"Oooh, you're an angel in disguise, I can see it in your eyes ..."
"Gotta find me an angel to fly away with me ..."
"You're in the arms of the angel, may you fi-i-i-i-i-nd some comfort here ..."
A gang of us sits on the crowded patio of Decatur's new British-style pub, The Angel, recollecting every pop song we can think of that bears the same name (and, if you mull it over, they are legion). It's easy to be in a breezy mood sitting out here on a gently sunny day, under the pastoral trellis from which hang petunias and other low-maintenance plants. This place has opened at just the right time of year, when the weather is only moderately hot and the rainy season has largely passed.
The Angel is the fifth of Atlanta's Derek Lawson ventures (the other four, scattered around the metro area, are Prince of Wales, The Rose and Crown, Fox and Hound and Hand In Hand). The restaurant's heavenly title was not inspired by a Eurythmics or Aerosmith tune, but like the others is named after pubs around England. Also like its siblings in the Derek Lawson group, the building -- should you make it past the patio for a run to the loo -- has the staid facade and dark yet richly sculpted interior that has come to be associated with traditional British drinking halls.
Perusing the menu, though, one quickly notes fancier dishes like duck confit and seared tuna among the expected fish and chips. The food is modeled after Britain's "gastro pubs." I know, gastro pub sounds like a periodical for folks suffering from chronic indigestion. It's actually a trend that started in England in the early '90s. Forward-thinking restaurateurs made efforts to spiff up dingy old bars to make them more aesthetically pleasing places that would serve genuinely tasty fare to boot. The concept caught on. Now tough guys in London can drink Merlot in their local speakeasy while women can relax over a bowl of pasta without enduring sexist remarks from creepy James Joyce wannabes.
Lynn Gigliotti, of Buckhead's Grappa, serves as executive chef of the Lawson pubs, and the offerings at The Angel are the chain's most ambitiously gastro yet. The result is a curious and generally likeable mishmash of dishes. The choices that will be most popular with the masses are typically the ones that most succeed.
Gazpacho ($7.50), for instance, is everything you want in the ubiquitous summertime soup, plus a little more. The tomatoey blend of veggies is pureed to just the right consistency, so it's smooth but with a bit of texture. Avocado salsa and a couple smoky grilled shrimp liven things up enough to make this a light meal.
You see harried servers delivering armfuls of plates of fish and chips ($10.95) to tables, and understandably so. Atlantic cod tastes fresh and sweet under its crispy brown batter. The Brit Burger ($9.50), piled with caramelized onions, blue cheese and almost leathery bacon, is a colossal handful. If you eat it for lunch, I hope you have enough space under your desk for a nap afterward.
I must say, the pan-roasted halibut ($16.95) took me by surprise. The fish has a lovely seared veneer and delicate texture, and a clean, earthy mushroom broth miraculously rescues the Jolly Green Giant veggies underneath. Adorned with the clump of de rigueur micro greens, it's an accomplished dish in both taste and presentation.
The Angel's rendition of bangers and mash ($10.95) is stellar (leave it to the Brits to come up with "bangers" as a socially acceptable nickname for phallic-shaped sausage). The juicy links are grilled, piled on honest mashed potatoes, and blanketed with rich gravy made from Guinness.
Angel has been open nearly two months, and I'm hoping other dishes will soon catch up. Chewy lamb slices over Israeli couscous flavored with generic curry powder tastes like an experiment in a '50s kitchen gone awry ($14.95). Duck confit ($12.95) is terribly over-salted, and the skin, which should be crackling crisp, lays like a wet noodle over the meat.
Two entree-size lunch salads are ridiculously disproportioned the day I try them. Rocket salad ($8.50) is a big, fluffy pile of arugula, but where is the advertised blue cheese, shaved apples and spiced pecans? Rooting through the greens, I find measly crumbles of cheese and bottom-of-the-bag bits of nut. A shrimp and avocado salad ($12.50) is more generous with the good stuff, but the jumbo leaves of field greens need to be torn into bite-size pieces.
While I'm carping up a storm, why is the list of draught beers ($4.75-$5.25) so short? The most unusual selection is a Strongbow cider, which admittedly hits the spot on a kicked-back weekend afternoon. Otherwise, it's your basic Coors-Hoegaarden-Guinness scenario. The wine list is equally short, but chosen with a more creative eye.
The crowds certainly don't seem to be complaining about any shortcomings, though. On one picnic table, someone has scrawled the words "Think UnAmericanism" into the wood. Seems subversive Decaturites are already making the place their own. I'm sure al fresco enthusiasts from other neighborhoods will soon join the throng. The Angel's patio may quickly become the official outdoor dining spot of summer 2003.
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