Every city has a culinary identity, a kind of food or restaurant that not only dominates the native dining scene but creates a reputation for the metropolis nationwide. I'm not referring to the highfalutin regional stuff written about in the glossy food magazines -- New World, Pacific Rim, et cetera -- though these fusion fares have their own merits. No, I'm talking about the casual places frequented by locals, those restaurants they moan about nostalgically when they move away or travel abroad, the eateries they can't wait to come home to. New York City has its delis. Chicago has its deep-dish pizzerias. New Orleans is stocked with oyster bars, Memphis with smoky barbecue pits, and Seattle's big sell is the coffeehouse. And if I had to sum up Fort Lauderdale in two words, they would be ... the pub.
You thought I was going to say seafood shack, right? Seafood shacks, where shellfish are freshly shucked (and usually deep-fried), do stand out in this seaside city. But although it's admittedly a bit of a case of cognitive dissonance, in recent years British and Irish pubs, where the brews are freshly drawn (and usually cold), seem to have stolen the budget-dining crown. The three-month-old Lord Nelson Pub and Eatery, though a little uneven, is no exception.
The place is British, all right -- down to its bones: The pub's beamed ceiling, 75-foot-long bar, and dark, polished booths employ wood from the HMS Victory, gleaned when the ship was renovated. The blueprints of the Victory (built in 1759) hang on the wall, and the pub showcases tankards, plaques, and other artifacts from that Royal Navy floater. Owner Robin Brisland and his daughter Johanne, who manages the place, hail from Portsmouth, England, where the Victory now resides dry-docked in a museum. Co-owner Patrick Campbell is Irish, and the flags that hang on the exterior of the building depict Ireland and Scotland as well as England. "Makes for some interesting fights," Johanne Brisland told me over the phone, speaking not about patrons but of her father and his partner.
It also makes for an interesting beer list -- thirteen taps' worth, plus bottles. But while I'm not one to turn down a pint of Fuller's ESB (English), Guinness (Irish), McEwans (Scottish), Tucher (German), or Foster's (Australian), it wouldn't hurt to add some local beverages (Hurricane Reef and Firehouse come to mind).
Chef Greg Strickland, formerly of Las Olas Cafe, is working with a new executive chef, Karen Blanding, to turn Lord Nelson's original menu into an updated reflection of the British Isles' culinary heritage. They're not quite there yet. An appetizer of fried mozzarella, I'm told, will be replaced by corn-potato cakes with mango-apple chutney; garlic loaf by puff pastry sausage rolls; and stuffed mushrooms au gratin by Brie baked with macadamia nuts. I applaud the switches, if only because the garlic loaf, while fresh, was too strong with uncooked garlic, and the stuffed mushrooms were devoid of the crabmeat with which they were supposed to have been filled.
I also appreciate the humor in "cook's whim soup," though I didn't care for the soup itself. The night we visited we got vegetable-beef, a watery, oily concoction replete with celery and peas but devoid of meat. "Nelson's potato and cheddar cheese soup" fared little better. A sheen of oil lay over the top of this thin, cheesy broth as well, and it needed more potato to thicken it up. We had to search for the scallions and crisp diced bacon that had settled to the bottom of the bowl, but even when we found them, they added little flavor. (The kitchen staff might also reconsider how the soup is served: The large, flat bowls look more like dog dishes, and the waiters have a hard time handling them.)
Matters improved after the appetizers. For lighter fare, Nelson's house salad, a plethora of field greens, bacon, cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and crisp Chinese noodles (I'm told "tortilla noodles" will garnish the salad in the future), was delicious blanketed with a homemade mango-lime chutney that's offered as a dressing, though we thought both the ginger vinaigrette and the malt vinaigrette too bland. Caesar salads are available with grilled or jerk chicken, and the kitchen was happy to lay juicy strips of grilled, skinless poultry on the house version when we asked for it.
It's not likely that many farmers make regular visits to downtown Fort Lauderdale, but suits-and-ties on lunch break can partake of their traditional midday meal, the ploughman's lunch. Or, if a platter of bread, cheese, pickled onions, and fresh fruit sounds too tame, check out the chicken salad. This tasty sandwich, served on fresh French bread with lettuce, tomato, and red onion, contained all-white-meat chicken salad seasoned with celery, onion, and golden raisins, with a scoop of savory red-skinned potato salad on the side as a filling garnish.
An herb-grilled dolphin sandwich served with golden steak fries, was even more flavorful, redolent of lemon and garlic. The salad's mango-chutney topping reappeared here, napping the fish with sweet citrus. The "Turkey Carver," an open-faced turkey sandwich layered with a pleasant light gravy, was also vivid with a pretty touch, namely a homemade cranberry sauce. Wonderful garlic-spiked mashed potatoes and moist herb stuffing matched the turkey for a decidely un-British Thanksgiving symbolism. The only drawback to this hearty meal was the sliced turkey breast meat itself, thin and salty, the processed variety. (Johanne Brisland says Blanding is toying with the idea of preparing her own bird. Roast away, I say.)
The menu's four dinner entrees (sometimes also available for lunch) comprise three English specialties we all know -- fish and chips, shepherd's pie, and bangers and mash -- plus a peppercorn New York strip steak. I'm told the selection is now supplemented by blackboard specials such as a roast of the day, steak-and-kidney pie, and chicken puff pastry pie. But as these options hadn't been put into motion yet, on our visits we stuck with the familiar. And we weren't disappointed.
Shepherd's pie was scrumptious, ground sirloin simmered in port, laced with sweet green peas, and blanketed with garlic mashed potatoes (plus one nearly whole undercooked potato that must have been too hard for the masher). This casserole was accompanied by fresh, verdant broccoli, a real, nonsoggy treat. Fish and chips were equally mouthwatering, if a little less nutritious. A huge fillet of supple Icelandic cod was encased in a crisp Whitbread ale batter and served with the requisite fries -- which were terrific -- and malt vinegar.
For dessert, English sherry trifle and chocolate whiskey pie were letdowns. The trifle was a flat-out failure, the ladyfingers oversoaked with potent sherry, which also overwhelmed the unsweetened whipped cream. The pie had more promise, brownielike layers sandwiching vanilla ice cream. But the Bushmill's Irish whiskey sauce was overpowering, and, reminiscent of the potato in the shepherd's pie, one of the layers seemed petrified, defying spoon and teeth. We couldn't even pierce it with a fork.
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Service needs some improvement too. Our waitress was kind but managed to knock over a drink, leave her rag on the table after mopping it up, and then forget about taking the rest of our order, which she'd interrupted to clean up the mess. Appetizer dishes weren't cleared before entrees appeared, and for some reason the tops of our sandwiches were brought out after the sandwiches themselves.
A simple training program might take care of these annoying little glitches; after all, life's daily irritations are the reason we escape to pubs. And as an escape -- from the hot Florida sun, from the office, even from the confines of traditional British pub fare -- Lord Nelson has plenty of potential.
Lord Nelson Pub & Eatery
320 SW 2nd St, Fort Lauderdale; 954-467-5867. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 3:00 a.m.
Cook's whim soup
Turkey carver sandwich
Fish and chips
Chocolate whiskey pie