"I've got a big mouth," he said when I got him on the phone after eating at his joint. "I've been complaining about the Indian and the Pakistani food in Denver for fifteen years."
Fifteen years. That's ever since he came here from Chicago, through his years as a salesman, a businessman. James, who is Pakistani, never thought the restaurants in Denver got it right.
Isaac James is also an idiot. Again, I know because he told me so, after I asked what made him leave the relatively comfortable world of sales stats and boardrooms for the highly unpredictable world of restaurants, why he thought that picking up a failing bar in a highly storied location and turning it into a combination English pub and Pakistani/European fusion restaurant would be a smart thing to do.
"Because I'm an idiot," he said, laughing softly. He said it so quietly that I had to make him repeat it. "No, it's good," he continued. "Really. I figured I had this opportunity and said, 'Let's do a proper pub that does the food right.'"
When he opened the Bulldog just over a year ago, it was in the perfect place for a proper pub. The space actually looks and feels like a bar -- not an art gallery, not a nightclub, not a place that could vanish tomorrow and reappear the next day as a toy store or a hair salon without anyone noticing. It's a double-barreled shotgun of a room with the long oak on one side and rickety, high-backed wooden booths on the other that are devilishly uncomfortable until you get a couple of drinks in you, and then they become miraculously snug and comfy. Out front, there's a covered patio just big enough for six smokers to stand without bumping elbows; in the back is a small room where James keeps the dartboards. The space is dimly lit, tastefully decorated in the hand-me-down style of ex-pat pubs the world over, with everything from the signs on the men's room door to the whiskey advertisements hung by the bar looking like they were picked up in a blind lot at a Buckingham Palace yard sale.
Scratch a wall here and it bleeds history. It'll probably bleed decades of cigarette smoke, whiskey sweat and fryer oil, too, but in my world, that's almost as good as history. This spot has been a bar for more than a century. It was the Punch Bowl for damn near forever -- an old boxing bar as famous for the landscapes painted on the booths by wandering artist Noel Adams as for the number of people who'd been carried out feet first. When the Punch Bowl finally succumbed to the cruel gravity of modernity a few years ago, the address went to the Stout Pub, a bar/restaurant that kept the scrim of seasoned age and added a menu featuring the cuisine of the upper Midwest: fried cheese, fried potatoes, fried pickles, fried everything, and beer to wash it down. The Stout Pub hung on for a couple of years, and then James took over.
And James had more than a great space going for him. He'd spent a couple of years traveling the globe and collected a stock of recipes. He also had a really good cook in 26-year-old Thomas Cortez, "just a young guy bouncing around the restaurants," he says, who'd worked in Italian joints and on the line at a California Pizza Kitchen, then done Upper Peninsula cuisine for the Stout's owners for a couple of months before it went under. James decided to keep Cortez on because even though he'd never cooked Pakistani or British food before, he'd never cooked fried pickles and cheese prior to stepping onto the Stout's line, either.
"He went to the food like a fish to water," James said. Which was lucky, because once you've committed yourself to creating the city's first British/Pakistani fusion restaurant, you'd better have a good cook backing you up. And Cortez is damn good, especially considering that he's working from a menu that's almost as schizophrenic as Britain's culinary scene of the past decade. Everyone knows that for a long time, the British were possessed of one of the world's most unfortunate cuisines. Not only was a lot of it fairly unappetizing (clotted cream, digestive biscuits, eel pie), but what wasn't gross was either unintentionally funny (spotted dick) or very intentionally miserly. The British never met a vegetable that they couldn't boil to death, never met a part of an animal that couldn't be turned into some form of thin gruel or grotty sausage. And while food there has done a fast 180 over the past few years -- with London now a dining mecca that's home to some of the most ludicrously overpriced restaurants in the world -- generations of gustatory torture had already convinced those of a gastronomical bent to frequent the country's various ethnic enclaves simply as a way to escape the blood pudding and boiled beef of their forebears. Curry got huge early in Britain. Pita and chutney and samosas, Greek food and French food and Middle Eastern food all became a fall-back to the national cuisine of trotters and eels.
