BIG BANGER THEORY
George and Dragon, 4240 North Central, Phoenix, 241-0018. Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
If there's any institution that indisputably proves that humans are social animals, it's the pub.
After all, if the only thing drinkers looked forward to was an alcohol buzz, they could certainly do the job more cheaply, conveniently and effectively sprawled on the living-room sofa at home.
But an hour or two at the pub offers a variety of diversions that enhance the mere physiological effects of drinking: conversation, televised sports, pool tables, flirting and food.
If you decide to haul your thirst and social instincts to George and Dragon or the Coast Pub and Cafe, I can't make too many guarantees about your evening's prospects. I don't know if your table mates can match wits with the Algonquin round table; I don't know if ESPN will be televising anything more compelling than tractor pulls; I don't know if you can shoot eight ball; and I don't know the potency level of your animal magnetism.
I do know, however, that you can find some surprisingly decent pub grub.
George and Dragon calls itself the Valley's first English-style pub. It certainly looks like every American's conception of an English pub, from the 18 hard-hitting beers on tap that span the British Commonwealth (England, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Scotland) to the inevitable dartboards.
The bar and dining room are separate areas, but not separate enough as far as I'm concerned. On weekend evenings, the din from the bar makes dinner conversation almost impossible. Fortunately, the noise level diminishes noticeably during the week.
No clich‚ goes unused to give the restaurant section a thoroughgoing English look. Pictures of royalty line the half-timbered walls, as do framed prints of foxes and hounds. A wood ceiling is crossed by dark beams, and a stately stone fireplace sits in the center of the room. Frosted windows are etched with scenes from St. George's encounter with the dragon. And above the swinging saloon doors that divide bar and restaurant is a chunk of fake stone wall fastened to a toothed iron grill, giving the impression of entering a castle.
George and Dragon's fare is as English as the setting. What does that mean? It means that if you've come for vegetarian greenery, the delicate scents of herbs and spices or a light bite, you're in the wrong place. This is heavy, no-nonsense food, designed to be washed down with a pint of lager.
Start off with a Scotch egg, a perfect example of the mother country's light-handed culinary magic. It's a hard-boiled egg densely encased with sausage meat and coated with breadcrumbs, served cold. In its own way, it's quite tasty, especially if you mix in the pub's sweet pickle relish. But it's not what you want to eat if you're contemplating anything more physically strenuous than fingering the television remote the rest of the evening.
The same holds true for the cold sausage roll, a less impressive starter fashioned from sausage embalmed in an overly thick and heavy puff pastry. And while you could start with something light, like a cup of minestrone soup, it won't take much more than a spoonful to convince you that the cook behind this misbegotten pseudo-Italian broth probably doesn't have a vowel at the end of his name.
The main dishes have several virtues, not the least of which are price and heft. It's hard to imagine even the most ferocious hunger pangs not succumbing to these oversize platters, which range between $6.95 and $8.50.
But you get more than mere bulk. Fish and chips is absolutely first-rate, as good as you could expect to find in the desert Southwest. You get two hulking cod fillet slabs, fried up crisply fresh in a puffy beer batter. Sprinkle on some malt vinegar and crunch happily away.
The traditional purpose of shepherd's pie is to absorb the minced remains of the Sunday roast under a browned mashed potato canopy. George and Dragon puts out a man-size serving of this homey spuds and ground beef platter. It's all a tad greasy, but primitively satisfying, especially once you have the courage to throw on the salty brown gravy it comes with. A scoop of corn and peas makes it possible to pretend that you're ingesting at least a few vital nutrients.
Steak and kidney pie is the real McCoy, cubed bits of less than optimally tender beef and strong-scented kidney, braised in red wine and crusted over with puff pastry. It's not for everyone, so the kitchen puts out another version, this one substituting mushrooms for kidney.
Bangers and mash is another pub staple. George and Dragon delivers three barely seasoned sausages, appealingly sizzled in a thick clump of grilled onions, served with a hearty helping of mashed potatoes and peas.
