Restaurant Reviews

Irish Ayes

Let's get the obvious out of the way at the very beginning: The Irish may be admired for many things -- their literature, their music, their gift of gab -- but their food is not among them. For a lot of folks, the words "Irish cuisine" are the perfect definition of an oxymoron, just slightly behind the words "English cuisine." Indeed, one friend, when asked what constitutes an authentic Irish meal, thought hard for a moment and then came up with this: a serving of two boiled potatoes, after which half the family leaves for America.

Granted, it's unlikely that there will be an Irish cooking school any time soon that can compete with the Cordon Bleu, or even the Culinary Institute of America. And granted, it doesn't do much for the reputation of Irish cooking when you call up a page of Irish recipes on the Internet and find the first three listings to be variations on mashed potatoes. But as anyone who's been to Ireland knows, the nation's reputation as a culinary wasteland is vastly exaggerated. The food may tend toward country casual rather than city sophisticated, but there are things to eat. There are even things to eat and enjoy.

Nonetheless, it must have taken a certain amount of courage -- or simply stubborn Irish pride -- for Andy Nolan, owner of the Claddagh, to decide that he was going to promote his new business not just as a pub, but also as a grill offering up authentic Irish dishes. Nolan, a native of the Coomb, an inner city neighborhood in Dublin, comes from a family of pub owners; he, his father and his mother all ran pubs in Dublin, as well as a hotel, before he headed to America to pursue a career as a petrochemical engineer. That career first took him to Boston, but ultimately it landed him in Houston, where he says he grew frustrated trying to find the sort of comfortable drinking and eating establishment he'd grown accustomed to in his homeland. "I decided this town was defunct on a social level," Nolan says in a voice still thick with the accent of his homeland. "There are plenty of good places to eat. There are plenty of good places to drink. But if you wanted to talk, eat and have a pint and be casual about it ... well, I couldn't find anything that suited me."

Of course, what suited Nolan was something with an Irish flavor. And when he opened the Claddagh in January, he lucked onto an Irish chef, Dawn Farley, who just happened to be passing by, saw the sign and applied for a job. Farley, a native of Dublin who worked as a chef in Ireland for eight years before coming to the States two years back, emphasizes that her training is classically French. Irish cooking, she notes, "is something you learn basically growing up, at home."

But then again, as any soul food fan knows, there's nothing wrong with home cooking done right. And for the most part, Farley has done a good job of bringing the feel of Irish pub food to a Westheimer strip center. What that means, of course, is that there is a certain amount of blandness on the menu. As redolent of comfort food as a plate of mashed potatoes, pork and beans and sausages -- a.k.a. bangers and mash -- may be, it doesn't rise much above the level of cafeteria fare. Authentic it surely is; the bangers, in Irish and English versions, are exactly the sort you might expect to find overseas. But all that proves is that the English and the Irish don't quite match up to the Germans or the Polish when it comes to making sausages.

The Bridie's Scotch pie, a small pastry filled with ground beef, is also dead-on in its recreation of a not very interesting staple of pub life. But Farley's cottage pie -- the Irish name for the British shepherd's pie, with a few alterations -- is a superior version of that too-often bland dish. There's not a great deal to a cottage pie other than ground beef, spices and a topping of mashed potatoes, but Farley has dosed her beef to create a memorable gravy, something that elevates her pie to the realm of pretty good grub ... which is basically what most pub food aspires to, after all. Also in the pretty good grub category is the Celtic grilled strip steak. For the price, $11.95, you wouldn't expect to get a Morton's or a Brenner's cut of meat, and you don't. But it's tender, well cooked and the "famous" whiskey and mushroom sauce, while not particularly tasting of whiskey, is a nice accompaniment. It's not so strong that it masks the taste of the meat, and it's not so weak that it fails to make its mark.

With one exception, the entrees aren't the stars of the Claddagh's menu; that honor goes to the appetizers, which have at least three standouts. The "hill 16" pizza is one of them. A half-moon of potato bread topped with tomato, onion and Irish cheese, it's a nice variation on the Italian standard. The onion could stand to be a little sharper, but that's a small complaint. On the whole, it's a success. As, for that matter, is the Scotch egg. This is not a dish for cholesterol counters: A whole hard-boiled egg is coated with sausage meat, then deep-fried, quartered and laid on a bed of greens that's dressed with a chutney-like topping known as Branson pickle. The different textures -- the crisped sausage, the smooth egg, the rough greens -- play well against each other, and the tartness of the pickle wakes up the tongue to taste everything else properly. It's a dish that, when described, can cause some folks to raise an eyebrow; if you can fight down your skepticism, though, you might be pleasantly surprised.

That's also the case with the stuffed potato cakes, which are neither really cakes nor stuffed. This is a dish Farley came up with by combining her French training with Irish ingredients. She starts with a potato pancake that's closer to a potato crepe, then fills it with either salmon mousse, cream cheese and chives or Irish bacon and cabbage. The last is the best; Irish bacon, like Canadian bacon, is closer to ham than the crisped strips most Americans are familiar with, and layered with cabbage on the potato crepe and then rolled and cut on a bias, it presents a pretty image. It tastes even better than it looks. Throw in a pint, and this alone would make the Claddagh worth a visit.

But the true standout of the menu as far as I'm concerned is the Claddagh all-day breakfast, which in Ireland is known more simply as the Irish breakfast (if you're in the Republic) or the Ulster breakfast (if you're in the north). Complicated it's not; it doesn't even come close to haute. Instead, it's what farm folks have long known breakfast should be: substantial. Eggs, three types of meat, potato scones or fried potatoes with bread and butter. Eat one of these, and you're ready for a full day of plowing, or a trip back to the office and a nap. The meats -- sausages, Irish bacon and that very Irish/English creation, white and black pudding -- are what make the Irish breakfast Irish, perhaps because they almost demand something a little bitter to wash them down. Coffee will do in a pinch, but a bit of stout is even better. Trust the Irish to come up with a way to kick off the day that goes best with a Guinness.

The Claddagh, 5757 Westheimer, 789-4858.

The Claddagh: stuffed potato cakes, $3.95; "hill 16" pizza, $4.95; Scotch egg, $2.45; soup of the day, $3.50; Claddagh all-day breakfast, $6.95; cottage pie, $7.95; bangers and mash, $5.95; Celtic grilled strip steak, $11.95.

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Mitchell J. Shields