"They always have a story to tell you," observes P.J. Jamea, speaking of his Irish employees. Jamea, along with his brother Sean, is the co-owner of Houston's newest Irish pub, Slainte [509 Main Street, (713)237-0000]. Thus, it is fitting that the two-month-old pub itself has a story to tell.
"We hired a design-and-build firm from Dublin," Jamea explains. "On the first floor, everything, except two light fixtures, was made in Ireland. They sent their own painters over here to finish out the pub." Indeed, the first-floor bar made of dark wood, the tap handles labeled with the names of quintessentially Irish brands such as Guinness and Harp, the James Joyce quotes painted on the wall, and other decorations all merge to form a pure Irish gestalt. The ambience continues seamlessly upstairs: There is a second bar, as well as big comfortable chairs for lounging and talking, and a balcony overlooking Main Street that provides a view of the Rice Hotel.
The menu, with all dishes priced under $9, is authentic with one exception: "The Celtic rolls," says Jamea, "are sort of like egg rolls, but are filled with corned beef and cabbage."
The firm that built the pub, IPCo (short for Irish Pub Company), was founded in 1991 by a Dublin design group intent on selling Irish culture to the rest of the world. A quote from the company Web site: IPCo "is by far the largest supplier of Irish pubs in the world, and over the next five years will create hundreds of distinctive Irish pubs." Well, lads, doesn't that just have all the charm of an imperialistic fast-food chain?
As the story goes, IPCo sent teams of designers, architects and hospitality industry experts to "most of the pubs in Ireland" and abroad. The team returned to Dublin with the detailed criteria needed to make a successful, authentic Irish pub. The firm then set up workshops in Dublin to produce the fixtures required for pubs that breathed a distilled essence of everything Hibernian. Jamea reports that there are now 350 such pubs around the world, each with individual owners. The Slainte was the 18th in the United States. The first was in Atlanta, where Jamea first saw an IPCo pub and "just loved it." (We should note that Jamea appears to have a passion for hairy-knuckle culture; he also owns the Bronx Bar [5555 Morningside, (713)520-9690] in the Rice Village area.)
"Our general manager is from Ireland," Jamea goes on, "and three or four of the bartenders are Irish." He also waxed enthusiastic about such culturally authentic details as how "Slainte will never serve green beer" on March 17 or have a television set, explaining that "TVs are conversation killers; in Ireland, conversation is the thing." That is certainly a truth too often ignored in American bars. (Indeed, those of us who have chosen the life of an ink-stained wretch over a more remunerative and respected profession, such as operating a backhoe or selling condominium time-shares, almost universally regard television as a sort of inferior prosthetic device for the illiterate.) At the close of the interview, Jamea explained patiently to this reporter how to pronounce the name of the pub. "It is 'si-LANT-cha.' It means cheers in Gaelic."
Well, you were promised a story in the first paragraph. You've had the background. Here comes the raconteur's twist. This reporter, listening to what seemed like an unusual sort of brogue, asked his final question: Where did Jamea and his brother Sean hail from? What part of Ireland?
"Not Ireland. Oran," the proud publican seemingly replied.
"Ah," replied the geographically fluent reporter. "The Isle of Aran off the west coast!"
"No, no. Eran!"
"You mean Iran, as in Persia?"
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"Yes, that's it!"
This proves the truth of what an old friend, Francis Guilfoyle, son of a Chicago publican, used to say years ago, "There are two types of people in the world: the Irish, and those who wish they were."
Cooking Up Ideas
Alice Arndt, the Austin author of Seasoning Savvy, was in town to attend a meeting of the Roundtable for Women in Foodservice. At the meeting, Arndt announced that her book, "a sort of reference work" that "tells about spices, herbs, seasonings and how to use them," was doing so well nationally that her publisher, the Haworth Press, had decided to put out a series of similar books and make Arndt the editor. "These are not cookbooks," she explains, "but books that can be used alongside cookbooks by amateur and professional chefs." Those who are interested in acquiring a copy of Seasoning Savvy can do so at Lucia's Garden [2942 Virginia, (713)523-6494] or Sur La Table [1996 West Gray, (713)533-0400]. Those who would like to propose a book idea or finished manuscript for the series can contact Arndt by calling (512)330-9344.