Pub food often gets a bad rap. I blame language for at least part of the problem. First, there’s the lamentable harmony of the rhyme between “pub” and “grub,” one of the least appetizing culinary adjectives. Then, there’s vocabulary: The words we use to talk about pub food (hamburger, nachos, French fries) come from a lexicon shared by its louche yet seductively popular third-cousin, fast food. It’s an unfortunate association, because when prepared well, pub dishes are actually closer to classic home cooking – more family dining room than freeway drive-thru.
At Owl & Elm Village Pub in Yarmouth, chef Rocco Marzilli’s goal is to connect diners to the homier aspects of this style of cuisine: “I serve comfort food, food that people recognize, but with just a little twist. We want to make you feel like you can come in and relax and feel like you’re at your house, like you’re sitting at your own kitchen counter,” he said.
With long, cushion-covered pew benches, a custom bar illuminated by boxy, steel-framed pendant lighting and a wall-mounted LED television, it might not look (or sound) much like a traditional home kitchen, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the crowds of regulars who fill the boisterous restaurant nearly every night.
On one recent visit, I found a remarkably age-diverse group of customers, who ranged from a young family with children nibbling on complimentary (and overworked) rosemary biscuits, to a geriatric couple seated next to me, sipping sweet and smoky Upper Village Manhattans ($11), deep in an unexpected conversation about Lady Gaga’s new album. It felt like the entire town of Yarmouth was out for dinner.
According to Marzilli (who previously cooked at Nosh and Hot Suppa! in Portland), that’s not far from the mark. “We are a family-friendly pub, but we get everyone from the community,” he said. “There is even a core group of regulars who walk here a few times a week.” Undoubtedly, they are motivated by avoiding the hunt for a parking space – a tricky prospect here – as much as by not driving home tipsy in a section of town known for its avid attention from police.
Still, it’s hard to decline a drink at Owl & Elm, with six New England beers on draft, like slightly sharp and citrusy Pepperell Pilsner ($6) from Banded Horn Brewing in Biddeford, or Black Hog Brewing’s caramel, porter-adjacent Granola Brown Ale ($7) from Oxford, Connecticut. Just as tempting are the beers by the bottle: a more geographically eclectic list that even includes a few options from Europe. On the other hand, the list of wines by the glass seems absent-mindedly conceived, and includes a few letdowns, like a thin Leese-Fitch pinot noir ($8) and an almost sugary Tavo pinot grigio ($8).
That’s a shame, because a few dishes on the menu, like the Maine stew ($25), an almost deconstructed bouillabaisse of mussels, haddock and half a lobster, would work as well with a glass of wine as with a pint of beer. Piled high into a too-small bowl, the stew was really more of a modern art installation of seafood and garlic toasts wading in an inch of flat, unbalanced lobster stock. More than anything else, this dish – and especially the simple broth – lacked acidity, which could have come from pureeing the chunky smoked tomatoes into the stock, or even simply adding lemon juice before serving, rather than relying on diners to season the dish themselves with a shouldn’t-be-optional lemon wedge.
Seasoning was also a problem in the fire-roasted jalapeño poppers ($8), stuffed with a cream cheese mixture and drizzled with honey. Lacking anything even resembling peppery heat, these were crunchy and a little bit smoky, but mostly just forgettably bland. Curiously, the best thing on the plate was its garnish, a finely-sliced red cabbage and carrot slaw, tossed with a sparklingly lemony vinaigrette – easily good enough to hold its own as a stand-alone menu item.
Fortunately, the crispy browned, broiled buffalo cauliflower ($7) was better, packing a decent amount of the heat promised in its name, offset well by a creamy, but not overwhelming, gorgonzola sauce. It was especially good eaten between bites of the restaurant’s house-made, Northern cornbread: sweet and a little springy, with the tight crumb of a wheat-and-cornmeal quick bread, and served as part of the bread service.
When our server told us that the cornbread was one of her two favorite items at the restaurant, I understood why. The other – a generous trifle ($8) made with crushed Oreo cookies, a cream made from peanut butter and whipped cream cheese, and messy lashings of chocolate syrup – she assembled herself, then delivered to our table. It was, as she had described, satisfying and a little salty: “just what you expect but a little different.”
That same description could easily apply to the Corner Burger ($13), as well. With a ground chuck patty and a brioche bun, it resembles a typical pub hamburger, but Marzilli deploys his slaw skills here again, replacing traditional vegetable toppings with a marinated lettuce-tomato-pickle slaw, an addition that gives the burger a tangy complexity – not to mention a super sloppy footprint on your plate, table and lap.
The kitchen uses the same cut of beef in its steak fries ($12), a rectangular plate of crisp, golden, well-seasoned French fries, bisected by a chunky line of luxuriously tender, slightly sweet slow-braised chuck. “We cook it low and slow with honey, ketchup and Coke. Put it in the oven and let it go until it just pulls apart with tongs. It takes all day,” Marzilli said. No matter what those familiar ingredients might suggest, this is the opposite of fast food – the sort of dish ideal for savoring alongside a pint of local lager, and just maybe a first step toward rehabilitating the reputation of pub grub.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AndrewRossME.