Monday, December 10, 2007

Sheep Station: A master of pub grub

Some time ago, my mate Paul and I, both of us Brooklyn residents, were thinking about where we might be able to watch rugby World cup without leaving our beloved borough. As we remembered ugly, drunken crowd scenes from the 6 Nations tournament in various bars in Manhattan the previous year, we were nervous about returning to that part of town. So the choice was obvious, and we pulled on our England rugby top and headed north to Sheep Station. Co-owner Jason Crew is from Down Under and therefore is as passionate about rugby as we are. He sells a fine selection of beers from Oz and New Zealand. Co-owner Martine Lafond (from Smith Street Kitchen) makes some pretty special pub grub. What could else could we ask for? We had all the bases covered.

While watching English rugby crumble in the second game against South Africa, and a near defeat against rookies USA, I thought my summer of the pure sport was drawing to a close. When England pulled through the first round, hammered the French in the next one, and then defeated the Australians, I was delirious with excitement. Could we do it again? Win the World cup two times on the trot? As it happened, we were beaten fairly by a superior South African team. No matter, I had made a lot of new friends and found a great new bar in the process.

Two things make me cry when I think about Sheep Station. One is that crushing rugby defeat. The other is the thought of biting down into one of their warm meat pies.

With hot filled pastry on my mind, I headed on over with a few buddies the other night after a hard day at the office. We wanted to eat, drink and be merry. We were greeted by a grinning Jason, who treats everybody, I think, like a long lost friend, and he wanted to hear all about what I'd been up to.

"Oh nothin', you know, just been thinking about your meat pies, mate."

"Good on yer mate. Grab a beer."

The trouble I always have at Sheep Station is deciding which one of their delicious brews I want a pint of. They have a fine array of beers, some from Down Under, others from New Zealand, and they're all right tasty. I tried the NZ Steinlager, a bright fizzy lager, and then decided to move on Boag's, another refreshing brew. We were given the best seats in the house, a huge distressed picnic bench near the front window. I can't say that the view was good however, it wasn't. My perch overlooked a dimly lit stretch of gas stations, car repair shops and traffic travelling along 4th Ave at the speed of sound.

Martine came over shortly afterwards, and said she wanted us to eat what she wanted us to eat, which was fine by all of us as I'd never eaten a bad thing in Sheep Station before (apart from that rugby defeat) and I looked forward to plate after plate of Aussie goodies.

The first wave came out and hit the table: An ice-cold, glistening platter of oysters, a pile of crisp squid with dipping sauce and a summery salad of beets and sheepy Manchego. Those Malpeques were uber fresh and glistened with salty tang, needing the slightest lip vacuum to pluck them from their calcium carbonate beds. Delicious. Canadian oysters taste so good in the winter. It has something to do with a water current, I believe...? A plate of crunchy squid overflowed and that golden jacket concealed moist and perfectly cooked annuli of oceanic goodness. I'm never normally one for salads so the green coloured was a pub-grub novelty for me. What can I say? Well dressed leaves, juicy cubes of beetroot, hefty triangles of good cheese. Beets and cheese are a great combination, and it seems that the Aussies can think of 101 uses for burgundy root veg.

A bathtub full of steaming mussels swimming in salty garlic broth was delivered next, that and the heavenly meat pie course, with a decadent tray of Martine's poutine on the side. The mussels were great, pretty damn big too, and I got deep into the bowl with my filthy paws, scooping the delicious liquor up in the wee shells. When I could scoop no more liquor out because of the shape of shell (I must speak to Mother Nature about that) I had to switch tactics. They had thoughtfully provided sponges made out of bread to go with the dish. I wanted to eliminate every last drop of broth from the porcelain. Job done. It will get tricky now, describing the pies. So I'm going to write down whatever I can remember from the dream-like 5 minutes I spent with my favourite dish. I remember a warm sensation against my grateful lips and then a mouthful of expectant saliva....And then a tide of minced beef, onions and rich, rich stock enveloping and sinking island wafers of buttery pastry. Truly awesome. I requested that Martine make a whole tray of them for me, so I can take them home and spend a weekend locked indoors, just me and my pies. Poutine is the ultimate beer food, chips and cheese and gravy. The gravy does have a habit of getting everywhere, but mess sometimes makes it more satisfying, in a childlike fashion.

While I was mopping up after the poutine, we were presented with a big bowl of lamb chops with mash and minted peas, a classic fish and chips, a smoky steak sandwich, and a tall 'shearer's' burger replete with beetroot, fresh pineapple and a fried egg. I could compare Sheep Station's lamb chops to my mother's old cutlery. By that, I mean they have handles made out of real bone. Or I could compare them to lolly pops: They come with a handle, they drip, and they are immensely satisfying. I must say, I devoured mine in seconds. They had a nice crust on the outside, with dribbling pink flesh on the inside, just as lamb chops should be. Exemplary lamb. I honestly couldn't get my gob around the burger, and not from lack of trying. In the end, we thought it might be best to cut slices from it and share. Beef and fried eggs? What's not to like? Fish and chips is in my blood. My nation was built on the back of that dish. I couldn't wait to test Martine's version: A succulent ingot of Atlantic cod battered and fried until golden, resting on a bed of crisp spud fingers. Quite delicious. The only thing missing (and of course I'm a Limey bastard) was mushy peas. I don't think the Aussies get that concept. It's a very British thing.

Sheep Station is a wonderful place to spend an evening. Leave your manners and designer clothes at the door. Great food, top-notch ale and Antipodean wine. Unless you're a total snob, I can't see why it should be overlooked. The bar's location, on 4th Ave, was a pioneering move by the owners. 4th Ave has never been considered part of Park Slope, perhaps more as it's outer boundary keeping gentrification within and the auto and tire shops out, but Sheep Station has been a hit and locals are glad to have a place they can finally call their own. It gets fairly lively in there, and that's just what 4th avenue needs - something a bit different from the more salubrious places one block away on 5th.

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