British Invasion

Firkin and Friar is authentically English in ways both good and bad

Last year's most appalling local restaurant news: Alan Zeman, one of the founders of Tucson Originals, was closing his excellent restaurant, Fuego, and selling out to a Canadian chain. The word "traitor" was bandied about in some quarters, but it seemed only fair to wait and see how things turned out.

Yes, one should, as much as possible, patronize locally owned restaurants with unique menus attuned to the region, but restaurant chains are not necessarily evil, and you can get a decent meal at many of them, and besides, the Canadian company, Firkin, is a franchise operation; technically, the spot on Tanque Verde is locally owned.

We gave Firkin and Friar--completely unrelated to Frog and Firkin, near the UA--a full year to get itself together and develop a following before deciding whether or not we should forgive Zeman.

The place, whose parking lot is usually well-filled, has been completely redone in Anglo-Irish pub mode. Lighting is restrained but not dim. (English pubs are not the dark holes of furtive alcoholism that American bars are.) All the seating is in red booths or banquettes, those along the walls sequestered enough to keep other people's conversations from intruding on your own. Old-fashioned wood floors contrast with the high-definition flat-screen monitors all over the room, showing sports but thankfully not spewing out any audio.

And the food? Well, it's authentically British insofar as it tends to be uninspiring.

That's not to say that it's awful, and a few items are actually quite good. Among the appetizers (mostly typical bar fare, like chicken wings and nachos, but also warm, soft pretzels with English mustard), the standout is the fritto misto ($7.95), a dish of flash-fried calamari, green beans and onions, plus a grilled lemon to squeeze over it all before dipping the goodies into a zingy chipotle sauce. The green beans are an excellent touch, and although the fried items may be a little salty for some tastes, it's a pleasing platter.

Also good is the "Thursday feature," a braised lamb shank slow-cooked in a rosemary-red wine broth, served with whipped potatoes and vegetables. The lamb serving is generous and tender, not the least bit greasy and not as musky as lamb can sometimes be (though not often on the shank). The potatoes are nicely garlicky, but not enough to shift attention away from the plate's main matter.

The cottage pie ($8.95) is satisfactory, inherently not the sort of dish given to extremes of good or bad. Little bits of simmered ground sirloin are bathed in gravy with peas and carrots, and topped with whipped potatoes. There's enough gravy within the ramekin that you don't really need to supplement it with what's offered on the side.

Things begin to slide downhill from there, without quite getting dumped into a peat bog. The bangers, beans and mash ($9.95) make for a highly uneven entrée. The bangers are pork sausages, with a properly mealy texture (that's the way they like it in England), not firm like sausage in most of the rest of the world. This can be off-putting to people who aren't familiar with English sausage, but it's authentic, as advertised. The beans, alas, are also authentic; they are so mild--neither vinegary nor sweet--that they make almost no impression. At least the mash--whipped potatoes--is reliable.

The corned beef and cabbage ($10.95) is disappointing. The brined brisket, served in slices rather than the shreds you find in deli sandwiches, has hardly any flavor, and it's still firm enough that you need to cut it with a knife; corned beef is supposed to be fork-tender. The accompanying big chunks of carrot and the whole red potatoes, apparently boiled separately from the beef, also have little impact, but then, they're boiled. Still, they're just the right consistency, firm but forkable, and that's something of an accomplishment. Only the cabbage has the character it needs, savory with clove and peppercorn.

Firkin's menu also includes salads with and without flesh, burgers, franks, sandwiches and a "fine fare" section that includes ribeye and salmon. As one of my dining companions noted, only in a pub would chicken tenders be classified as "fine fare."

This being a pub, beer and ale are a strong pull, and Firkin offers more than two dozen varieties, bottle and draught. The few wine choices are quite respectable if you're not a hard-core oenophile. I'm dubious about the specialty cocktails; the mojito is icky-sweet with crème de coconut, and although the menu promises that the muddled leaf is basil, it turns out to be the standard mint--at least, it looks like basil, but it tastes like mint. Does the bartender use a packaged mojito mix?

So what was once a distinctive and unique local restaurant is now part of a generic chain purveying unexciting fare. No, Alan Zeman, we cannot forgive you.

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