In 2008, when the Marriner family opened Victoria Gastro Pub, the "gastro pub" was a relatively new concept in the United States. While the idea isn't so new anymore, the Columbia restaurant's approach still feels relevant.
Gastro pubs — casual places that focus on high-quality, bar-friendly fare and good beer — originated in London in the 1990s and migrated to America about a decade later. Victoria Gastro Pub, which is named after family member and co-owner Victoria Buscher, but is also a nod to London's Victoria Station, has all the characteristics of a genuine gastro pub. For the most part, it does the genre proud.
Though located outside a shopping center in Columbia and not on a British street, Victoria Gastro Pub lives up to its name on the inside. The bar is pleasantly buzzy — if a bit loud — and the restaurant is cozy and dark, with walls of heavy wood and curtains hiding some dining rooms from view.
On a recent Wednesday evening, the place was packed. A private event occupied one of the dining rooms, and nearly every table was occupied in the bar and the rest of the restaurant.
Our first dish, the fried crawfish etouffee, was great-looking. A trio of crispy spheres of etouffee occupied the center of the plate. On top, a scattering of microgreens added color, and underneath, a smear of spicy Creole mustard added spice. A pretty ring of green sauce gave the dish a slightly herbaceous edge.
We enjoyed the textures, especially the contrast of the soft etouffee and crunchy, fried coating, but we wished the etouffee itself had a little more oomph. It needed a touch of sweetness or heat, or more intense crawfish flavor. Or all three.
Four mushroom caps stuffed with blue cheese and chorizo, on the other hand, hit all the right notes. The partnership of spicy sausage and piquant cheese could have fallen out of balance. Instead, they worked together beautifully; the filling was savory and intense, with the mushrooms providing a soft, woodsy base.
True to gastro pub form, the menu focuses on dishes that are accessible and low-key — there are more sandwiches than entrees — but well-executed and a step above typical bar food.
Though it looked uninspiring at first, we loved the American Dip, a cheddar-topped spin on the French dip sandwich, for its lovely, juicy rib-eye center and spicy horseradish sauce.
Likewise, the Black Angus burger was fantastic. Served on a shiny challah roll and cooked just to medium rare, it was one of the best-seasoned burgers we've had in ages. Topped with tangy aioli and lovely house-made pickles, it was a hit — even without bacon, which we requested, but was forgotten.
Each of the sandwiches came with fries — a duck fat version with the American Dip and paprika fries for the burger. We liked them both for their just-crispy-enough texture, but the paprika fries were extra tasty. The heavy dusting of spice left our fingers red, but the fries' slightly spicy flavor was worth the stain.
A bowl of orecchiette tossed with sage-infused brown butter and topped with goat cheese, sauteed kale, soft squares of butternut squash, chopped walnuts and springy shrimp was well conceived and nicely cooked. The cheese and squash was a lovely combination, especially paired with the buttery pasta, and the walnuts added a little crunch.
After our meal, we relaxed with a bowl of cookies-and-cream trifle from the short dessert menu, a sweet confection that made us smile, even if it wasn't the most innovative or nuanced dessert.
Next time, we might stick with postprandial beers. Gastro pubs must, by virtue of their name, have strong beer lists; Victoria Gastro Pub's selection was solid, with a good mix of local, national and international brews. We loved New Belgium's 1554 Enlightened Black Lager but were sorry that we didn't realize, until on our way out, that the restaurant brews several of its own beers under the name Manor Hill Brewing.
At first glance, the cocktail menu impressed us, too, with an overwhelming number of options. Unfortunately, the drink we tried, a chipotle and mango gimlet, was far too spicy. The concept, which involved mango vodka and a second vodka infused with grilled chipotle peppers, was a good one, but the heat was overpowering.
The cocktail was a blip, though, in an otherwise successful meal. Our service was terrific, too — our waiter was friendly and knew his stuff — until the very end of the evening, when we waited a bit too long for our check. The reason for the delay was obvious: Entrees were ready for a big party in one of the dining rooms, so all hands were on deck to serve. Still, we were ready to go.
When we left, the dining room crowd was thinning out but the bar was still hopping. People were drinking and eating, and in true gastro pub fashion, looked like they were enjoying both.
Victoria Gastro Pub
Where: 8201 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia
Contact: 410-750-1880; victoriagastropub.com
Open: Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. (late-night menu after 10 p.m.); Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. (brunch until 2 p.m. and late-night menu after 10 p.m.)
Prices: Starters, $5 to $15; salads and sandwiches, $8 to $22; entrees, $15 to $26
Food: Pub fare with a gourmet twist
Noise/TVs: Moderate in dining room and loud in bar with three televisions, typically muted and playing sports
Service: Well-trained and friendly
Parking: Lot outside
Special diets: Diners with allergies can view comprehensive book with menu item ingredients; the kitchen will accommodate dietary needs.
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]