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Sure enough, when you walk through those heavy oak doors, the dark-timbered, brass-trivet feeling of a traditional 19th-century London pub is palpable -- in the evening, that is, as during the daytime, too much sunshine filters through the windows to accurately convey the lazy gray light of an English tavern in the afternoon. Schmaltzy pop music doesn't help the mood either, even if Steeleye Span is from England. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Beatles covers are performed live by a group named Mad Cow -- there's probably some irony intended, but still, is this the best name for a band in a beefy restaurant?
And then there are the ghost stories. As legend has it, the Blue Anchor has been haunted by the spirit of Bertha Starkey, a young woman who was stabbed to death at the bar by her jealous seafaring husband after he found her in the arms of another man. In the old days, Anchor employees claimed to have heard Bertha's footsteps and spine-chilling wails and to have seen her veiled figure wandering about after closing hours. Harrison says he remained skeptical until Bertha smacked his sous chef in the head with a stockpot several years ago. The sous chef quit shortly thereafter, and since that time, every night at 10 p.m., a bell is rung at the bar and someone calls out "Ghostie, Ghostie" to keep her calm.
So we've got Churchill, Jack the Ripper, and Bertha the ghost -- did I mention that Harrison, the man who spins these yarns, is a former tabloid reporter for the National Enquirer?
Blue Anchor's wordy menu doesn't have much to say about the food -- I suppose that's left up to me. I'll start with a few fish tales: The first concerns a long, fat clod of white, juicy Atlantic cod, cleanly fried in crunchy beer batter and served with French fries -- the latter nothing about which to starch eloquently, but, cod-wise, a solid "fish and chips."
Fish and chips is arguably one of the world's best accompaniments for beer, and you'll be pleased to know that Bertha isn't the only spirit in the room -- someone behind a large oak bar serves up a separate menu's worth of brews (drafts include Stella Artois, Old Tucker, and Shipyard Ale) along with all manner of mixed drinks.
An appetizer of breaded, fried shrimp atop French fries likewise pairs well with a cold one, but the butterflied crustaceans seemed to have come from a box of Mrs. Smith's. Cocktail sauce in a little plastic cup on the side had a strangely gelatinous quality -- I suggested to my wife that if I turned the cup upside down, the sauce would jiggle out and resemble a miniature Jell-O mold, but she asked that I not do so.
Our final fish story revolves around two darkly fried seafood cakes the size and shape of hockey pucks. Morsels of cod were flecked throughout the soft, bready croquettes, and though the flavor was bland, a sherry and dijon sauce provided a perky piquancy. The cakes come with fries and "English baked beans"(which tasted suspiciously like Boston baked beans). Peas and waterlogged carrot stubs leave their insipid mark upon most other entrée plates and are substandard even by the relatively lax yardstick of pub grub. Choice of starch includes garlic-mashed, roasted, or fried potatoes; all pass muster.
"In England, there are 60 different religious sects but only one sauce." This line was uttered by Francesco Caraccioli, an admiral who in 1799 was ordered hanged from the mast of his frigate by Lord Nelson (although not for his culinary critique). It's true that the English aren't known for their sauces, but cooks from that country have always excelled at the art of roasting meat. Blue Anchor serves prime rib of beef, rack of lamb, and tenderloin of lamb. I tried the last, which was cooked to a requested medium-rare and possessed the requisite lamb flavor, but tenderloin is just too prissy a cut. The basic principle behind the English roast is that a small piece of meat off the bone is never as tasty as a large one -- I was hoping for wobbly, fat-marbled slabs of the leg, not a neat fanning of lean slices that looked like a serving of sliced New York sirloin. A Yorkshire pudding popover towered over the plate but lacked the steamy, eggy interior of one that is freshly made. Mint jelly on the side was neon green.
Shepherd's pie was created as a means of using leftovers from Sunday roast -- the meat chopped, vegetables layered in, mashed potatoes plopped on top and browned in the oven. The version here thankfully omits the peas and carrots and is, in essence, a loosely bound meatloaf topped with bronzed, garlic-mashed potatoes.
I've always preferred British pies ("pasties") with crusts, and half a dozen varieties are baked here. The story behind these pies is, I'm afraid, a predictable one: A restaurateur painstakingly ships the components of an English tavern across the Atlantic and spends not an inconsiderable amount of time and cash to re-create it piece by piece, but when it comes to preparing the famous British pasties, he uses premade sheets of puff pastry instead of attempting a simple homemade crust (flour, fat, water, salt, and pepper). I don't deny that puff pastry is more buttery than the traditional pastry dough, but its soft texture barely withstands the creamy white "exclusive Guinness gravy" that binds chunks of chicken breast and slices of mushroom in the aptly named "chicken and mushroom pie"; and the bottom layer of crust is doomed to sogginess by the combined liquid forces of sauce above and a pool of water below that seeps slowly from those peas and carrots.
With most entrées under $15 and many under $10, it doesn't make sense to exert much narrative on culinary shortcomings. The fare here won't knock down your knickers, but Blue Anchor Pub exists as a uniquely atmospheric place to put down a pint and pick up some hearty eats. If you're really hungry, you might even consider dessert, though I wouldn't necessarily encourage you to do so. Admittedly, I'm not the biggest fan of English trifle to begin with, but the sponge cake in this rendition was soaked so strongly in sherry that the custard and jam were overwhelmed -- as was the puff of canned whipped cream on top. A prefab Irish cream pie with chocolate crust, cheesecake consistency, and potent Irish cream liquor flavor wasn't bad, but I bet a real working-class English pubgoer wouldn't be caught dead eating a frou-frou dessert like this. If I ever encounter Bertha, I'll ask her.