Pick Your Battles
Dining out and being politically correct hardly go hand-in-hand. Not that I don't try. But really, am I expected to forgo the shark's fin soup when I visit an authentic Chinese restaurant simply because the fishermen are cruel enough to cut the fin off and return the shark to the water to drown? Am I to turn my nose up at foie gras because the ducks and geese that supply this gastronomic nirvana are overfed to ensure a plump liver? Should I politely turn down milk-fed veal, non-dolphin-safe tuna, chicken that hasn't been given the run of the range, beef and milk that contain hormones, corn that's been biotechnologically altered? Refuse to dine on tablecloths made in Asian sweatshops or drink bottled water out of glassware produced in a factory that hires children? Endorse a ban on smoking in Florida restaurants?
Now, I do avoid eating fish that I know are endangered. I jumped on the swordfish-ban bandwagon in the 1990s, and I heartily support National Environmental Trust's campaign to boycott Chilean sea bass, which is closer to extinction than is polite service in South Florida. But watchdogging can be so tiresome, especially when all I want is some pâté and a cigarette.
That's why I'm partly grateful for places like Trafalgar Tavern, a dark and dingy British pub located on East Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Refreshingly, Trafalgar is hardly a bastion of political correctness. Cigarette smoke hangs so heavily in the air that the multitiered pub, more barroom than dining room, could rival Mexico City for smog. The hostess, if there is one available to seat you, asks what you'd like to drink -- and she means alcohol -- before she even leads you to your table. Don't be surprised if your server starts spouting the most personal confessions you've ever heard: For example, after ascertaining that my husband is a physician, our waitress informed us that she'd just gone off the pill and requested some advice on how to get pregnant quickly.
Nor is the fare about to be sanctioned by any governing body, particularly organizations like SeaWeb and the Audubon Society. They'd be pretty pissed to see fish and chips on the menu. Oh, I know it sounds innocuous, but this British national dish and treasured export is made from the poor, once-common cod. A member of the Atlantic ground-fish family, cod, along with haddock, monkfish, and pollack, has been lingering for years at the top of the most-waning list. Indeed, I wish I'd remembered the status of this particular fish before ordering Trafalgar's version of it. The deep-fried batter stuck to the cod fillets, which themselves were slightly chewy and greasy -- all signs that the fish had been frozen when dropped into the fryer or perhaps even battered, fried, and then refried. For quality like this, I'd rather trust the Gorton's fisherman (who no doubt is also doing his part to see to the demise of the ground-fish family).
But while the fish and chips weren't worth jeopardizing a species, certain items in this pub do warrant your risking your health. Or at least your cholesterol levels. For instance, the giant Spanish onion appetizer is split into, well, let's call it a blossom, then battered, deep-fried, and served with a horseradish sauce. Another starter comprises golden, crisp steak fries smothered in melted cheddar cheese and topped with generous crumbles of real bacon. Both were as pleasantly rich and fattening as they sound.
Entrées continue in the same clogged vein. Bangers and mash featured thick, country-style sausages, although with a slightly tough skin, and a veritable landfill of mashed potatoes with brown gravy. A main course of shepherd's pie boasted what must have been nearly a pound of ground meat, sautéed with peas and carrots and topped with yet another pile of those tasty mashed potatoes. You can add melted cheddar to the crown for 75 cents. Now that's money well spent.
Oddly enough, though, while the pub's air quality would easily fail an emissions test and its regular patrons look as if they could use a stress test, Trafalgar attempts to maintain a PC outlook. The menu advises customers to "please keep children away from the bar area at all times" and to "please respect our non-smoking areas." Vegetarians are catered to with options like a black bean veggie burger and "Love Apple Pie," kind of a meatless shepherd's pie. A fiber-muncher at heart, I was briefly intrigued by the "harvester pot," a vegetable stew comprising mostly broccoli, peas, and carrots that had been ladled into a bread bowl. The vegetables were plenty savory, if a bit soggy, and the portion ample and filling. The problem came with the shreds of chicken that were floating in the lightly creamy, leek-flavored sauce. Had I been a member of the ovo-lacto set, I would have been grossly disturbed to learn that the kitchen simply borrows the sauce from the creamy chicken-mushroom pie filling to wet down the veggies.
All of this can be forgiven, of course, if you walk in with no illusions. Know at the outset that when you go to Trafalgar Tavern, you'll be drinking cheap California wine out of "goblets" (two-for-one on Wednesday nights) and competing with televised soccer matches for the attention of your mate. Understand that your server, who has been breathing enough secondhand smoke to qualify for a class-action lawsuit, probably won't know what the soup of the day is, so she'll guess it's beef-vegetable when it's really tomato-basil, but it'll still be satisfyingly homemade. Beans, advertised as Heinz, do indeed taste as if they'd come right out of the can, and the thin, vaguely spicy curry sauce that is available as a dip for chips owes more to British reinterpretation than Indian authenticity. But above all, keep in mind that the only endangered species acknowledged here are the Yorkshire pudding and Bodington beer, both of which the pub had run out of the night we visited -- ideal for the diner who's politically sick of toeing a fish-friendly, cholesterol-free, nonsmoking line.
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