Shakespeare: Drink British.
I’m not sure I’m really a fan of the Scotch egg, although this one is exceptional.
Scotch egg. Spotted Dick. Welsh rarebit. Yes, this is the place. Low-ceiling, ancient beams, Old Crafty Hen is the pour. We’re giggling already. My pals and I are definitely in the mood for pub food, a night off from our usual serious food treks. A pause from the latest consuming venture by Michael White or some ambitious local with an Asian vision.
The Shakespeare is no cinch to find. I’d come to The William Hotel on East 39th Street, exactly where it was supposed to be. But where was the pub? I tried looking under the front stoop. At that moment two couples descended the stairs. “Shakespeare,” they said.
The bar has a small wood-enclosed private dining room with a window for service.
“Shakespeare. The pub,” I echoed. “Where is it?” They pointed. I saw a window but no way to get there. “Walk to the garage,” they said. Indeed. Where the next-door garage entrance starts there is a walkway that slopes down – if it were icier you could make a Sochi entrance. At the bottom: a door.
Borrow an ancestor for the evening in the small dining room at The Shakespeare.
To the right, a bar. To the left, a cubbyhole of a room with a low ceiling, the original 19th Century beams, a fireplace, an ancestor’s portrait, odds and ends of Portobello flea market finds. A few two-tops under the window with chairs and low, backless stools. Cruel authenticity. In the center, our bare wooden table. Neil is already in pub mode. Maybe I better order two Scotch eggs. Cackle. Cackle.
Chef Robert Aikens stops by to say a few words in favor of British cooking.
We’re giggling. What is a Lincolnshire Haslet? Got to have it. Recruited from Stephen Starr’s Dandelion to run both The Shakespeare, the downstairs pub with 75 seats, and the more ambitious Peacock with space for 80 in a series of rooms upstairs, Chef Robert Aikens is more serious than we imagined. Nothing is that simple here.
I got carried away and ordered almost every item from the “Toasts” listing.
The Scotch egg will be warm – cooked to order, the yolk soft and satiny, encased in a shell of ground pork belly, shoulder and blood pudding with a mix of spices. The accompanying dip combines three mustards and a splash of Guinness.
Drinking foreign beers and ales brings out a charming “just us guys” in men.
That might explain the wait. Our guys are scoping out British brews and the women are sipping a Hendrick’s martini and wine by the glass. I wonder if it’s a gender thing: the booze vs. the brews. But then the English snacks start to arrive --“The Toasts” as the menu lists them. The scarred wooden table is quickly filled.
Aikens’ rich chicken and duck liver parfait is smooth, buttery, perfumed with Madeira, Port and brandy, served soft alongside his own grape chutney to mound on toasted brioche. I’m already impressed.
The foie gras and chicken liver parfait and this complex pork terrine are favorites.
The Lincolnshire Haslet is complex and marvelous too. Pork belly, shoulder and liver are layered with smoked bacon, the mold wrapped in pork fat. You cannot necessarily guess what’s in the flavorsome reduction – shallots, garlic, sage, whole eggs. “Brioche crumbs soaked in milk to soften the terrine,” he tells me later. It’s served on its own board with pear shallot chutney, celery root salad and seven-grain toast.
Now I know what a rarebit can be. This one comes melted on sourdough toast.
Indeed, there are half a dozen different breads. I love bread. I love bread too much. I’ve definitely lost control ordering toasts. Besides the brioche toast and the seven grain, there is toasted sourdough to daub with the whipped ricotta, doubly rich because it is steeped in olive oil with dried herbs and a pinch of balsamic.
I expected the lamb shepherd’s pie with root vegetables to have more character.
A jam of pumpkin with English cheddar, brown butter, toasted pecans and pumpkin seeds is spread on pumpernickel toast and sprinkled with sprigs of spring onion. I wouldn’t have missed that for anything. Crab with English cheddar and chile-smoked paprika comes piled on wheat toast. More English cheddar and Guinness on sourdough toast makes it a Welsh rarebit. Wasn’t that essential too?
Co-owner Jason Hicks introduces our guys to treasures of ale and stout. I’m resisting.
Granted the two men are slightly distracted by the bar keeper’s seduction as he brings samples of ale and double chocolate stout for them to taste. Still, no way five of us can put away all this bread. We let the servers sweep away leftovers to make room for entrées.
It could have been the earlier overindulgence but the bangers left me cold.
Neil, fueled by memories of overseas pub feasts, wants bangers. I think the sexual allusion doesn’t hurt. These are Myers of Keswick Cumberland sausages in a puddle of mashed potato and onion gravy. Not very appealing, alas. The lamb shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes under a cheddar cheese melt is mostly mushy too.
The beer-battered cod is perfection but the fat triple-cooked chips should have been crisp.
But appetite revives with the fish and chips, the cod exquisitely just-cooked in its wildly crunchy beer batter. We are debating if this is the best fish and chips we have ever had. Could very well be. My gourmand companion had given me the fish eye for aggressive ordering. Now she can’t stop eating the thick triple-cooked fries, alternately dipping them into ketchup and tarter sauce. I thought they ought to be crisp.
I was asked to shoot this label so its new fans at our table can find it again somewhere.
Jason Hicks, partner here and at Jones Wood Foundry uptown with Yves Jadot, has just poured an Imperial Russian Stout, originally brewed in 1795 for Catherine the Great of Russia. Our guys are either seriously delighted or simply drunk. I am requested to take the picture you see here – I suppose they’ll be looking for the brew the rest of their lives.
Neil pours chocolate sauce on the sticky toffee date and banana pudding.
But Neil does look up from the “Sweets and Puds” list to ask if we are going to order the spotted dick with custard. “I’ve nothing against a spotted dick,” I say. “But I don’t really like steamed sponge pudding.” It’s one of those nights where dessert seems redundant. But we agree to choose one, something English. And then, why not two? Sticky toffee date and banana pudding with rum and chocolate sauce and flapjack ice cream is better than most. But the pear and apple with oat crumble and sour cream ice cream turns out to be even better.
My tablemates agreed I should have the pear and apple crumble, then demolished it.
Co-owner Hicks is torn between respecting the ghost of the Williams Club that used to be here and promoting British culture. So there’s Royal Doulton and Wedgwood china in The Peacock. He even got Waterford to donate a crystal chandelier. He’s partnered with Jim Robertson, head brewmaster at Wells and Young’s, distributors of Catherine’s Ale. Whenever Robertson is in New York, the charismatic beer maker shows up behind the bar, dazzling the local bourgeoisie.
You don’t need to be a hops hipster to have fun at The Shakespeare. I’ll be back to check out The Peacock one evening soon.
24 East 39th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, 646 837 6776. Sunday through Thursday 11 am till midnight. Friday and Saturday 11 am till 1 am.
Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
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