Pasties, meanwhile, are a specialty of Cornwall, on the edge of England's west coast. (Oddly enough, pasties are also a staple of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.) They're kind of an English calzone--ground beef and cubed bits of carrots, peas and potatoes stuffed inside a pocket of dough. The version here could definitely benefit from a lighter, less bready puff pastry casing.
The same delicate touch that distinguishes English entrees also marks dessert. It's hard to believe the human body is capable of withstanding the homemade, mortarlike bread pudding, drenched with thick, warm custard. Sherry trifle is only a trifle less demanding. It's a liquor-soaked sponge cake layered with canned fruit cocktail, topped with pudding and whipped cream. Subtle, they ain't.
As the Irish lad who served us surveyed the remains of our dinner, he was suddenly struck by an idea. "I'm going to open up a restaurant and call it the 'Heart Attack,'" he told us. "Nothing green, nothing at all healthy. Just meat, fried stuff and butter."
Gee, I wonder how working here inspired that entrepreneurial thought to pop into his head. But if he can draw a decent pint and serve up a hearty dinner in friendly surroundings, like his current employer, even a place named the Heart Attack won't scare me off.
Coast Pub and Cafe, 7443 East Sixth Avenue, Scottsdale, 994-9183. Lunch and Dinner, 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
If there's one thing that would scare me off from the Coast, it would be the ear-pounding racket. There's no separate eating area, so diners share their space with lots of high-decibel televised sports, pulsating thumpa-thumpa music and the usual high spirits of a tavern crowd. Come here on a weekend evening, and you may want to bring an ear trumpet to catch your group's conversation.
The food, though, just about makes up for the noise. Someone in this kitchen is obviously trying, especially when it comes to starters.
Check out the appetizer list--you won't find mozzarella sticks or fried zucchini strips anywhere on it. You will find enormously pleasant chicken-chile egg rolls, two big critters crammed full of white-meat chicken, jack cheese and green chiles. Dip them in the red chile sauce, then wash them down with a Harp, Watney's or one of ten other beers on tap.
Even better are the exceptional Southwestern crab cakes, which are tasty enough to grace a linen-covered table. You get two flat, crisply grilled disks, flavored with crab and spiced up with jalape¤o. The menu says that all items are prepared fresh, and these crab cakes are convincing evidence.
Why is it that so few Valley restaurants offer posole, an incredibly fragrant regional dish? Certainly, a pub like the Coast is one of the last places in town you'd expect to find it. But the version here is outstanding--a rich stew of chicken, red chile and hominy combined in a spicy seasoned broth. You can do a lot worse than order a bowl and make a meal of it. Not so with the other daily soup. On my visit, it was a lackluster broccoli cheese that comes up short on taste.
For some reason, the main dishes don't carry on with the same sort of flair that distinguishes the appetizers and posole. The fish and chips, for instance, is completely unremarkable, especially once you've sampled the George and Dragon model. And despite the menu claim, I didn't get the impression that either the fish or chips had just leaped directly from the fryer to my plate.
A New York steak sandwich, the most expensive menu item at $8.95, is also less than riveting. The problem? Some less-than-prime-quality beef.
The menu boasts that the meat loaf is made from scratch. I don't doubt it, but I wish the chef could have jacked up the flavor level. Despite the presence of some mild green chile, the three thin slices, perched on a mushy slice of bread, didn't leave much of an impression at all. Lumpy gravy, routine mashed potatoes and institutional mixed vegetables don't create any memories, either.
A simple barbecue pork sandwich turned out to be much more enjoyable. Credit lots of thinly sliced, gristle-free pork, moistened with a low-key barbecue sauce. And a tip of the hat to the cold marinated vegetables--potato, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot--that you can choose as a side dish.
The Coast doesn't have its heart in desserts, which are shipped in by a supplier. The Kamikazi, a creamy lime pie, is aptly named--this one-dimensional sweet goes down in flames.
Checking out the Coast this summer? Follow this three-step program: Turn down your hearing aid, order up appetizers and a sandwich and cool off with a cold one.
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