By Eric Schaefer
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By Rachel Miller
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By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
By Robrt L. Pela
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Rula Bula managing partner Steven Goumas hasn't had the easiest go of it in getting his Irish pub and restaurant ready for business. Opened in late July inside Tempe's historic Andre building, the Gaelic eatery debuted more than a year late, thanks to a fire that gutted its structure last August.
After the smoke cleared, Goumas had to call Ireland to stop production on the pub's handcrafted bar and stone tiles. Then, he found that Valley building codes required a more open layout than the authentic Irish pub design he'd envisioned. Traditional Celtic pubs usually are jumbles of rooms and alcoves tacked on through their evolution over many years and multigenerational owners, but local inspectors quashed his idea of including "snugs" -- little rooms with 5-foot-high doors.
Finally, there was the challenge of creating a menu that's true to Irish cuisine without scaring off a core clientele -- the everyday American diner looking for a nonintimidating burger and brew along with his fish and chips. Goumas previously was a consultant to Guinness in implementing its Irish pub concept in America and has toured pubs all across Ireland, but wisely chose to steer clear of some of the island's more adventurous offerings. Even as ethnic cuisines of all types become more approachable for American diners, it's unlikely the masses are ready yet for traditional Celtic mysteries like barmbrack, boxty, coddle, dulse and yellowman, or farl.
Shepherd's pie: $11.95
Corned beef and cabbage: $12.95
Pork tenderloin: $14.95
Gaelic steak: $21.95
Irish custard: $5.50
480-929-9500. Hours: lunch, daily, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner, daily, 5 to 10 p.m.
No wonder the place is called Rula Bula, a derivation of the Gaelic ruaille buialle, meaning chaos. Although Goumas probably figured it was a fun, memorable name -- not a harbinger of a rocky start.
Now, though, Goumas and crew can kick back and enjoy a Guinness or two. The operation is a success. In fact, if Irish eyes are smiling, it's likely because they've just set sight on the mouth-watering meals served at Rula Bula.
Irish dining certainly isn't new to the Valley. We've got almost a dozen restaurants offering a taste of the Emerald Isle. But most of those places are purely casual, often with sports bar themes, and with alcohol playing the starring role. Not so at Rula Bula. While there's a large bar at the entry with an inspired variety of wines and beers, and the place is throbbingly loud with U2, Sinéad O'Connor and folk music, the emphasis here is on quality food.
It's an elegant place. There's no sign of scorching left in the 105-year-old building that houses Rula Bula along with a variety of other shops and eateries. (The $1 million fire was caused when workers renovating the former Paradise Bar and Grill space ignited grease on a stove.)
The restaurant has been transformed into a classy retreat stocked with antique furniture, stone tile and wood floors, lace curtains, stiff-backed booths flocked with brocade and separated by stained glass, and everywhere, horse tack.
I love the rich, leathery equine theme -- it's a Ralph Lauren approach to corned beef and cabbage. Trivia: The horse being celebrated here is none other than Ireland's Arkle "the Wonder Horse," a steeplechaser that won more races than any other in history. Arkle, a beautiful bay gelding foaled in 1957, won every Cheltenham Gold Cup he raced, and was known by fans as a "superhorse." Sadly enough, he had to be put down in 1970, the victim of a broken leg suffered during a competition.
Ah well, if I'm going to cry in my beer, it's fitting that it's the competently poured black and tan served at Rula Bula. In this classic combo, lager is carefully topped with Guinness, so the bottom half of the pint is amber and the top dark brown. Woodpecker Cider is another taste treat -- our choice of a half- or full pint of lightly alcoholic fermented apple juice touched with a sweet, ripe bouquet.
In true bar fashion, Rula Bula offers an ample selection of appetizers, including chips (potatoes) with curry sauce, and spicy lemon shrimp. Avoid the American-style potato skins -- the weak, greasy spud shells are topped with real bacon and a generous amount of Cheddar, but the overall effect is completely dull.
Oysters Rockefeller are a much better choice, with a half-dozen bivalves on a plate painted with dressy Celtic designs. Meaty mollusk is topped with lots of fresh spinach, garlic, butter and gooey cheese, then baked. The dish is all the more interesting for a side of wickedly hot horseradish cocktail sauce. And smoked salmon is outright perfect, layering silky pink fish with cucumber slices, red onion and capers. Thin toast would be an appreciated base, but we make do with homemade soda bread. The bread, a staple of Irish households, reminds me of unsweetened, crunchy crusted pound cake rich with buttermilk.
In one of the more adventurous nods to authentic Irish dining, Rula Bula offers Christmas beef, too. The traditional holiday dish likely will be an acquired taste for most, but that's a reflection of local taste preferences rather than the chef's skill. There's really nothing wrong with the cold, thin slices of meat, cured in and crusted with strong, whole allspice and juniper berries, nor its accompanying side of sticky mango chutney, yet it's all too musty and fruity for everyday diners.