I have yet to find an Irish pub that didn't claim to draw the best pint of Guinness. But the handsome new Black Sheep on South 17th Street may not just be bragging.
Over the years, I've heard talk of wooden kegs versus steel, special basement cold rooms, state-of-the-art cooling towers, pure nitrogen infusers, and hotshot bartenders whose stout was so creamy they could sign their names in the foamy head. I had also heard of old-country doctors prescribing pints for iron deficiency. And come to think of it, I "was" feeling a wee bit anemic the other night.
So as I waited and waited and waited for a table, mulling the possibilities of a hearty lamb stew or a fragrant bowl of mussels or a pastry-topped crock of chicken pot pie, I put the Black Sheep's Guinness to the test.
The head of my pint was an ivory blank slate, no signatures or clover stamps. But the midnight-dark elixir that filled the tall glass had me brimming over with words. Cool and rich, the thick liquid washed down with an extra creaminess that defied its ebony color. Its flavor reminded of me of coffee, chocolate, and the woody cream of a root-beer shake. Its subtle effervescence lingered, and I was a believer cured, if only momentarily, of that small iron problem.
I was also ready for dinner. But our table wasn't ready. Shall I get another? Why not?
One can expect such excellent stout from the two Irish barkeeps, Matt Kennedy and James Stephens, who teamed with Gene LeFevre to open this pub near Rittenhouse Square. Kennedy's long tenure at the Dickens Inn is also evident in the impressive whiskey collection the bar has acquired, including some rare Irish, to go with its high-end single-malt Scotch.
The crowds that continue to swarm the Black Sheep are as much a testament to its good looks as to its quality draft. Renovated from the vacant shell of an old gay bar, the gorgeous brick townhouse has been transformed with a solid red door, warm oak wainscoting, an antique fireplace mantel, glowing mica sconces, and lacquered walls that feel like old tooled leather.
There are Celtic knots scrolling under ceiling beams, but hardly a neon shamrock to be found. There aren't any leprechauns, either, but plenty of well-coiffed Wharton students looking like Minnie Driver or Gwyneth Paltrow, flipping hair in the corner booths.
Up to the calmer second-floor dining room, a more diverse neighborhood crowd finds its way, often still in post-work corporate garb. But they are just as guilty as the students of nursing their drinks as we hungrily look on from the bar, coveting their tables.
No doubt, what has set the Black Sheep a notch higher than most pubs is food far better than might be expected. But what's the point of finding a good chef like Edgar Alvarez (formerly with Philippe Chin and, earlier, Striped Bass) when the drinkers crowd out the eaters? When the servers have a hard enough time remembering to bring you water, let alone smile on occasion? Ours was so sullen, I hesitated even to ask for the check.
The solution will be a delicate one for the Sheep to manage as its reputation grows, but for now, a few extra pints did fine, smoothing a wait that was worth it.
Alvarez does a fine job of bridging the divide between pub grub and fine dining, with a menu that pays as much quality attention to onion rings as it does to the slow-roasted chicken, which emerges from the gentle heat crisp and succulent over a medley of root vegetables.
While the kitchen is hardly perfect the crabcakes were bready, the steak salad chewy, the desserts uniformly uninspired the majority of my meals were a delight. And almost always at less than $20 an entree, they were also fairly priced.
Little details made the difference in bar foods I had long taken for granted. Calamari were crisped in a greaseless cornmeal crust gently spiced with cumin and curry. But it was the homemade tartar sauce, thick with minced capers and onions, that made the calamari impossible to stop eating.
Homemade mayonnaise enlivened with red pepper fed my onion-ring addiction. Or perhaps it was the golden beer-batter crust, which also graced hand-sliced cod for fish and chips with its satisfyingly sweet crunch.
The "hot, hot" chicken wings were meaty but merely "hot," with a gentle tingle that lingered on the lips. But the jalape?o mussels did the trick, causing my head to sweat without totally burning flavor out of the shellfish. Another rendition of mussels, these pooled in a delicious coconut-milk curry, revealed a clean flavor and delicate tenderness that aren't always easy to find.
A garnish of spicy pickled carrots gave the silky hummus dip an extra dimension. A light hand on the dressing made the blue cheese salad a success. A hint of garlic sneakily infused the juices of the Black Sheep's big burger.
Alvarez's lamb carbonnade was probably the ugliest dish I've been served all year, a platter of brown stew gravied over a mountain of garlic potatoes. But it was a meal in itself that I've come to crave, with tender chunks of lamb softened in ale with morsels of melting root vegetables.
Other entrees were as handsome as can be. A rich crock of chicken pot pie was topped with a golden brown lid of flaky puff pastry. A perfect chop of tender pork was marked with a crisscross grill, then splashed with a rosemary-orange glaze. A tender rack of baby lamb was more than a delicious bargain (eight chops for $21) before it regrettably was taken off the menu. It proved that the kitchen's capacity for more delicate and sophisticated fare was limited only by the customers' willingness to order.
But Alvarez plans to deepen the menu and make it more challenging as the four-month-old restaurant matures, confiting ducks and brewing stocks and turning beet skins into unusual ravioli.
Meanwhile, he could also revamp the desserts the fudgy-thick creme brulee, the grainy chocolate mousse, the dry, undersweetened bread pudding. A proper sweet ending would be an emphatic finale to a satisfying meal.
Fortunately for this pub, though, there's already plenty of icing on the Guinness to make the evening happily sip away. Craig LaBan's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.