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Jayne's Gastropub

4677 30th Street, North Park

A "gastropub" sounds a lot like a gastropod (e.g., snail), which literally means a creature whose stomach (gastro) is in its foot (pod). (It must be a very diplomatic animal, as one hates to think what would happen should it put its foot in its mouth.) A gastropub, in contrast, is a newish coinage referring to a modern British-style pub that feeds its patrons something fancier than steak and kidney pie, plowman's lunch, and the ever-appalling bangers 'n' mash as ballast for copious pours of ale.

Jaynes Gastropub, one of the new neighborhood spots springing up in North Park, wears its Britishness proudly, with a Union Jack draped across one of the off-white dining room walls. The rest of the decor is less "warm, cozy pub" than "redecorated coffee shop" -- a modest-sized room with large mirrors, handsome vintage-style flooring of small hexagonal tiles, bare wooden tables (mainly two-tops), and small, unpadded wooden chairs that exemplify the stiff-lower-hip style of English design. There's an open kitchen at the end of the bar in the adjoining front room. There may not be much to excite the eye, but with all the hard surfaces bouncing every noise, you get an earful. The background music adds to the denseness of the sound mix, but I couldn't discern the music's genre over the general din. The place has become such an instant hit with neighbors and food bloggers that on a Thursday night, we could only reserve for either 6:30 or 8:00 -- and rightly so. By 7:00, nearly every table and barstool was occupied.

All our starters proved delightful. Fried calamari were crisp-surfaced with a light breadcrumb batter and tender, juicy meats. "Normally, I'm not a big calamari fan," said the Chocoholic Samurai, reaching for another ring, "because they're so chewy." "I'm with you," said Michelle. "These are exceptional." They come with both a tasty housemade tartar sauce dotted with capers and a superfluous cocktail sauce.

Gambas al ajillo, a classic Spanish tapa of shrimp sautéed with garlic, includes the unclassic south-of-the-border addition of minced hot red Serrano chiles. Jim and I enjoyed the lively flavor, but it was too spicy for the Lynnester, since it blew away a dish she much preferred, a creamy white bean dip gently flavored with roasted garlic, to be spread on thick slabs of pain levain bread from Bread & Cie, which (according to Charles Kaufman, the bakery's owner) is a naturally leavened (sourdough) loaf made from organic whole-wheat flour. "Do you think this bread is a bit overpowering for such a subtle-tasting purée?" Michelle asked the rest of us. Good question. We tried some on the lighter, thinner grilled baguette that came with the shrimp, and indeed, that bread let the dip shine more clearly. "Maybe they worried that people would find the purée too bland, so they serve it with a hearty peasant bread," said Lynne. Tending to confirm this supposition was an accompanying ramekin of soft oblate spheroids -- South African "Piquante Peppadew" red chiles pickled in a sweet brine. The peppers left a pleasant afterburn on the tongue.

A salad of organic mixed greens with slices of fresh blood orange, dressed in a slightly sweet shallot vinaigrette (which tasted as though it included blood orange juice) pleased us all. Its garnish was a slice of baguette toast spread with mild, creamy goat cheese.

We all know how many restaurants with interesting appetizers proceed to flop on entrées, as though the chef's energy and imagination were spent on the starters. Jaynes flopped harder than most. If the appetizers were cosmopolitan, the entrées were comfort foods like Mom's -- when Mom's cooking is no better than commonplace.

After the sensitive treatment of the squid, we had high hopes for the fish and chips, which some blogs have praised. But the fish here is not cod, nor any similar light-fleshed traditional species; it's sea bass, dense and steaklike. Not even the Newcastle ale in the batter could lighten things enough to make it a fit frying fish. The medium-thin French fries were ordinary; after a few nibbles, all hands abandoned chips. Tartar sauce reappeared, along with Heinz ketchup. Malt vinegar, traditionally sprinkled on everything in this dish, is supposed to arrive automatically and would help a lot; that slamming evening, our table didn't receive it. The best item on the plate was a ramekin of ravishing sugar snap peas sautéed with garlic.

All meats and fowl on the Jaynes menu come with pedigrees -- the cows and pigs are free-range and well raised by Niman Ranch, known for humane, wholesome husbandry practices. The chicken is free-range as well. That busy night, they all came to a bad end -- not just dead but lifeless, with dry, chewy textures. The pork porterhouse (which should be tender, from the cut next door to the tenderloin) was cooked to our specification of medium rare (pink) but nonetheless was a labor to masticate, while the black-eyed peas were tough from undercooking. (Al dente beans are apparently trendy lately. Eww.) The stringy braised short ribs would have benefited from another hour in the pot with more liquid, at lower heat. They came with baby root vegetables and smooth, seductive garlic mashed potatoes, plus a Port wine--reduction gravy -- a great dish lacking only great meat. The herb-roasted chicken pieces (heavy on breast) were boring, including the couscous they rested on, and the raw greens decorating the plate looked like lawn-thatch and tasted like Bermuda grass.

"This must be English cooking," said Michelle. "Aren't they famous for bland food?" "And fiery curries at the zillions of Paki restaurants that they flee to for an escape," I said. "But this stuff doesn't taste much like what I ate in London 25 years ago, back before the English started to serve more exciting stuff than roast beef in high-end restaurants. This is more like my mother's cooking, and except for her mashed potatoes, she was a terrible cook. At least Jaynes does well with fresh veggies, compared with both my mom and the Brits."

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