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A taste of the familiar at The Black Sheep

With its unique blend of community, British pub fare and just enough concessions for us Yanks, The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant hasn't lost its place as "Ashland's living room" under new ownership.

As overjoyed as most of Ashland was to see the headlines that The Black Sheep would remain open thanks to Clarinda and Jon Merripen, who took ownership in July, the skeptic in me was worried it wouldn't be the same. After lunch Sunday with an old friend, I'm pleased to say that concern was misplaced.

The weather is changing and the leaves are turning, so I went for one of their first traditional recipes to show me that Britain is just a capable of comfort food as the rest of the world, their Shepherd's Pie ($13.95 plus meals tax). Vegetarians and pescatarians can similarly warm up with the Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie or the Norfolk Fish Pie. 

The Shepherd's Pie takes a savory stew of ground sirloin, onions and herbs, tops it with horseradish mashed potatoes and sliced roasted carrots before warming it all together in the oven until the potatoes are golden brown and the meat is piping hot. I'd gladly order it again, especially if it's cold outside.

I paired mine with a pot of Bigelow Earl Grey, a choice that carries particular nostalgia for me, as it was what I'd order as a Southern Oregon University freshman while one of my friends played Celtic music Sundays. I remember ordering it with crumpets, which aren't on the menu anymore. There are, however, fresh-baked scones made to order ($5.25). Be sure to allow at least 15 minutes for them to bake.

Tea lovers can choose between English Breakfast, Orange Spice, Darjeeling and a variety of decaf and herbal choices, all served in an individual-sized teapot. As pleasant as the tea is, I'll probably order my next Shepherd's Pie with a rich brown ale or Guinness Stout.

The Celtic Music Jam is still going strong from 2 to 5 p.m. every Sunday. We were there about 1 p.m. when folks were just tuning up, which was a lively, but not distracting, addition to the environment. The jam is far from the pub's only recurring event, there's also Thursday night board games and darts tournaments and aerial silk performances every First Friday. See the bulletin board brimming with arty fun fitting for a spot that's held onto its slogan "Where you belong."

I was there to see what had changed, but the honest truth was I hadn't been there in years, nor had my friend.

"There's more burgers than I remember," my friend said, looking at the menu, then ordered the Home on the Range Burger ($13.50 plus tax).

He ordered his burger with a side of "chips," fries, just in case anyone's forgotten one of the basest differences between British and American English, as I nearly did, and a bottle of Portlandia Foods Organic Ketchup that nicely fits with Ashland's present tastes.

Not that I ever wished the historic 1879 Odd Fellows building would be anything other than what it has been for the past 25 years, still I didn't expect to be so grateful that The Black Sheep is around and lively. The Black Sheep was one of the places where my palate came of age, starting with Fish & Chips or Bangers & Mash on special occasions with friends, and I sampled my first microbrew there when I reached drinking age.

In short, it's where I first learned that broadening my horizons needn't be unpleasant, where I could come as I was and maybe grow a little. I'm heartened Ashland still has such a place.

Ground sirloin topped with horseradish mashed potatoes and roasted carrots make the Shepherd's Pie at The Black Sheep in Ashland. [Mail Tribune / Nick Morgan]