Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pubs are ubiquitous in the British Isles, with names harking to royalty like the Duke of Cambridge, the King’s Arms, the Rose and Crown and more plebeian ones such as the Goat and Compass or Slug and Lettuce. The British pub traditionally is a place with cheeky barmaids; well-worn velveteen banquettes; tiny tables; a musty, alcoholic atmosphere; and food of mixed quality.

But when is a pub not a pub? When it’s a gastropub. On Irving Street Northwest, around the corner from newly gentrified 14th Street and the old Tivoli Theater, now restored as a mall, Jamie Leeds and Sandy Lewis have opened their “British-inspired and American-bred” public house, named — appropriately for the United States — CommonWealth, “the People’s Gastropub.” The atmosphere is more like Adams Morgan than Notting Hill Gate, but CommonWealth is fun and full of good cheer. Ms. Leeds and Ms. Lewis are the team behind Hank’s Oyster Bar in the District and Alexandria.

Calling CommonWealth a “gastropub,” a word that combines the concepts of good food and pub-style drinks, is squarely on the mark. The wine and beer list is as long as the food menu.

Ms. Leeds, the executive chef, has taken a wealth of English pub specialties and transformed them into Americana: frog in a puff (pig in a blanket made with spicy North African sausage); Scotch eggs; bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes); shepherd’s pie (potatoes, meat and vegetables, made here with tofu); Cornish pasties; Welsh rabbit; and bubble and squeak (traditionally potatoes and cabbage), to name but a few.

Scotch eggs are a splendid version of what in England tends to be heavy and on the greasy side. At CommonWealth, three hard-cooked eggs are tucked neatly into a mild sausage coating, cut in half crosswise and served with three tangy sauces — honey mustard, spicy mayonnaise and one laced with anchovies — for an added bit of sparkle.

The menu isn’t the usual Washington bill of fare. Instead of beets with goat cheese, there’s a crisp raw chopped-vegetable salad or a bone-marrow-and parsley salad. Daily specials may include such unusual dishes as grilled pork liver and heart with capers, olive oil and parsley. Each Sunday there’s a special roast, served family style accompanied by potatoes and vegetables.

Welsh rabbit, described by the grammarian H.W. Fowler as “amusing and right” whereas “Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong” is nevertheless called “rarebit” at CommonWealth. Ms. Leeds’ version is strong on mustard, and the bread is somewhat thick. It doesn’t have the runny, cheesy aspect often associated with the dish, but because there is no set recipe for it, taste is all that matters. This version isn’t pretty, but the flavor is strong and spicy.

London broil is excellent; the beef is tender and well-flavored with Worcestershire sauce. A “simply grilled fish with parsley sauce” was a delicious piece of very fresh bluefish served on a bed of silky cauliflower puree in a puddle of excellent parsley sauce, a lovely combination of flavors. Cauliflower au gratin, however, does not fare as well; the vegetable was undercooked, the sauce watery and weak.

Ms. Leeds’ menu wouldn’t be complete without beer-battered fish (haddock) and chips. The fish is fresh; the batter is crisp; the chips are broad slices of fried potatoes. Hard to go wrong with this one.

A casserole of green beans makes a delicious side dish. The beans are cooked in a creamy mushroom sauce and topped with strands of crispy fried onions.

Deviled sweetbreads with their spicy coating could have been wonderful, but they had not been cleaned properly, so some of the membrane remained attached. The sweetbreads are part of a butcher’s plate, which includes black pudding, stuffed trotters, country ham, head cheese and sausages. The dishes can be ordered separately for $8 to $12 each or as house tasting platters.

Desserts, too, are not run-of-the-mill: treacle tart with cream; a double chocolate stout float; sticky toffee pudding (more like a bread pudding than the rich, gooey sticky toffee pudding of tradition); and a fine, tart, nonalcoholic lemon trifle. You even can get a root-beer float, an all-American treat that you probably couldn’t find in all the British isles.

For all her talents, Ms. Leeds cannot transform mushy peas, even with the addition of a sprinkling of dried mint on top. Mushy peas remain - well - mushed-up peas.

RESTAURANT: CommonWealth, 1400 Irving St. NW, 202/265-1400

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and on Sunday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: $8 to $13 (lunch); snacks, sides and salads $5 to $14; main courses $14 to $19; desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Columbia Heights

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