The Bulldog perfectly captures that edible cultural dissonance. For a buck fifty, you can get a pita with a side of cilantro chutney to go with your proper Imperial pint of Boddington's or Murphy's-over-Bass black-and-tan. The chips are cut fresh every morning and blanched before being fried like frites. The samosas are hand-formed, stuffed with chunky mashed potatoes and spices, served with tamarind chutney. Eating a plate of English baked beans hunched up in one of the booths along the wall, one fist wrapped around a can of Guinness while a line of soccer fans mutely watches Portugal kick a ball around on the big flat-screens, is like living my own little scene from Sid & Nancy.
One Friday night, I roll in for the meal that most defined my weekends in the Irish and Italian neighborhoods of my youth: the fish fry. In New York, Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Boston -- pretty much anywhere in the industrial Northeast -- a boy can still be sent straight to hell for eating a cheeseburger or a nice, fat steak on a Friday. In all the old Catholic strongholds in all these old cities, the slick, greasy smell of fish fry is everywhere on Friday nights, like the perfume of devotion, as inescapable as God's sight. It's always cod or haddock, jacketed in a batter thick enough to stop a bullet.
But when I moved out west, suddenly the fish fries disappeared. On those weekends when I felt like doing right by the Pope (which wasn't very often, and the impulse never lasted longer than it took me to fill my belly), I had to work to find even a poor imitation. Over the years, I've eaten a lot of bad fish -- and some pieces that were just awful. But there's nothing wrong with the Bulldog's fish fry. A single order is huge: four fat pieces of pure white cod in puffy, crisp, greasy and golden-brown shells of Guinness batter mounted atop a mountain of fries and served with God's trinity of approved accoutrements: lemon, malt vinegar and tartar sauce. The smell alone is enough to take me home, and the weight sufficient to remind me why everyone who spends their life as a devout Mick-Catholic where I grew up dies bell-shaped and young.
On Saturday nights, the bar does good business and the kitchen gets a nice hit. Sunday nights are quiet, but perfect for eating. Weeknights, the place is populated by regulars and pub-crawlers and friends of the house who, once hooked on the food, return as if compelled.
And after a few meals at the Bulldog, I get it. I understand how someone might crave to the point of distraction the delicately spicy and almost sweet chappli kebobs -- minced and hand-formed meat cooked like a Pakistani hamburger patty -- or the tender, seared breasts of Peshawari chicken spiced with ginger and garlic and served over basmati rice, or the chicken masala made with crushed cumin seeds (Cortez's idea) to give it a deep, spicy kick. But the aloo gosht salin -- potatoes, tomatoes and lamb in a thick brown curry as savory as the air in a spice market -- is the one that keeps me up at night, the one I think of when I'm eating somewhere else and having something not as good.
The shepherd's pie is a sop for those who miss the old British cuisine -- a mess of beef and veggies drowned in gravy, topped with a daunting superstructure of mashed potatoes and served with a side of boiled peas and carrots -- and the bangers are excellent. But the "pub balls" (fried macaroni and cheese) are nasty, the chipotle mayo on the "Danny Boy fish sandwich" a sour note of Irish/ Southwestern fusion, and the green chile and quesadillas as anachronistic as a Timex in a gladiator movie. "There's a bit of fusion going on over there," James admits.
The Bulldog has two happy hours, just because one is never enough. There are ten import beers on tap, lunch specials every day. At 7 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the TVs are all tuned to English Premier League soccer, and the bartenders will slide over chits for two free drafts with the purchase of a proper English breakfast: two eggs runny, rashers of bacon, bangers, a fat slice of fried tomato, baked beans and black (meaning blood) pudding. It's a great breakfast, and two pints of lager are just about what you need to put it all down. Switch to whiskey after that and you're in for a long day, in the perfect place to spend it. There are certainly worse spots to wash out at the end of the night than in one of those famous booths; folks have been doing it for more than a century. And remember: No matter what you get up to, there's always that fish fry to square you with Jesus before Sunday.