ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE, Shakespeare reminded us, and that was without ever laying eyes on a Stephen Starr restaurant. One can only imagine what he would have made of the Dandelion, where firewood crackles in an oak-mantled hearth shipped over from England and a bronze bust of Winston Churchill caps the ground-floor bar. The ersatz British pub has been packed with players since opening on New Year’s Eve — men and women of every age making their entrances and exits, festooning the wall hooks with coats and scarves, to sip warm ale or cold gin on their way to the best fish and chips in town.
That would be Chatham cod and Idaho potatoes, served with tartar sauce on a wooden cutting block, but it’s the unseen beef tallow that makes all the difference. The 50-pound lard blocks delivered to chef Robert Aikens are a little too pasteurized and purified for his taste, so he cuts them with minced fat right off the steer. After a hot date with that blend, his batter shatters into perfect shards that crunch around the moist morsels of cod. His steak-cut chips, fried twice, stay crispy straight through to dessert.
It’s the same recipe he honed at Tom’s Kitchen in London — or as close as he can approximate it on this side of the pond — and it exemplifies what separates the Dandelion from its Philly pub peers: cooking that’s as thoughtful as the stagecraft. And this is serious set design (although the acoustics of some rooms could be improved), courtesy of two 40-foot shipping containers Starr sourced from England, crammed with everything from leather-bound tomes on canine care to a pair of bars and a two-seater inglenook with “first date” written all over it.
The name Aikens might ring a bell for devotees of contemporary English cuisine. Robert’s identical twin brother, Tom Aikens, runs an eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in London. Robert helped him get his second spot, the more casual Tom’s Kitchen, off the ground in 2006 and cooked there for three years. Competition for tables was still intense when I ate at the restaurant last October, and after dining there it was clear why: The fish and chips was the best I ate in England. The Dandelion’s is the best I’ve had since.
But there’s a lot more to Robert Aikens’s game. Like crispy-skinned black sea bass under a pile of watercress, in a sweet-and-sour raisin-citrus vinaigrette that shines against a mellow, creamy cauliflower puree. And an appetite-whetting rendition of lemon-and-chervil-dressed crab, with chilled Jonah and lump crabmeat in place of the traditional Devon variety, lightened with a crisp chiffonade of gem lettuce. And, especially, an inspired pairing of sea scallops and black (blood) pudding, the sea-sweet and savory meats brought together with shredded-and-sweated brussels sprouts and Guinness beef jus under a tart confetti of sautéed apples. If that doesn’t sell you on the potential of the British pantry, nothing will.
The potential of British brewing is less disputed, and if you can get past the London pricing, the Dandelion has that base adequately covered. There are two or three rotating cask ales reliably on offer — some English, some local — and half a dozen taps pouring a similar mix of colder suds. Kudos to Starr for offering half-pints as well as $8-to-$9 Imperials, and for providing cold carafes of house-fizzed sparkling water gratis. And you can’t beat the Deep Blue Sea, a variant on the Aviation, for a bracing gin cocktail.
It’s hard to go wrong with seafood here, but Aikens comes close to overshadowing it with a burger that, for me, is in a dead heat with Village Whiskey’s as the champion of Center City. The aroma wafting from his blend of ground chuck, hanger steak, short rib and aged New York strip was musky, moody, bewitching, even for a few weeks when the patty seemed too thin. Fortunately, that was a short-lived phase that soon yielded to a thicker version, in which the caper-tomato-horseradish sauce submits more fully to the meat.
There’s also a worthy chicken-and-duck-liver parfait carried over from Tom’s Kitchen — a luscious pink scoop cut by a spiced grape chutney that, like the brioche that accompanies it, runs out too quickly. Velvety rabbit, melt-in-your-mouth onions and oyster mushrooms, tucked under a flaky pastry crust, was also a meat-centric success.
In four meals, only one bad dish came my way: a salty duck ragu over strozzapreti — a lesson to those who would order pasta in a pub. But aside from that, and a sticky toffee pudding whose sickly sweetness shows why France and Spain will always outshine England at dessert, the Dandelion epitomizes the best of British pub fare.
If it weren’t for the absence of a mediocre curry, you might even mistake it for the real thing.