Bloody Good Pie

Jane Fentress

Pleasant House Bakery was utterly charming. A chalk sign on the wall advertised pasties, royal pies, and “bangers and mash.” The entire kitchen, where two men were busy rolling dough and filling pies, was visible behind the counter. On a nearby table, a sprig of purple-blossomed chive rested in a small glass.

The British bakery, now in its third week of existence, specializes in sweets, homemade sodas, and royal pies. The name “royal pies” is a misnomer–these pies are peasant food in the best sense. Warm and simple, they’re meant to be comfort food, not haute cuisine. So my dining companion and I jumped right in, ordering a chicken balti pie, a steak and ale pie, homemade sodas, a chocolaty lace cookie, and a garden salad.

While we were waiting, the chefs were busy scooping a thick filling into prepared pie dough and pressing the crust on top. I asked the lady behind the counter if the owners are British; she said, “We are the owners!” and pointed to herself and the man filling pies. The two cooks, Art and Chelsea Jackson, are both American. But Pleasant House Bakery can lay claim to British roots–Art’s parents are from England.

The couple grows the restaurant’s veggies in a nearby urban garden. When the salad came out, Chelsea pointed out its many different leaves–spicy arugula, delicate lavender chive flowers, and pristine icicle radishes. The salad was exactly the sort of dish that someone would make from their own backyard plot: cut a few different leaves, pull up some radishes, toss it with oil and vinegar. It was a simple salad. That’s all it had to be.

We drank homemade ginger ale and tropical soda flavored with hibiscus tea. The ginger ale was fantastically fresh, with  the right amount of bite. The tropical soda’s sweetness, however, hid the fruit flavors. The accompanying lace cookie was wonderful: sweet, crisp, with just a thin smear of chocolate in the middle.
Next it was time to try the king and queen of the meal. First, the chicken balti pie, sprinkled with oniony Nigella seeds. My fork sank into the browned top and the smell of curried chicken and buttery crust wafted upward. It was tasty, but I had expected more heat. The accompanying coriander chutney helped: made with cilantro and jalapenos, it brought a welcome kick of fresh, herby flavor to the dish. If the color green had a taste, it would be that chutney.

After generously dipping the crust into the chutney, I sampled my friend’s steak and ale pie. The inside was like a hearty stew with chunks of beef and vegetables. But, like the tropical soda, it lacked a bit of flavor. Also, the crust was tough on both pies instead of light and flaky. My companion didn’t seem to mind the thickness of the crust and praised its “girth.”

Both pies were satisfying, if not spectacular. It would have been the prudent time to take a break, but the mushroom and kale pies had just come out of the oven. We had to order another pie, and also a boozy biscuit trifle for good measure.

Some kind of alchemy made the vegetarian pie, stuffed with mushrooms and kale in a creamy Parmesan sauce, just as filling as the meat pies. In the delectable trifle, delicate pink syrup from tart rhubarb bled into white layers of sweet whipped cream; next was a layer of thick, fresh vanilla custard. On the bottom, brandy-soaked scones added some devilish boozy depth to the otherwise pure and innocent dessert. That dark edge in the trifle might have been the boldest of the flavors in the restaurant’s offerings. Yet the bakery’s charm is in its simplicity: every dish felt comforting and wholesomely homemade.

964 W 31st St. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 am — 9 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11 am — 11 pm; Sunday, 12 — 8 pm. (773)523-7437.