GULFPORT — The powerful aroma of the fry-o-lator sucks you in first. You can practically taste the planks of golden cod doused in malt vinegar, an order of fries steeped in ketchup to finish things off. You turn off the road into a beachfront parking spot, the ground hot under your flip-flops. This is status quo in Barnstable, Falmouth, Woods Hole, Provincetown — anywhere on Cape Cod — but can it happen in Gulfport?
In the space recently vacated by the short-lived Water Witch, the Village Pub has opened. Owners Dave and Magi Sailes, from London and Liverpool, respectively, have added a veneer of British pubitude to the ramshackle space, its outdoor tables kitted with fans to kick up the salt air. The Saileses are pros at this stuff, having owned Pints and Pastimes in St. Pete Beach before this new venture. A proper creamy-headed Guinness (a pint for $3.95) and a neon-pink English trifle (unnerving to the uninitiated, its wobbly jelly, submerged cake and whipped cream, with a big sherry wallop, no scrimping, $4.95).
The bread and butter at Village Pub is the fish and chips. They offer two varieties, cod and haddock ($11.95 and $10.95). The cod is better, but the North Atlantic haddock still has firm white flesh that flakes just so. The batter is a thickish, beer-batter style — golden and crisp and not quite greaseless. It's best when doused with the slightly sweet tang of malt vinegar, providing a contrast to the unctuous richness of the fish; tartar sauce is more a pairing of similarity, the doctored mayo adding another layer of sin.
The french fries that accompany the fish are a workhorse plank version. A little salty, they are soft at the center, just crisp at either tip, calling out for a pool of ketchup (although quite happy to be waggled in tartar sauce or even ranch as well).
There's a pricey shepherd's pie ($12.95), tasty and rib-sticking, a nod to the mothers who served it as a fitting and filling economical meal. Village Pub does other fried foods with aplomb. Mozzarella sticks ($5.95), jalapeno poppers ($5.95) — let's be realistic. These are probably not fabricated from scratch on-site. But the best of the veggies are the onion rings ($5.95), sweet, fat rings of onion that slither out one end of their coating on first bite, the ghost of the onion just discernible as you eat the empty ring of batter.
But I haven't even gotten to my favorite dish. It's London pub-style chicken curry ($11.95, also offered with shrimp, beef, veg or fish), a slow burn, lots of sauce and basmati rice, the chicken lushly moist and packing heat.
Village Pub isn't covering untrammeled ground; it's a no-holds-barred, no-apology approach that only works if the (yes, largely fried) product is good. Bonus points: There's a big TV turned to European football, and kids can play in the beachfront park across the street while Mom and Dad relax in a fish-and-chips stupor and fret about the state of their arteries.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter: @reiley. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.