British pubs may be dying off in the UK, but they’re alive and well in Washington, DC. Againn is the latest addition to DC’s growing ranks of gastropubs, along with Commonwealth in Columbia Heights, Churchkey on 14th street, and Granville Moore’s on H street. The term “gastropub” technically means a licensed pub in the Uk that serves good food. Not all of DC’s gastropubs serve British food – Granville Moore’s is Belgian-focused – but all offer an upscale, gourmet, beer-centric take on the traditional pub.
Againn is decidedly on the British end of the gastropub spectrum, calling itself a “contemporary British Isles Bistro.” This means that Pastry Chef Genevieve So has her work cut out for her. Americans aren’t very familiar with British desserts (when’s the last time you had a spotted dick pudding?), and the desserts we’ve heard of are known for being heavy, rich, strange affairs. Mincemeat, puddings, trifles, fruitcakes – these aren’t desserts that set American mouths watering.
So knows that Americans aren’t too keen on British sweets. “When I think of British desserts, I think of puddings and custards – it’s very heavy,” she says. But her version of a very English dessert – sticky toffee pudding – drew raves from We Love DC, and made me want to see just how this pastry chef was reinterpreting British desserts for the American palate.
Originally from San Francisco, So grew up in a food-obsessed family. “We were a household of cooks,” she says, “and always I did the baking.” After graduating from San Jose State University with a degree in Business Marketing, So wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her career. “My parents had always wanted me to own my own business and suggested combining my business school degree with baking,” she explained. She studied at the highly acclaimed San Francisco Baking Institute and the Institut National de la Boulangerie Pattisserie in France before embarking on her career as a baker and pastry chef.
At Againn, So’s desserts are riffs on the British classics, but lightened and clarified. “I try to do simple, honest, straightforward food,” she says of her approach to pastry, which certainly shows in the dessert menu. For the sticky toffee pudding, a mellow stout ice cream sits atop a fragrant and spicy cake drenched in toffee syrup. The ice cream isn’t too sweet, bringing out the flavors in the cake and balancing the sweetness of the rich toffee. My favorite thing I tried was her brown bread ice cream – the sweet and creamy ice cream is studded with crunchy, sweetened bread crumbs and flecked with vanilla beans.
Her “banoffee” pie was also a lighter take on an English trifle – crushed ginger cookies are topped with caramelized milk, chocolate ganache, fresh bananas, and whipped cream. Served in a mason jar (the whimsical if not entirely authentic presentation is the brainchild of co-owner Mark Weiss), the pie reminded me of an ice cream sundae without the ice cream, and it had a nice balance of sweet, spicy and rich flavors. Also on the menu are a spicy hot chocolate, an heirloom apple pie with a cheddar crust, and an “Eton mess” of huckleberries, lemon curd, and meringue.
So also does some bread baking at Againn, like the bread for the cheese plates, but the restaurant currently purchases breads from Uptown Bakery. It’s a pity that they don’t do their entire bread program in house, because So’s real passion is for bread. “My thing is artisan bread and laminated doughs,” she says. She hopes to open a bakery someday, which would focus on “good levain, the sort with a lot of holes, and excellent croissants.” However, the kitchen isn’t equipped for a fully in-house bread operation.
Are Gastropubs here to stay in DC? So thinks so. “I think there’s a resurgence of interest in this kind of food because of the simplicity of it,” she says. “I focus on doing the basics right.” Whether or not Gastropubs have staying power, there’s always room in DC for restaurants that do good food right. If Againn can pull that off then they’ll keep diners coming back again. And again.