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WHISK AND QUILL/Is the Gastropub Dead in America?

Jordan Wright
By Jordan Wright
Posted on Jan 06,2010
Filed Under Restaurants , Local Tastes,
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Powers and Crewe Photography <br />The Scotch Lockers at AGAINN.
Powers and Crewe Photography
The Scotch Lockers at AGAINN.

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - Before the trendy nomenclature could sink its British tentacles across the pond and set down its twiny roots in American soil, owners at the two-month-old Againn (pronounced ah-gwen) declared it dead…at least as an artful descriptor for their first foray into the world of concept restaurants.  
 

Photo by Jordan Wright<br />Fiona delivers handcrafted cocktails at Againn
Photo by Jordan Wright
Fiona delivers handcrafted cocktails at Againn

At Againn the food is too serious for Yankee sensibilities to be considered “pub food”.  Pubs are imagined as the average Englishman’s other living room, serving up greasy newspaper-wrapped fried cod and chips or Branson pickles and ploughman’s cheese sandwiches with a pull of Guinness.  

This watering hole’s $500-a-year liquor lockers are too committal for the blue-collar worker and its ultra-modern interiors too retro chic for the typical English family’s neighborhood gathering spot, lest it conjure up Gramps and the kids after Sunday service.
 
No, no, no, they cried before it could catch on.  They would hereafter be referred to as a “European bistro”.  A concept much tossed around but surely indicating a more sophisticated approach to dining and drinking.
 
On a recent visit to Againn I had the chance to commend their change of heart.  For here was a restaurant with a serious chef guarding a strong philosophy and respect for the land, an extensive, worldwide wine list and a penchant for success.
 
But don’t come here expecting spring mix salad with a tumble of heirloom tomatoes…at least not in the off-season.  Chef Wesley Morton is bucking the naysayers and keeping true to seasonal.  This writer was mightily impressed by such gastronomic bravery.  Swim against the tide, Morton and you will find you can create your own waves.
 
I found a dreamy celery root soup topped with grated apple and smooth counterpoint Stilton mousse, freshly opened Blue Point oysters, brine intact with shallot mignonette (the dreaded red sauce thankfully nowhere to be found), corned tongue with puntarelle, a lovely winter green similar to chicory and only in season from November to February.  
Prawns are served with Marie Rose sauce...a delicious throwback accompaniment recently revived by British Chef Andy Waters at his restaurant Edmunds in Henley.
 

Photo by Jordan Wright<br />Maryland Rockfish with winter vegetables, spinach and preserved lemon
Photo by Jordan Wright
Maryland Rockfish with winter vegetables,
spinach and preserved lemon

Morton, assisted by sous-chef and five-year accomplice, Michael Sindoni, has taken an extraordinary route by channeling top Michelin-starred chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Mark Aikens and award-winning chef, Tom Hix of London’s Oyster and Chophouse fame.  

Though he counts his Cajun grandmother as his muse, he has embraced and conquered the new British-inflected cuisine and trumpeted the local, organic, sustainably- and humanely-raised cuisine that is the culinary wave of the future.
 
Morton breaks down whole cows and pigs from neighboring farms to make his soul-stirring charcuterie – blood sausage, potted pork, “brawn” and black pudding, creating homey relishes like pickled mustard seed, piccalilli and onion marmalade to balance the rich meats.  This is “nose-to-tail” eating, as described by British chef Fergus Henderson, and it is sublime.
 
Within the confines of Morton’s kitchen the beef is corned, the sausage hand-stuffed and the grass-fed Shenandoah lamb from Blue Rooster Farm, a Tuesday special, fabricated in-house. Even such comfort food as a ham and cider pie incorporates house-made ham with heirloom apples and cabbage.
 
There are nods to pub food with dishes like shepherd’s pie, locally raised Scottish Highland beef rib-eye and Yorkshire pudding, and bangers and mash.  But here is a whole new paradigm.
 

Photo by Jordan Wright<br />Pan fried black pudding
Photo by Jordan Wright
Pan fried black pudding

The wine list at Againn gave me pause.  The wines by the glass were dispiriting and without the usual wine by the glass pairing menu, I couldn’t find anything remotely palatable.  

