Cheap Eats - Pint of flavor

Hand in Hand has a good grip on English pub fare

If there is a Tao of Virginia-Highland, the Yin-Yang sits on St. Charles Avenue.

With its spacious, sunny patio and frat-boy clientele, Neighbor's Pub plays the Yang — bright, loud, arid and male. On the other hand, so to speak, the Yin is embodied by Hand in Hand. This darker, quieter and more lush watering hole may be the perfect counterpart to its conjoined neighbor.

Though I've long been a fan of Midtown's Prince of Wales, I only recently had the chance to check out Hand in Hand. Both are part of the Derek Lawford chain of British pubs, which also includes Fox & Hounds on Collier Road and Buckhead's Rose & Crown.

Hand in Hand, which opened last fall in a space formerly home to a Reuben's Deli, may be the youngest of the four pubs, but it feels like the stately older sister of the family. Its handsomely reserved interior says "polished" at every turn. Oversized yet tasteful British ale signs loom over dark wood-paneled surfaces, with stuffed game heads and tartan textiles to complete the sensation of dining in C.S. Lewis' study. You half expect a satyr to pop out of a hidden wardrobe somewhere, or hear Henry Higgins lessoning a reluctant Eliza Doolittle in a back booth.

This manor-like setting would lend itself easily to a soundtrack of Stravinsky or Sinatra, but you're more likely to hear Springstein. This is the Highlands, after all.

Luckily, Hand in Hand eschews the normal brunt of the neighborhood's uppity khaki-shorts-and-topsiders crowd, at least around dinnertime on weeknights. In fact, a warm summer Wednesday night might be the perfect time for this place. The expansive patio — one of the pub's best features, with its large roomy wooden benches and shady English garden atmosphere — is crowded with a surprisingly diverse mixture of twenty- and thirtysomethings, and more girls-only tables than you'll ever see at Prince of Wales. Better, too, is the service; unlike its Midtown antecedent, Hand in Hand has a staff as tenacious as the Buckingham Palace Guard.

British fare has a largely warranted reputation for being better once you're buzzed, but Derek Lawford Pubs sidesteps the boredom inherent to the concept by adding more complex combinations of spices to the mix. Hand in Hand's menu stays true to its British roots, and includes an assortment of Indian influences. East Indian spices show up in random offerings like the Raj Chips ($4.50) and the Bombay Burger ($7.95).

The spicy and sticky Hong Kong Wings (flavored with sesame, soy and ginger) are a titillating variation on a bar-menu standard, but come with the usual sliced celery and an addictive, salty blue cheese dipping sauce. I'm no big wing fan, so to me these were a little too messy and spicier than I like my chicken. But my friend Michael, a connoisseur, assured me that the wings are primo.

Along with wings, the burger is probably the benchmark of any pub menu, and Hand in Hand's Brit Burger gets marks for originality. Where else in town can you get 10 ounces of Angus beef grilled with a healthy dollop of English Stilton blue cheese? Bacon, tomato and tobacco onions round out this attractive package. Though the harsh bite of the blue cheese required a bit of an adjustment period for my taste buds, the overall burger (cooked well-done and crispy — my favorite) was a sumptuous stack of flavor. Nine bucks might seem steep for just a burger and fries, but the portions are large and sit well with an overflowing Stella Artois, perhaps the pub's best offering on tap.

Rather than succumb to tradition, I passed on the English staple of fish and chips (served here in the form of fresh Atlantic cod with a jalapeño-spiked tartar sauce for $9.95) and opted instead for the chicken and chips ($8.50), my favorite menu item to date. The tender thrusts of chicken are lightly crusted and fried in a crispy yet fluffy "English" batter (actually flour-based, just like here in the States). The chips are the pub's ubiquitous salty fries, served thinly sliced and, like most everything, with a smattering of parsley flakes.

Less pleasing was the Chicken Grill ($7.95), which came out looking like a double-decker bus wreck. The boneless breast, seasoned with olive oil and cracked pepper, sat askew on a confusion of sesame bun, lettuce, tomato and onion. At least the chicken was genuinely British: tough, dry and swallowed with a stiff upper lip.

Although Hand in Hand's first priority is obviously to its drinking crowd, it offers plenty of successful accompaniments to the pint.??