Old faithful fare

Mar 10, 2004 at 12:00 am

The Redcoat Tavern has a split personality. On the one hand, it’s famous for its half-pound burger, which it offers along with such favorites as battered onion rings and chicken tenders. Its soups come with packets of saltines, its lettuce is shredded a la fast food, and the interior is way ugly to look at.

On the other hand, the Tavern’s chicken pot pie is topped with French puff pastry, and its signature salad features Port-poached pear and a Stilton-hazelnut terrine.

It’s a wonder that the restaurant does both fares well.

The Redcoat is where the upscale chefs of Royal Oak and Birmingham go after work to get a burger and select from a long list of beers. Forte’s Tim Voss, who’s tried just about everything on the menu, says the food is even better late at night.

“Who are all these people?” I asked manager Randy Jarman one evening. The Tavern is always crowded, with a line of people waiting. “We’ve been in the same place with the same owners and the same hamburger for 32 years,” he replied.

As for the consistent burger: I asked for the “Piedmontese” variation, which may have been an error. It comes from low-fat cattle, just 2 grams per burger, and it’s less tasty than I’d been led to expect (for $1.75 extra). The shredded lettuce defeats the purpose of lettuce on a burger, which is to add crunch. The rich mayo-onion sauce, however, is quite satisfying.

You can choose among 20 add-ons, from burnt onions to olives to smoked Gouda, and five types of bread, including grilled rye or pumpernickel.

On the other end of the spectrum, on my next visit I ordered the huge $10 Tavern Salad, with Amish chicken breast, sun-dried cherries, red onions, grape tomatoes, and the pear and Stilton mentioned above. Its only flaw is a raspberry-Port vinaigrette that’s a shade too sweet and pink.

The Tavern does a great job on its English prime rib dinner. The Yorkshire pudding tastes buttery, though that might be the beef’s pan drippings. Ours was rare as ordered, and the steak fries were thick. The “petite cut” at $14 was plenty big enough for my outsize companion, who proclaimed it far superior to the prime rib he ordered recently in Omaha.

I liked the Tavern’s French onion soup despite the limp bread. The soup is heartier and beefier than most. The Caribbean seafood chowder is disappointing, spicy but too salty, though it does contain good chewy bits. Fish and chips are perfect, with a sweetish thin batter (but inferior coleslaw).

The Tavern is generous with appetizers — 10 Buffalo wings, a generous serving of Scottish smoked salmon on rye toast. I’ve eaten at the place where wings are said to have originated, at Mammoser’s outside Buffalo, N.Y., and I can testify that the Tavern’s are authentic. The salmon is to die for, with red onion and capers.

So is the key lime pie, rich and creamy and piquant at once. The crème brûlée is done right, with just enough seared crust to offset the dessert’s blander insides.

The Tavern offers an excellent beer list, helpfully categorized from weak to hearty. Theakston’s Old Peculier (England), Skullsplitter Orkney Ale (Scotland), Xingu Black (Brazil) and Delirium Noctorum (Belgium) are some of the possibilities.

I might have given the Redcoat two stars for the “experience,” because of its very unpleasant red lights hung everywhere. Along with the faded red plaid carpet, the lights give the place a dingy feel, not ameliorated by the unstable-looking mannequin of a British redcoat who guards the door. Yet service is remarkably fast, as well as competent and agreeable.

Open Monday through Saturday, serving food till 1:40 a.m. No reservations, but call a half-hour ahead and they’ll put you on the list.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].