spiced” lamb shank, seasoned as if for North Dakota and less interesting for its carrot-sweet potato puree, a ringer for Gerber. The cooks also leave both fish and meat on the heat too long, judging by the arid roasted chicken and cod I experienced not once, but twice.
Bread pudding is a time-honored way for a kitchen to use leftover bread but also a sweet finish to a meal at Brixton, which throws in ice cream flavored with corn and caramel sauce fueled with whiskey. Think nursery food with some swagger.
Work off a meal with a trek up to the roof, which offers a (low-flying) bird’s-eye view of the neighborhood, including -- hey, boys! -- Nellie’s Sports Bar across the street. Multiple breeze-throwing fans make even record heat waves tolerable, as do the presence of two sources for drinks on a deck that can seat more than 100 Anglophiles.
Brixton is one of those rare places where a customer can find plenty to criticize but still look forward to visiting. No one can question the owners’ industriousness. Just around the corner: their Satellite Room, a bar with light fare, next to the 9:30 Club.
Finding a comfort zone
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, August 3, 2012
My last visit to the Brixton was one of the most satisfying yet.
After happy hour, I hung out on the pseudo-British pub’s enormous roof deck, which overlooks Ninth and U streets NW. My pint of malty Bombardier Bitter sat on a marble shelf as the sky turned orange and pink and I took in the view: the Washington Monument peeking over the trees and office buildings to the south, Howard University to the west and green hills beyond. The Clash played on the sound system, bartenders shook gin cocktails and poured British beers while a diverse crowd checked out the old pub signs and cast-iron detail work that give the Brixton its signature look. It looks like the Hilton brothers, who seem to own half of U Street, have done it again.
The second floor comes across as a Scottish lodge: leather sofas and tartan bar stools, pheasants and hunting horns hanging on brick walls, a couple of fireplaces, chandeliers made of old antlers. You just want to order a Scotch, sit and sip.
But the long bar is comfortable, too, especially when it’s not too busy and you can chat with a bartender about the gin cocktails (with house-made syrups) and sample some of the beer cocktails on draft, including the Snakebite (half lager, half cider) and Shandy (beer mixed with lemonade or ginger beer). It helps that all draft beers are poured in 20-ounce Imperial pints ($9) or 10-ounce half-pints ($4.50).
Of course, the rooftop is so busy by 10 p.m. on weekends that it can be hard to get a drink, let alone move around. The second floor is jammed with people trying to get to the roof; new arrivals are shunted into a line outside or in a holding pattern at the first-floor bar, allowed upstairs only as patrons leave. There's no dance floor, no DJ, no discounted pricing (in addition to the $9 drafts, bottled beers cost $8 to $10 and cocktails are $10 to $12).
On a recent Saturday evening, a friend and I sat at the rooftop bar, watching the crowd inch closer and closer to its 150-person capacity. The bartenders were rushed, and the $10 Pimm’s Cups were dreadful -- regular lemonade was used instead of promised sparking lemonade, and the lone sliver of cucumber floating in the glass did nothing. Tired of getting jostled by growing groups, we took off.
A crush of curious visitors and weekend warriors isn’t uncommon at new bars -- remember what American Ice Company or H Street Country Club were like just after opening? -- but the Brixton’s dual personalities are extreme. I’d pan just about every Saturday night trip I’ve made, but visits on Tuesdays through Thursdays have been glorious. Sunday afternoon seems like the perfect time to visit: plenty of couples and groups sipping drinks, laughing and enjoying the sun. It’s bustling but not out of control, which is the way I like my British-style pubs.
It’s funny, though, that while the British vibe is well thought-out, it’s less important than you might think. Have the flaky fish and chips, sip a Scottish stout or a creamy Boddington’s, admire the old London street signs. The draw at the Brixton is just that it’s comfortable -- most of the time.