By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Frankly I like my services scaled down. I'm just a Whopper Jr. kind of gal in a Double Whopper-with-everything world. I don't want a mug of coffee so grande I need a forklift to steer it toward my mouth. Stick me in a Target or Wal-Mart, and I'll need a GPS to find the front entrance again.
That is why, when I saw that Violet and Steve Howes, the guv'nors of the George and Dragon Pub & Restaurant, were advertising the two-month-old place as "Ft. Lauderdale's first upscale super pub" and describing it as "authentic British themed," I was a little leery. After all, the place measures 4200 square feet. Most of us expect British pubs to be cozy, welcoming. Did the term super pub indicate that the George and Dragon is not actually an authentic British pub but rather a theme park version thereof?
First impressions seem to support that supposition. The G&D is located on North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale in a Tudor-style, gray-and-white-painted strip mall in the spot that formerly housed a Brazilian steak house. After a complete overhaul, it stands out like new money in the Hamptons, an ostentatious castle among conservative, tasteful cottages. But don't allow this overblown exterior to put you off, because the interior -- and the experience -- is every bit as Brit as you might wish, from the 1000 pieces of memorabilia decorating the walls to the 28 kinds of beer and cider on draft. Even the name is evocative of the mother country: A high-ranking soldier in the Roman army who was put to death for promoting Christian values, George was named the English patron saint in the 14th Century. The pub takes its appellation from a legend concerning Saint George and a princess, whom he rescued from a dragon; the princess is said to represent Christianity, and the dragon stands for Satan.
But while the pub has the lofty ceilings of a church and the upscale leanings of a fine-dining restaurant, it is hardly Gothic and forbidding. In fact, no joke, it is cozy after all. The restaurant rambles like a country manor, with several seating areas from which to choose, but the overall number of chairs adds up to a manageable 90. A carpeted, formal dining room seats 50 or so, while a nonsmoking piano lounge, a smoking section, and two bars make up the rest.
The pub is new enough that servers are still being trained, and by other servers who haven't been there all that long themselves. The whole lot of them might have to read the list of beers -- Fuller's, Boddingtons, John Smith's, and Whitbread, to list several of my favorites -- off a computerized cheat sheet. No matter. The staff in general is genuinely kind and perceptive, accepting of all situations: One night my husband and I played cribbage during a three-course meal, another night we brought our two kids, joining our friends who also had two kids. (Note: Not all British pubs by definition are kid-friendly, but the G&D offers highchairs, kids' menus featuring macaroni and cheese, and a great deal of tolerance.) Neither circumstance made anyone from manager to waiter flinch, which is exactly what I hope to get from a pub: complete accommodation, along with a pint or two of pale ale.
What I didn't anticipate was the high quality of the fare, which ranges from traditional pub grub such as bangers and mash to more adventurous international dishes like sweet peppers stuffed with pearl barley and root vegetables and drizzled with rosemary-pecan pesto. The menu was designed by manager James Docherty, a former instructor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale; a highly competent kitchen brings his culinary ideas to fruition. Thus you can expect your beef-and-Guinness pie -- juicy chunks of beef marinated for 24 hours in the dark ale, then stewed with button mushrooms and baked under a buttery slab of pastry -- to be every bit as accomplished as a succulent pork tenderloin doused with a tangy Devon cider reduction.
For every classic dish there's an out-there alternative. The fish and chips were terrific: batter-dipped, flaky white fillets fried greaseless and golden, accompanied by hand-trimmed French fries and a decent version of mushy peas (every American kid's nightmare). But if you don't feel like fried fish, you can indulge instead in the baked tilapia, a generous fillet topped with a concoction of Maryland jumbo crabmeat and sea scallops. Not that this dish is exactly healthy eating: The fish was finished with a brandy-butter sauce that probably contained as many calories as the deep-fried fish.
As lovely as the more elegant main courses are, I was most impressed by the typical pub stuff. Curried chicken comprised hunks of steaming white meat, its mild curry flavor amplified by onions and peppers. The cottage pie was both hearty and heady, given that the ground beef was culled from both tenderloin and New York strip. Savory brown gravy wrapped the beef, along with peas and carrots that retained just the right amount of crunch, and a sturdy roof of mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese completed the casserole.
If only as much attention had been paid to starters. A section of "Memorable Beginnings" is anything but, with only four dishes from which to choose. We skipped the smoked salmon, fried calamari, and duck-pistachio pâté in favor of a prawn cocktail. But while the prawns (actually small shrimp) were sweet and fresh, they had been sliced lengthwise to make them look bigger, a process I dislike since it destroys the plump, firm texture of the shellfish. Soups make for more pleasant appetizers, particularly a roughly chopped cream of tomato and a delicious onion soup lightened with clotted cream and heightened with port wine.
If you don't enjoy veddy British desserts such as trifle or overly sweet puddings like the enigmatically named spotted dick, you can always end the meal with a half-pint of hard cider. But not even the arrival of the check will inject a bitter note into the meal, because the prices reflect the easygoing philosophy of the George and Dragon. The pub may be supersize, but customers will find that it is one size that fits all.