Having worked for a while at England's most influential restaurant (St. John), Black Market's Micah Frank knows a thing or two about great British food. So when he suggested to me a couple of weeks ago that I check out the best English pies this side of the Atlantic (in, of all places, Three Oaks, Mich.), my wife and I dropped everything and headed north for an impromptu spot of lunch at the first opportunity.
Situated three hours north of Indianapolis, Three Oaks is the kind of place that time might well have forgotten had not a handful of entrepreneurs decided, almost simultaneously it seems, that the nondescript Michiana town was going to become a weekend getaway for city-weary Chicagoans and others of a gastronomically curious bent. Situated in gently undulating farmland amidst wineries and orchards, it's an unlikely yet perfect spot for a food and drink-themed getaway.
Although the Brits love their sweet and fruit pies, it's the savory varieties that the baker's reputation rests upon, and which Chelsea Kalberloh Jackson, co-owner with husband Art, has completely mastered at Pleasant House. Steak pies, their buttery, flaky pastry stuffed with meat and vegetables cooked in an ale sauce, are classics not to be trifled with, yet here they are as perfect in taste and texture as any I have eaten.
Cornish pasties, the tin miner's lunch, are half-moon shaped hand pies that were once rumored to have been filled with meat at one end and fruit at the other. They're so often stale affairs made with cheap puff pastry, yet here they are both robust and tender. The Melton Mowbray pork pie, after which the hat was named, is crafted from a hot lard crust filled with dense pork paté, buffered by a thick layer of wobbly trotter jelly.
These are best eaten cold, usually with hot yellow mustard, washed down with a pint of gently hopped pale ale. And as if it wasn't enough to simply make the best English pies I've tasted since my last trip to the UK, Chelsea and her husband Art have rehabbed an absolutely delightful, brick-and beams building on the town's sleepy main street in which to enjoy them.
Purists will also love the authentic, lowish-alcohol bitter on tap as well as a splendid 4.3 percent stout and a couple of other real ales. All made in house, of course, as are the sodas: a perfect complement to the home-grown produce from the couple's Chicago farm. This is true farm-to fork eating, deliberately limited in scope, but perfectly judged.
After a satisfying meal of pie, mash and peas, I strongly recommend a leisurely stroll down to the Journeyman Distillery, located in a character-laden old warehouse building. Originally intended to be in Indiana, but impossible to achieve owing to this state's restrictive licensing laws, Journeyman not only micro-distils some remarkably pure and complex whiskies, but also features a tasting room, cocktail bar and limited dining options. Under one roof!
For that reason alone it's worth the drive. On this visit, knowing that the trip back was going to be long, I limited myself to a single, yet sublime, barrel-aged Negroni. Next time we'll spend the night.