Tir na Nog
We are 37-3/4 miles from Limerick and 11 miles from Castle Island, according to the road signs hanging near the bar at Tir na Nog. So let's take a golden sip of Jameson whiskey and pause to look around.
Are those the Nemo Rangers flashing across the telly, battling the Errigal Ciaran in the All-Ireland soccer semifinals? Does that waitress really have a brogue?
She does, indeed.
With its dark oak and mahogany paneling, cozy nooks partitioned with leaded glass, inlaid floor tiles, and fieldstone fireplaces, you could well be in an authentic Victorian pub in Dublin. The materials, in fact, were imported from the Emerald Isle and installed by Irish craftsmen.
The truth, of course, is that we're a lot closer to Love Park than to Limerick. City Hall rises in the distance. But the magnetism of this space, tucked into an alley-side corner of the newly rehabbed Phoenix apartment building, makes it a perfect fit for Philadelphia, if the deafening roar of this crowd is any indication.
Where did all these people come from? Market Street west of Broad is typically sleepy after dark when the office towers empty. But Tir na Nog - that's Gaelic for "Land of Eternal Youth" – has managed to lure a thriving, polished clientele from the insurance companies, law firms and government offices that ring nearby Suburban Station, as well as from the Phoenix itself.
The restaurant, the first offshoot of the Tir na Nog in Manhattan across from Penn Station, has definite culinary ambitions. But right now, it's a better place to drink than eat.
Chef Scott Larson is a Culinary Institute of America grad who did time at Buddakan and at several upscale New York spots, including Aureole and Coco Pazzo. And his dinner menu reaches beyond the usual pub fare, with entrees around $20 that attempt a few trendy moves with the likes of squash coulis and truffle butter.
But the fancy plates are rarely as satisfying as some of the bar basics. The sirloin burger is a massive, tasty patty posed on a soft brioche bun beneath melted Ballycashel Irish cheddar. The shepherd's pie is a hearty crock of good Guinness-braised lamb stew with diced fresh veggies and a lid of garlic mashed potatoes that was a bit too thin, but delicious. The fish and chips was also nice, the fresh cod cloaked in a crisp Irish ale batter, with homemade tartar sauce on the side.
As for the menu's more haute offerings, there were some hits. A thick slice of creamy foie gras pate, for example, blended chicken livers and a sweet touch of brandy and port. A field greens salad topped with roasted pears, spiced walnuts, and rich Cashel Blue cheese made the most of a classic combination.
Even the duck salad - watercress topped with thick pink slices of what looked like corned duck (hmm . . . Jewish-Irish fusion?) - was fun to eat, the tangy meat contrasting with the peppery greens and sweet bursts of blood orange segments.
I was also impressed with the filet mignon, a fine piece of meat glazed with a green peppercorn sauce infused with Irish Mist liqueur. For $25, it was a fair value.
But most of the other entrees left something to be desired. The grilled rack of lamb, for $26, was overcooked and ringed with vaguely sweet vanilla-flavored rum.
The pork chop was promisingly thick but also overcooked and served with a wedge of potato cake crisped to the point of tasting stale. The duck breast was overdone, too, though impressively tender, with an original side of mashed parsnips and figs stuffed with herbed goat cheese.
The seared scallops with mushroom sauce were decent, if lukewarm by the time they reached our table. (The extra effort of making the accompanying fettuccine in-house was dimmed by the fact that they were too thick and chewy.)
A tepid temperature was also a problem with the roasted cod, which had lost all its juiciness by the time it was served. But I was distracted by the fish's pedestal of watery risotto filled with nuggets of sweet butternut squash and overpoweringly smoky bacon.
The seared fillet of salmon, ordered medium-rare, bordered on raw inside and was overwhelmed by a treacly soy-reduction sauce. But its crab rangoon garnish - deep-fried wontons filled with gingery crab and cheese - kept the entire table nibbling and interested.
Some dishes flirted with success, but needed a little finesse. The almond-dusted calamari were a bit too sweet. The spring rolls filled with hoisin-glazed duck were fine except for their thick wrappers, which reminded me of old-time egg rolls. I also loved the bar menu's Cornish pasty, a turnover filled with flavorful beef, potato and pea stew. But the pastry's sogginess betrayed a likely zapping in the microwave.
Lovely slices of smoked salmon and dilled creme fraiche arrived stacked into a tower. But they were layered between dense disks of very sweet corn pancakes that were cold, even though the appetizer was billed as made to order. The raw oysters were also a letdown - flabby and almost room temperature.
Thankfully, it's hard to mess up potato-leek soup, and Tir na Nog's passed the test. The ivory puree was crowned with a simple drizzle of truffle oil, an upscale gesture that felt less awkward than the menu's other tony efforts.
The desserts were tastefully done, whether a miniature caramelized round of apple tarte Tatin, gently sweetened rice pudding, or milk chocolate mousse molded into a pyramid. But given a choice, I'd end an evening at Tir na Nog with a creamy dark pint of Guinness in one hand and a cheese-smeared slice of one of the restaurant's homemade breads (brown bread, soda bread or Guinness) in the other.
So what if our charming waitress couldn't tell the difference between curds and whey? She was still a delight, and so was the Gaelic-inflected cheese board. The generous platter was laden with Cahill's cheddar marbled with chocolaty stout beer; Gubbeen, a pungent Irish cheese similar to French St.-Nectaire; an oozy Italian goat called caprino; and a marvelously creamy hunk of Cashel Blue, Ireland's answer to English Stilton.
Our platter arrived just as a small acoustic trio curiously called the Two Johns set up in the corner and struck up an Irish jig with squeeze box, guitar and tin whistle. With ESPN cluttering the TV screens that hung above them, no one else in the noisy bar was paying them any mind.
But the air around our table was whirling with the sounds and aromas of Ireland. And, for just a moment, I was transfixed.