Not Jeopardy!, but at the Frog & Toad.
No, it's not a new game show. Or is it? The owners of this spunky British pub, which just celebrated its first anniversary, know something that other proprietors around town have forgotten: More than any other type of restaurant, a pub really must be all things to all people. A place to meet your neighbors, hash out politics, or escape your problems with a Boddingtons or two. A dining spot for the carnivore who relishes the innards in steak-'n'-kidney pie or for the lacto-ovo raw foodist who really just wants a mixed-green salad. A bar where you can play games of the board, not those of the heart, where you throw darts at a target instead of your spouse's head, and where the weekly trivia contest, held every Wednesday, is so competitive that it's almost a contact sport.
In short, in these and other categories, the Frog & Toad is the prince of pubs. For starters, it's a terrific improvement over its dark and dingy predecessor, also a pub, the carpet of which stank of stale cigarette smoke and was as squishy as Spongebob with spilled suds. Today, the renovated tavern, lightened with fresh paint, the ceiling lined with faux wood beams, and the scarred tables replaced with blond wood ones on which checker and chess boards are laminated, has a bright presence. Everywhere you look, on ledges and shelves, is a frog (or is it a toad?), whether it's a study, a statuette, a stuffed animal, or some other whimsical souvenir. The total effect is warming: In dimension, because of the low ceiling and long, narrow dining room that curves around itself, the pub reminds me of a hobbit hole. The patrons are so patently grateful for the Frog's presence that they add to the collection with amphibious gifts; my friend Robb, a regular, brought over a couple of kitschy figurines one night and was thrilled to see them displayed the next time he ate there.
The menu is downright extensive for a British pub. In particular, the deep-fried fare -- ranging from the battered mushrooms, served in a basket as an appetizer, to the fish and chips that can be upgraded with the addition of four large shrimp -- is spectacular. The golden-brown casing of crisp batter separated easily from whatever object it covered, a good sign that the items were hand-dipped on the spot rather than jumping straight from freezer to fryer. The fish was perfect, slick inside with juice and completely fresh; the shrimp, in more of a bread-crumblike coating, were crunchy and sweet. The mushrooms, however, pretty large for that type of prep and including cap and stem, should come with a surgeon general's warning: Bursting shrooms may be harmful to your tongue's health. Please allow to cool.
Indeed, all of the dishes arrive at the table so Mount St. Helens hot that one wonders if a microwave was involved. If so, this is one of the rare times that such a heating method has proved judicious rather than harmful. As a result, the steak-and-mushroom and shepherd's pie fillings were both heated to the point that we could take our turns at the dart board without worrying about our food getting cold. For the former, topped with a delicate pastry shell, a pinch of salt was all that was needed. The latter, ground meat laden with peas and carrots in a savory sauce topped with formed ice-cream scoops of mashed potatoes and brown gravy, could have used a minute or two under the broiler to develop some requisite browning and texture.
Some will insist that the truest test of a British-style restaurant is its curry. Those who are in that camp will have no complaints about the best dish we sampled: mussels in Thai curry sauce. The appetizer portion, large enough to perform like an entrée, was blanketed with a rich, zesty sauce that any Thai restaurant would be happy to claim as its own. The mussels themselves were small, sweet nuggets, just mineral-y and briny enough to meld beautifully with the curry spices. We couldn't stop ourselves from soaking up every last spoonful with hunks of fresh bread
That's why I habitually invite very large men to be part of my dining entourage -- they keep me honest by scraping up the last bits of, say, the bangers and mash, two wrist-thick sausages not even close to dwarfed by the mountain of mashed potatoes that accompanied them, or chicken curry, as tasty and vibrant as the mussels but marred in general by a bed of undercooked rice. In fact, most of our complaints about the fare stemmed from improper cooking times -- the vegetables in the shrimp and corn chowder were far too crunchy and could have used a good long soak in the broth to soften. On the other side of the cooking spectrum, the nuggets of clam in the New England-style chowder were way too chewy, while the potatoes were near disintegration status, and the salmon main course was so dry and flaky that my cat actually looked at me doubtfully when I gave it to him the next day.
Fortunately, I can always count on my guests to consume dessert, even when they're decent but not particularly inspiring, like the chocolate cake and warm apple tart. But the successes of dishes like the fish and chips and the attitude of pure joy that pervades the entertaining atmosphere at the Frog & Toad overshadow any of the minor mistakes.