Last week, Michael Klein celebrated 20 years of penning the “Table Talk” column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Klein, whom I met during a Book and the Cook dinner around that time, wrote with nostalgia about the glory days of Philadelphia dining. He interviewed a number of chefs and restaurant owners who offered opinions on the past and present.
His column was extended on the Inquirer’s website. Klein mentioned La Truffe, my favorite French restaurant of the ’90s that now houses The Victoria Freehouse. I clearly recall the celebrated recreation of a truly extraordinary French dinner based on the meal featured in “Babette’s Feast,” the Oscar-winning foreign film, held at La Truffe.
When it closed, I shed a few culinary tears.
I never heard of The Victoria Freehouse, so I decided to pay a visit. The simple beauty and elegance of La Truffe has given way to a long bar and simple wooden tables set with votive candles. The original brick wall and tin ceiling remain intact. A rugby match was on TV, which quickly gave way to the Flyers game.
As is the custom with so many places, it was dark in the dining room. The congenial host helped Edward and me navigate through the long beer list. We selected a Newcastle Founders’ Ale ($6), which I enjoyed for its light citrus flavor, and a Black Cab Stout ($7.50), which imparted a richer taste.
Pubs are popping up everywhere. My favorite is The Dandelion, which sets the standard whenever I decide to have lunch or dinner in one.
The sausage roll ($6) was a tasty starter that consisted of a seasoned sausage wrapped in flakey pastry and served with whole-grain mustard.
One may not think a liver parfait ($10) would wind up in a British pub, but our friends across the pond do enjoy offal. A nicely prepared chicken liver mousse was laced with sherry, set in a small, round ramekin, covered in caul fat and chilled. Sherry adds a lovely flavor to liver or even kidneys. The dish was set on a board along with toasted oval croutons and small dollops of pickled onions and sweet cherries. I liked this combination of slightly sweet and pungent together here.
We shared a Victoria salad ($12) that was thoughtfully split in the kitchen and consisted of ordinary bagged mesclun topped with slab bacon, candied walnuts, sweet cranberries, red onion, a pickled egg and marvelous Stilton, known as the king of British cheeses. The salad lacked seasoning, but a sprinkling of salt helped.
At this point, a server brought a bottle of HP sauce, a jar of Coleman’s mustard and a shaker bottle of malt vinegar to the table. These condiments form the base of nearly every pub meal.
We decided to share the shepherd’s pie ($17). I have eaten this dish throughout the United Kingdom and at The Dandelion. A proper version is made with seasoned minced lamb, onions, peas and carrots and topped with creamy mashed potatoes. The description on the menu said root vegetables, which is fine. It was cold and so sweet that I could not enjoy it.
A hallmark of this pie is its marvelous, savory flavor. The chef used parsnips in this dish, which cooked to such a degree of sweetness, that’s all the flavor I could taste. After it spent some time being reheated, Edward finished it.
I ordered a small fish and chips ($12). Cod was used, and I confess it was juicy and flaked easily with a fork, but it lacked seasoning. The batter was a bit too thick, but this is a matter of personal preference. I sprinkled a bit of malt vinegar on the chips, which were hot, a little crisp and not overly salted.
Service was friendly and attentive. The host and two servers took care of everyone in the pub.
I wish the fare at The Victoria Freehouse was seasoned to enhance the flavor of the ingredients. We were attacked with the pepper mill a few times, but I don’t think freshly ground black pepper adds anything to bland food.
When we received our bill, the host told us the fish and chips was on the house.
Two tips of the toque to The Victoria Freehouse.