Going beyond fish and chips: Againn will please Anglophiles
* * (out of four stars; Good)
Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
If you want evidence that British food has moved beyond the gray stereotype and deserves to be sought out for more than pints of prawns or beer, allow me to introduce you to Againn. It's the brainchild of entrepreneur Mark Weiss of the newly formed Whisk Group in Washington, who brings to the concept a Ritz-y résumé and a desire to replicate the experience elsewhere.
Cauliflower soup might not be many diners' idea of elegant eating, but chef Wes Morton promotes the humble main ingredient, giving the pureed vegetable a hit of curry for depth and some hazelnut crunch for texture. Ruby-colored cubes of salmon tartare tingle with smoked paprika and preserved lemon; the accents lend the raw fish an edge without masking its flavor. Even the salads show care. A nice composition of beets, orange and spiced walnuts is dusted with what looks like snow (it's ricotta salata).
None of these dishes is original, but all are satisfying: good ambassadors for the gastropub trend, in which the expected (say, fish pie) gets enlightened (for example, with saffron in its shellfish stock).
For the most part, pub grub is done well here and is prettier for the dishes it's served on. A diner can't go wrong with cleanly shucked oysters or a pint of prawns, which is exactly that: (poached) prawns served in a beer glass with a side of garlic mayonnaise swirled with catsup and brandy. Order fish and chips, and out comes piping-hot cod (or sometimes hake) in a crackling coat of batter that explodes on contact with a fork. The fat fried potatoes that ride to the side arrive with vinegar to cut the richness. I've never understood the allure of mushy peas, which also are included in the equation, but Morton -- who met his future boss while both men were at the Ritz-Carlton in the San Francisco Bay area -- has me reconsidering my view. Againn's version (it's actually billed as Mushy Peas) is bright green and unusually appealing. "Marrow fat," a server explains. Careful shopping accounts for my fondness for some of the charcuterie selection, which includes a hickory-smoked import from Tennessee billed as Allan Benton's 14 Month Country Ham. It's some of the pinkest, porkiest folds of meat you'll find around here, served with a ramekin of sheep's milk ricotta and too few slices of toasted bread.
Morton, 32, bothers to make his own pork sausage for the British comfort food known as bangers and mash. Despite the inclusion of shoulder meat, marjoram and garlic, however, the links I sampled tasted vague, and I found myself eating around them. Their mashed potatoes, swirled with grain mustard, are delicious. (So are the crisp-crusted lamb and fish pies the regular spuds appear in.)
Since Againn opened in October, Morton has culled the slow sellers from his menu and introduced some seductions. Gone are the cock-a-leekie and black pudding. Helping take their place is a Moroccan-inspired chickpea stew, thick enough with lamb to eat with a fork and punctuated with fresh mint to counter its pulsing heat.
The space is a perfect package for the cooking. Created by Peter Hapstak of the District-based design firm Core, Againn is big and masculine but also warm and comfortable (well, except for the volume). A troop of faux fox heads, finished in black enamel and displayed in shadow boxes, greets you at the entrance; a few feet inside the monochromatic setting beckons a raw bar. There's dark leather on the seats as well as on the walls, and more than a few flourishes, including 130 illuminated lockers for Scotch (yours to rent for only $500 a year).
If I were solo and female, I'd probably make a habit of the handsome bar, fitted with hooks to hold purses and swarmed by swells during happy hour. But the cocktails are worth sliding up to, too. In particular, the Pimm's Cup No. 13 is refreshing with cucumber and mint, and the Bare Knuckle Boxer shows that whiskey has an affinity for curry (really and truly; go for it). The bloody mary alone merits a brunch visit. The drink is plenty zesty, and it comes with a skewer of garnishes that amounts to an appetizer.
There are some fine wines on the list of 100 or so possibilities, but their prices tend to steer you to beer. It's a mystery why a place with a $24 entree average offers fewer than a dozen wines for $45 or less. Mondays are friendlier to the budget: That's when Againn cuts its bottle prices in half, and a respected Gigondas goes for the same price as an entree of braised lamb shoulder, $26.
I never managed to sneak in under the radar here, but this optimist would like to think that everybody gets a preview of a glass of wine via a pour from the bottle at the table. And that coats are always collected cheerfully by busy managers who spot wraps draped on chairs. One evening at Againn, I spent as much time listening to a hyperdiligent server detail the bartender's talent and sing the praises of the kitchen as I did catching up with my friends.
My favorite ending is a sort of deconstructed banana pudding served in a Mason jar. The combination of fresh fruit slices, ganache, house-made graham cracker crumbs and "caramelized" milk is shareable and not overly sweet. There's also a good, dense coffee-spiked chocolate cake and a stiff panna cotta best for its tart curd and pine nut cookie. Sticky toffee pudding is perhaps the most English of endings and a dessert with mass appeal, albeit lighter than most versions. What's not to like about super-moist cake, and stout in the accompanying ice cream?
Anglophiles, take note: Weiss's Whisk Group, which includes Amsterdam investor Reinier Bouman and has plans for French and Italian restaurants and a bakery in Washington, is extending the original brand into Rockville, in the former Houston's on Rockville Pike. Come June, there'll be a new Againn, again.
* * *
Say it as if you mean it: The name of the restaurant is pronounced "ah-GWEN." That's "with us," more or less, in Gaelic.
Open: Monday through Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday and Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Major credit cards. Valet parking $10 (after 5 p.m.).
Metro: Metro Center.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $8-$15, entrees $12-$24; dinner appetizers $12-$19, entrees $14-$32.