Pubs have been serving up suds and fellowship for more than a thousand years, so it was just about time for someone to come along and screw with the concept. The gastropub is basically a bar that prepares food you'd actually like to eat, not your typical bright orange nachos and microwaved hot dogs but classier fare that you can enjoy every bit as much as the stuff served at that nice restaurant up the street. The first official gastropub opened in London seventeen years ago and the trend has been making headway hereabouts over the past decade. Local examples include 21st Amendment and the Alembic in SF, places where the food is every bit as important as the liquor it's created to complement.
The founding chef at both 21st Amendment and the Alembic, Eddie Blyden, has brought the gastropub concept to Berkeley with the reopening of Henry's, a longtime Old Blue hangout newly reinvented. It's located in the stately Hotel Durant, a Spanish Mediterranean beauty built in 1928 a block from the UC campus. Now a member of the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain, the place is currently undergoing a multimillion-dollar restoration that among other things has turned the venerable old saloon into a dazzlingly handsome pub with a long and comfortable bar, vertiginous ceilings, flat-screen TVs for sporting events, and gleaming woodwork as far as the eye can see. (There's also an adjacent dining room, a nice option when you're in the mood for a quiet meal.) Here Blyden and his staff serve up an array of specialties that are imaginative in concept and above and beyond your typical pub grub, if not always entirely successful.
Take the snacks and starters available for munching along with your draught Scrimshaw, Wild Rock pinot, or Hendricks martini. Deviled duck eggs fresh from Metzer Farms down the coast were a meal in themselves: rich, creamy, and spiked with mustard and paprika. The nut mix isn't your typical peanut-packed saltfest but a substantial bowl of pecans, filberts, almonds, and pine nuts draped in a sweet, crunchy nine-spice brittle coating. The coconut-battered calamari was disappointing — limp and lifeless, with a pallid coconut-lime dipping sauce. But the juicy roasted mushrooms, served warm and dripping with butter in a ramekin pungent with ginger and turmeric, is unquestionably the best dish on the menu.
The Cuban sandwich, the ideally substantial midday or late-night bar snack, gets an admirable rendition here. The ham is rich and smoky, the pork is roasted with garlic and cumin and sliced paper-thin, the Gruyère is sweetly pungent, and the pickles are snarky with brine; melted together between crusty, absorbent bread, it was a warm, luscious treat. The house salad Niçoise tosses together peppery field greens, sweet little tomatoes, al dente green beans, creamy-textured potatoes, black olives for contrast, and more of those hard-boiled duck eggs with a snappy balsamic vinaigrette but replaces the standard seared ahi with strips of tender, juicy, perfectly grilled steak, an inspired choice. The house cassoulet, on the other hand, was a rather bland but moderately comforting vegetarian variation on the classic white-bean stew, with squash, string beans, and sweet peppers taking the place of the traditional duck, goose, and sausage. A tastier entrée option was the Angry Mac and Cheese, a miniature casserole of tender pasta, lusty cheddar, thick cream, shards of tomato and scallion, and (the angry part) fiery Indonesian sambal pepper sauce, all conjugating into an opulent bowl of comfort food.
The best dessert was a piping-hot ramekin of fresh blackberries, blueberries, peaches, and nectarines swimming in their own barely sweetened jus and crowned with a crisp and buttery crumble topping: summertime in delectable miniature. Not nearly so pleasant was the goofy Darker and Stormier Float, in which root beer, vanilla ice cream's most complementary companion, is supplanted by wimpy ginger beer and tongue-thrashing Averna bitters, resulting in a thin-spirited, medicinal-tasting mess. But the toffee cake was all über-rich succulence, sweet and moist and half-submerged in a pool of sticky, buttery goodness.
Several meat-free dishes make Henry's marginally vegetarian-friendly. Starters include the gingery mushrooms and the nine-spice nuts as well as assorted olives, pickled crudités, fried plantains, lemongrass-garlic fries, and marinated beets with mascarpone. There are three salads to choose from (one simple, two bountiful) as well as the veggie cassoulet and the mac and cheese.
Since a gastropub is a place where the cuisine complements the cocktails, it's only fitting that Henry's really shines in the area of carefully crafted concoctions every bit as imaginative as the stuff on the dinner menu. The Everything But the Kitchen Sink Bloody Mary, for instance, is a spectacular example of the genre. Finlandia vodka is infused with horseradish, spices, and a garden's worth of garlic, onion, peppers, and cucumber, muddled with lime and stirred into housemade tomato juice, then — the crowning touch — splashed with a dollop of Guinness. The result was a rich, spicy, positively salubrious cocktail.
The Hot Flash is a splendid variation on the mojito, with bundles of fresh mint and cilantro adding gusto fresco to a frosty tumbler of Herradura reposado spiked with lime, ginger beer, and a hint of jalapeño. The official house mojito, on the other hand, was defeated by an overcomplicated addendum of mango purée and pomegranate juice, rendering this classic concoction nondescriptively sweet and fruity. The Cal Negroni, however, was a bright, bracing pick-me-up, with nice pulpy ruby-red grapefruit juice tempering the bittersweet intensity of the Campari, vermouth, and Distillery 209 gin. Best of all and against all odds, the Henry's Martini — vitamin-fortified White Lotus vodka served up with two blue cheese-stuffed olives — was an entirely effective hangover preventative. This, in other words, is my kinda pub.