Search This Blog

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Case of the Vanishing Pub

From the Vault Dept.: Where was I dining a decade ago? I began February 2005 with a visit to what was then the long-lived Holmes and Watson in Troy, NY. Although it’s the shame that the place went under, it had some desultory final days that looked more like hospice than lunch, and it’s been replaced by the excellent Finnbar’s Pub.

IT’S EASY ENOUGH, with financing no problem, to assign a theme to a new restaurant and reinforce it with overwrought decor. Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel and the like are good examples. But the decor has little to do with the restaurants themselves, which are market-researched chains turning out a predictable menu for patrons who must not feel truly comfortable unless there’s something like a large bobsled hanging on a nearby wall.

Holmes and Watson, which opened in 1978, hung its walls with Sherlockian memorabilia, the better to reinforce its desired image as a London pub. I suspect there was little or no market research behind this; it was more of a quick signal to the cognoscenti that you’d find real beer here in addition to the pisswater likes of Bud.

Twenty-seven years and several owners later, the pub remains a stalwart in downtown Troy. If there was ever anything self-conscious about the theme and decor, it has easily justified itself. Unlike the chain restaurants, it has evolved as a successful melding of what owner and customers enjoy.

Under the present owner, Matthew McKeown, who took over last June, the menu has been refined, the World Tour of Beer is more prominent, and the over-the-bar TV is more discreet.

I’ve visited many times during the past few years when working in Troy, and always enjoy the barside experience of sampling different brews, an admirable assortment of which is always on tap and abetted by a goodly array of bottles – 24 draft selections, and up to 60 otherwise.

“We try to keep it moving,” says McKeown. “Something from each coast, something local – I think we give a good variety.” Like the currently available Magic Hat “Heart of Darkness,” which I enjoyed on a recent visit, a winter stout with a nice complexity to its bitterness – like a Mexican mole sauce turned into beer. (And check out for a fun website beer tour.)

A few barroom tables let you dine close to the beer taps, but there’s a large room in the back that overlooks Broadway and comfortable accommodates those who are there principally to eat. The brick walls are decorated with Holmesian posters and the maroon table cloths carry the color scheme into the room.

The lunch portion of the menu carries the restaurant theme into the fancifully named items, and there must be some kind of prize for the fan who can identify all of the references. I know William Gillette (appetizer sampler, $9), Peter Cushing (fried mozzarella sticks, $5.75), Christopher Plummer (chicken tenders, $5.75) and Frank Langella (stuffed potato skins, $5.25) all played Holmes on stage or screen, but who was but Arthur Wontner (a dozen chicken wings, $6.25)? Turns out he played Holmes in an acclaimed five films in the late ’30s, regarded by many as better than Basil Rathbone (who must have been dropped from the menu).

We dove into a Gillette, and discovered it’s the kind of assortment you kind of wish you had more people with you to share. The deep-fried onion chips alone are way too addictive, especially when dredged through the horseradish mayo. A couple of potato skins, loaded with bacon, some deep-fried mushrooms and mozzarella sticks and a couple of unexciting chicken tenders are served with an array of sauces that also includes barbecue, marinara and salsa.

Hand-cut steaks are a feature of the dinner menu, so what better than a 16-ounce strip ($18) to test this feature? Good meat, nicely seasoned, but overcooked to medium when I asked for medium-rare. It’s a too-common event at restaurants everywhere, and sometimes I even complain; this time I decided it wasn’t worth my time and so accept the consequences as all my own. But I’ve cooked steaks to order and bungled it myself at first, so I know the challenge. Err on the side of undercooking.

Chicken teriyaki ($14) is one of a quartet of poultry entrées; this, too, spent a little too long on the grill and began to harden at the edges. Flavors were good, however, and the marinated red pepper topping is a nice idea. Accompanying baked potatoes were as expected, but a vegetable of baby carrots was overcooked to mush.

Fish and chips ($11) is solid ground, an excellent entrée with a nice cornmeal-laced batter and fat cottage fries to finish the dish.

Lunch is where the kitchen truly excels. I had a toothsome portion of quiche Lorraine ($6.50) that was both creamy and crunchy, an excellent combo of filling and crust. The burgers (starting at $7) are half-pound wonders, served on a hard roll with those deservedly popular cottage fries.

There’s French onion soup and seasonal seafood chowder, but let me recommend the chili (Moriarty’s Revenge, $3 for a cup, $3.50 a bowl) as something that approaches the classic southwestern preparation in terms of heat and seasoning blend.

And there’s no mystery about the many other sandwiches. The Valley of Fear turns out to be a Philly cheese steak ($7), while the Norwood Builder is a grilled Reuben ($6.25). Salads include a tossed fresh greens with $4, topped with grilled chicken breast for $7, the same price you’ll pay for a Caesar version with chicken. To economize, since the portions are generous, try the $6 half-sandwich-and-soup combination.

Although the dinner entrées need some work, the comfort and friendliness here are major selling points, and service is completely transparent. As a pub, the place succeeds quite well, and it’s even got me re-reading the Conan Doyle stores.

Holmes and Watson, 450 Broadway, Troy. Serving Mon-Sat 11-10. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 3 February 2005

No comments: