BALLAD OF THE SOD CAFE

Ireland's Black Rose, 4341 North 75th Street, Scottsdale, 941-0040. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Almost 1,600 years ago, Saint Patrick converted Ireland's heathens to Christianity and drove all the snakes into the sea.

But before the pope sent him to perform missionary work in the Emerald Isle in 432 A.D., Ireland's future patron saint had to spend long years preparing for his task in France, studying at secluded monasteries.

Had Saint Patrick been interested in food and not religion, Irish history would have taken a vastly different course. He wouldn't have introduced the latest French doctrines, founded hundreds of churches and baptized thousands of converts.

Instead, he'd have introduced b‚arnaise sauce, founded a culinary institute and trained scores of chefs. He wouldn't have driven out the snakes; he'd have braised them. But for a quirk of history, the Irish today might not be known for their potato farming and fierce Catholicism, but for snooty maitre d's and Jerry Lewis cult worship.

Ireland's Black Rose, a year-old Scottsdale Irish restaurant and pub, aims to bring a "wee bit of Ireland" to the Valley. (How come every Irish place I've ever been in promises a "wee bit of Ireland"? After all, Chinese restaurants never advertise a "wee bit of Beijing.")

It's got an airy look, rather than the clubby feel I associate with pub grub. Slow-spinning ceiling fans add a tropical note. Freestanding brick columns reminded me more of Pompeii than County Cork. Outside, there's a festive patio, gaily lighted, framed by huge palm trees and a beehive fireplace.

You'll have to gaze at the walls to absorb the Irish theme. The legend of Saint Patrick, the Irish flag, a copper shamrock, a map of Ireland and a poster of John Fitzgerald Kennedy are the key indicators. The lovely fresh carnations at the table, though, have an appeal that crosses national frontiers. The restaurant offers several standard main dishes that aren't exactly native to the old sod. Barbecued pork spareribs, ricotta-stuffed tortellini and a hunk of New York steak, no matter how good, will never set off a spontaneous round of "Londonderry Air." These are dishes you can get everywhere. But what brought us here are the half-dozen Irish specialties that you can't find most anywhere.

Determined to begin our munching with something more unusual than ordinary barroom appetizers, we sidestepped the potato skins and Buffalo wings. Instead, we chose the more intriguing smoked haddock, hardly typical Valley pub fare. A generous portion of lightly smoked strips of filleted fish, surrounded by toast points, it came with wedges of marinated tomato, red onion and havarti cheese. A pleasing way to edge into the meal, the platter also sent out a promising message: Maybe the Black Rose's kitchen aspired beyond merely ripping open ten-pound bags of frozen chicken wings. I almost abandoned that theory after a few forays into the breadbasket. I appreciated the raisin bread, but it seemed at least a day past its prime. The French bread, meanwhile, had come directly from the refrigerator, and was hard enough to employ as a shillelagh.

Dinners come with soup or salad. While only rabbits should bother with the salad, the two soups we sampled were wonderful.

Creamy corn, the soup of the day, is a very rich and fragrant pur‚e, thickened with a great dollop of sour cream. For a buck more, you can substitute the onion-and-leek soup. It's a crockful of flavor, a mild, not-too-salty broth draped with real Gruyäre cheese, which furnishes a distinctive bite. Both tasted as if somebody knew how to wield kitchen utensils besides the can opener.

The Irish main dishes reinforced this opinion. They're hearty, substantial and quite tasty.

The shepherd's pie surprised me on two counts. First, it was crammed with large amounts of beef. Second, the beef itself was mouth-wateringly lean and tender. The meat is simmered in a bubbling, wine-tinged gravy, along with some stray vegetable chunks. A yummy, browned, mashed-potato-and-cheese crust covers the platter. This is well-made pub fare.

So is the lamb stew. Again, the quantity and quality of the meat went beyond what I'd expected. The stew overflowed not with canned vegetables, but with tons of tender lamb, not in the least chewy or fatty. There's a heap of mashed potatoes, too. And the veggies here--chunks of carrot and celery--didn't come out of an industrial-size container. The chicken and dumplings will have you dancing a jig. At $7.75, the dish is a real value. The Black Rose doesn't stint on the boiled boneless chicken and vegetables in rich, white gravy. But I particularly adored the big, heavy, mildly seasoned dumplings. They'll fill you up faster than a pint of Guinness stout, and will leave you just about as lightheaded.

Oddly enough, the only Irish specialty that seemed less than special was the corned beef and cabbage. The indifferent corned beef, the bland hunk of cabbage and forlorn boiled potatoes tasted like they were prepared by a vengeful Englishman. Like the bread, the two desserts we sampled seemed to have been sitting around since the 1916 Easter uprising. Too bad, too, because each had real possibilities. Bread pudding came with a sweet whiskey sauce and a small scoop of H„agen-Dazs ice cream. I enjoyed the perky arrangement of flavors, but the bread pudding itself had the texture of drywall. Our group was also victimized by the scone. Served with melon and strawberries and topped with excellent homemade whipped cream, it looked luscious. Unfortunately, the scone was about as moist as the Blarney Stone.

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