I smelled delicious for days after eating at Pub Royale. I'm not sure how fellow train riders felt about it, but fragrant axillae, redolent of cinnamon, clove, cumin, and ginger, are the gifts that keep on giving after eating good Indian food. And the food at Pub Royale, from Heisler Hospitality (Trenchermen, Nightwood, Sportsman's Club, Bar DeVille, etc), is surprisingly good for a bar situated on a soulless stretch of Division Street in a neighborhood that lost its last vestiges of character around 1997.
On the heels of the Indo-Dutch de Quay, Pub Royale is another concept that dabbles in postcolonial culinary appropriation, this time a beery British pub with subcontinental allusions provided in part by partner-designer Kevin Heisner; the bathrooms have wicker walls and the taxidermy on display includes two large, lovely black-and-white peacocks that flank the bar.
The chef is Jason Vaughan, a veteran of Brendan Sodikoff's Hogsalt Hospitality, a group that has mastered the art of presenting familiar foods in modern settings that subtly allude to their origins. Vaughan's menu seems as if it's meant to be an afterthought to the drinks: the impressive, ever-changing draft selection; the four crisp, frosty variations on the Pimm's Cup; the slushy mango lassi built with yogurt liqueur; or the ciders you can fountain into your mouth straight from the porron.
I would argue that it's the other way around. The fold-out menu leads with small, inexpensive snacks and builds to just a few larger plates. One of the first things your eyes might land on are the lamb dumplings, which represent a Chinese subthread to the menu. They're wrapped in thin rice paper and bulge with braised and shredded meat; the full-flavored flesh is countered by drizzlings of blazing chile oil and earthy soy sauce, sesame seeds, and garlic chips. A sort of cousin to the dumplings, the gobi manchurian approximates a cauliflower kung pao, crispy fried florets with creamy-soft interiors doused in a hot sauce that isn't too sweet or sticky and sustains its heat. Same goes for a plate of clean tripe lacquered in a buzzing black garlic and Sichuan peppercorn sauce.
Two of the more extraordinary dishes on offer feature house-made paneer unlike any I've ever encountered. As creamy as burrata, the cheese holds its shape just as long as it has to before dissolving on the tongue. It's served both in a rich, buttery red curry and as an extraordinary saag paneer, a kind of Indian steak-house creamed spinach made with fresh—not frozen—greens and toasted spices. Meanwhile, conventional potato-and-pea samosas are accompanied on the menu by a variety that's stuffed with an assertive salt cod brandade reined in by a tart malt-vinegar chutney.
Bread usually accompanies these plates, which helps to make most of them truly shareable. And it comes in an impressive variety: spiced and toasted naan with the saag, whole wheat paratha with the buttered paneer, and, with the mussels, soft, garlicky naan that's as good as any wood-fired pizza crust and ideal for sopping up the rasam-like broth the bivalves gave up their lives in.
A thick disk of naan provides the bed for the hot chicken—a nod toward the Nashville hot all the kids are crazy for these days. It's surprisingly mild for its fearsome appearance, but if you chopped it into small pieces Pakistani style, its thick, crunchy breading would make it similar to the excellent broasted chicken at Khan BBQ.
There are a few things that stay strictly in the British Isles at Pub Royale: a classic knickerbocker glory sundae; a burnished, cider-braised rabbit pie with a wet but sumptuous interior; and a loosely packed cheeseburger with somewhat dehydrated but still scarfable fries.
But the imagination and audacity it takes to pull off such winning, fresh, and unrestrained Anglo-Indian food in a place that's mostly about the beer is just the first of many surprises at Pub Royale. You'll catch a whiff of the rest later. v