With over 100 wines by the bottle, I sought out professional help from trusted friend and professional oenophile, Larry Austin. Austin is a Harvard-educated lawyer, banker and conductor of international wine seminars with an unparalleled passion and knowledge of wines, and who, as a serious collector, vowed to provide me with some insight.  
 
He noted stellar wines including the 2003 Antinori ‘Pian Delle Vigne’ Brunello di Montalcino, a slew of top quality premier cru French Chardonnays, a 2005 Nickel and Nickel ‘Harris’ Merlot, a 2006 Miner Family ‘Stage Coach’ from Oakville and a 2006 Sequoia Grove, Rutherford, from what he referred to as the two best parts of Napa Valley.   

A 2007 Luca Malbec, Mendoza caught his eye along with a 40 Year Tawny Port by Dow’s.   To his tally of favorites he added a 2007 Zinfandel, Biale ‘Black Chicken’ from Napa and a 2008 Cloudy Bay from New Zealand, “whose vineyards revolutionized the world’s thinking on Sauvignon Blanc and put New Zealand on the wine map!” he exclaimed. I lost him after that plumbing the depths of a serious collection of Spain’s exemplary riojas.  Wine for thought indeed!
 
Two desserts swept me off my feet.  Eton Mess, harkening from the English boarding school of the same name, was made with huckleberries, baked meringue and lemon curd, and sticky toffee pudding, a familiar face in the Anglo-crowd, but this version was complete with a surprisingly delicious stout ice cream.
 

Photo by Jordan Wright<br />A sumptuous Banofee Pie with bananas, caramelized milk and graham biscuit.<br />
Photo by Jordan Wright
A sumptuous Banofee Pie with bananas,
caramelized milk and graham biscuit.

Later in the week I engaged Morton by phone hoping to explore his approach deeper and mine the chef so driven to expose diners to this new cuisine that he traveled throughout the British Isles for inspiration.

I expect exciting things to come from this Texas transplant, whether gastro or Euro, it’s an epicurean direction that will break tradition by reclaiming it.
 
INTERVIEW WITH CHEF WESLEY MORTON

What do you hope sets your food apart from other chefs?  
 
I try to keep it simple, precise and refined.  I get ideas from the best the new British chefs and adapted them to our local ingredients.  I try not to do too much…just the let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves.
 
What ingredients are inspiring you lately?
 
It’s all about the season for me.  That’s what drives me.  Farmers tell me beet greens are in.  But pork and pigs are my favorite vegetable.
 
You speak of your father’s mother as your muse. How did she influence your cooking?
 

Photo by Jordan Wright<br />Charcuterie board featuring in-house made brawn, potted pork and pork terrine.
Photo by Jordan Wright
Charcuterie board featuring in-house made
 brawn, potted pork and pork terrine.

Every Sunday she cooked for the whole family, she’s a Cajun cook through and through, and there would be up to 25 of us at her house for lunch.  We always had cattle, chicken and eggs and fresh vegetables from her garden.  I always helped out as a kid.
 
How did your commitment to organic, non-GMO foods and sustainably- and humanely-raised meats arise?

My uncle back home is an environmental consultant and he has taught me how important it is to support the family farm.  It means a great deal to me.  I have friends in these communities and have seen how important it is to keep these famers in business, even if the costs are higher, because it affects the local economy and at the end of the day you can taste it in the dish.
 
What are your plans for the future of Againn?

Well, we’re still young.  We’ve only been open for two months and we’re just beginning to hit our stride.  We will push the envelope slowly, always following the seasons. I’m looking forward to having morels, ramps, asparagus and halibut in the spring.  
 
What local farms are you currently sourcing from?
 

Photo by Jordan Wright<br />Celery root soup with grated apple and Stilton mousse at Againn.<br />
Photo by Jordan Wright
Celery root soup with grated apple and Stilton
mousse at Againn.

We are really fortunate to have the farmers we have. Garden Path Farms brings us their pigs, purebred all-natural Red Devon beef, chickens and eggs.  We use Blue Rooster Farms for lamb and Fresh Link Co-op, a collection of small family farms, for produce.  Our fruits come from Fresh Link and Tuscarora.
 
This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright of Whisk and Quill.  For questions or queries contact Jordan@WhiskandQuill or visit

www.WhiskandQuill.com
 
www.againndc.com



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