``If we had known this was going to happen, we would have built it bigger.'
The speaker was Keith Hall, principal owner of Laddie and Duke's (as well as Gate City Chop House), and his point is well taken. (He doesn't know me; he was speaking to someone else seated nearby.)Laddie and Duke's has quickly established a large following, a factor that accounted for waits of 45 minutes to an hour on each visit.
Hall opined that the restaurant's instant success carried over from the popularity of the Chop House. That could certainly be a factor, but I am more inclined to compliment Laddie and Duke's in its own right: a blend of good looks, good prices, and good food, rendered in a casual style, as well as a strategic location in one of the fastest-growing areas of the city.
Several Triad restaurants have flirted with the Irish pub concept, but Laddie and Duke's goes further in its implementation than anyone else. Interior walls are decorated with a rich, dark green covering that is accented by original, decorator-style paintings. The artwork primarily focuses on dogs, horses, fox hunting and manor scenes. A large stone fireplace dominates one end of the building. Since this is a pub, a few TV sets have been placed around the bar area with one more facing the dining room.
The restaurant offers Sonoma Cutrer ($5.65/glass, $25/bottle) and Rodney Strong ($4.95/glass, $21.95/bottle) chardonnays; Silverado sauvignon blanc ($4/glass, $18/bottle); or Dry Creek ($6.25/glass, $26.50/bottle) and Rodney Strong ($4.95/glass, $21.95/bottle) cabernet sauvignons - all good choices.
Portions by the glass are larger than usual. As the theme would suggest, the bar specializes in British beers and ales.
For starters, my guests and I ordered baked spinach dip casserole ($5.95) while we were waiting in the bar area. Two of the women in my party make this at home, and both concluded that Laddie and Duke's version was better than theirs - not an easy accomplishment and an even more difficult admission. Yellow and red corn tortilla chips were the vehicle for dipping. The portion served four people easily.
Seasoned onion ring loaf ($5.95) was unusual in that the onion rings were more thickly cut than I tend to find in the Triad, yet they remained fresh and flavorful. Potato pancakes ($4.95) bore a fairly crisp exterior with an interior reflecting a texture akin to riced potatoes. Onions and garlic, cooked inside, made the flavor.
To create cabbage wraps ($4.95), the kitchen staff rolled one layer each of corned beef, cabbage, and phyllo pastry around an inch-thick center of mashed potato until these ingredients reached about a 3-inch thickness. The ensuing assembly was baked to a crisp crust then sliced vertically. What arrives on your plate is four crisp slices, about a quarter-inch thick, with whole-grain mustard alongside.
Irish lamb stew ($2.25/cup, $2.75/bowl) contained large chunks of tender, flavorful lamb plus soft-cooked onions, potato, and carrot in a savory, rosemary-herbed broth. This earned an excellent rating.
Salads are priced a la carte. The mixed greens ($4.95 - a large portion) consisted of green leaf lettuce, green peppers, cored cucumber, fresh mushrooms, radish, grated cheese, potato sticks for crunch and a tomato wedge - all dressed in a tomato-basil vinaigrette.
Six large, deveined and butterflied shrimp made up Guinness fried shrimp ($7.95 - an appetizer portion but ample). It was coated in Guinness beer batter and served with malt vinegar and tartar sauce. I found the crust crisp but tasty, and the shrimp remained tender. You won't find better fried shrimp anywhere in the Triad.
All main courses, including sandwiches, come with a choice of potato pancakes, french fries, red potato salad (with a little onion and dill accent), seasoned onion straws (same as the onion ring loaf) or steamed cauliflower.
Guinness battered fish and chips ($8.95) is the sort of dish that would seem familiar to Greensboro patrons, given our penchant for fried fish, but Laddie and Duke's rendition is distinctive. The kitchen uses grouper filets (instead of the standard flounder) and coats them with that Guinness beer batter, which is thinner than what most folks around here are used to. The result is a crisper filet - a solid winner. The accompanying fries were crisp and tasty.
Shepherd's pie ($7.95) combined large chunks of beef tenderloin with onions, peas and carrots that were all covered by a layer of mashed potatoes. After baking, the potato covering browned, creating a distinctive crust that both added flavor of its own as well as blending the flavors of the pie.
A Reuben ($6.95) sandwich used the standard ingredients - corned beef, Swiss cheese (good quality) and Thousand Island dressing on pumpernickel bread. A variation - the Turkey Reuben ($6.95) - substituted a processed, precooked turkey breast product for corned beef. It did not impress me and was the only dish in all my visits that did not earn praise.
A firm bun with a nice crust enclosed the sirloin burger ($6.45), which was topped with leaf lettuce, a tomato slice, bacon and melted cheddar cheese. The patty produced a solid beef flavor - one of the Triad's better burgers.
Grilled Norwegian salmon ($8.95/6-ounce filet) measured about 3 inches by 4 inches across and about an inch thick - no belly meat. The fish was nicely marked by the grill and produced a simple, fresh flavor that was gently complemented by butter and herbs. I was surprised. At this price, frankly, I was expecting a fishy flavor, but nothing like that emerged. It's doesn't come with an elaborate sauce, and the portion is a little smaller than some, but it still earns a ``top value' award.
For dessert, a serving of apple cobbler ($3.95) received most of its flavor from the cinnamon-almond-oatmeal crust and from the accompanying French vanilla ice cream. The apples did not taste fresh-cut. But I liked the overall flavor.
Clearly, Laddie and Duke's is a winner. Management and staff have carved out a niche in the Greensboro market that they own by themselves.
Good food, good concept, good strategy. I'm impressed!
Write to John Batchelor at P.O. Box 583, Graham, NC 27253.
On World Wide Web, use the following address: http:\ www.infi.net\ nr\ eating\ batcharc.html to retrieve his columns.
LADDIE AND DUKE'S
3928 Battleground Avenue, Greensboro; (910) 545-0250
Overall rating: ***
Hours: Effective May 6: 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reservations: NOT accepted.
Credit cards: Visa, MC
Sanitation grade: A (94)
Food: *** - British-Irish-American cuisine, well-executed.
Atmosphere: *** - Irish pub.
Service: *** 1/2 - polite, prompt, knowledgeable.
Value: **** - lowest prices I've found for food this good.
Entree prices (salad a la carte): $6.25-$12.95
Recommended: baked spinach dip casserole, seasoned onion ring loaf, potato pancakes, cabbage wraps, Irish lamb stew; shrimp and tortellini, mixed greens salads; Guinness fried shrimp, Guinness battered fish and chips, shepherd's pie, grilled Norwegian salmon, Reuben; apple cobbler.