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 barnaise 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 pure, 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 Hagen-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.
Ireland's Black Rose breaks no new culinary ground. But it does deliver Irish dishes superior to ordinary pub food, and at prices that won't turn you green. Samus McCaffrey's Irish Pub and Restaurant, 18 West Monroe, Phoenix, 253-6081. Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ireland's Black Rose calls itself a restaurant and pub. Downtown's Samus McCaffrey's calls itself a pub and restaurant. You don't have to be a trained semiotician to figure out which place emphasizes food, and which emphasizes drink.
Located in the San Carlos hotel, the place has the right Irish-pub ambiance. You'll hear thick Irish brogues at the bar, and inhale thick secondhand smoke everywhere. Walls are festooned with signs touting Irish spirits: Harp lager, Guinness stout, Irish Mist and Jameson Irish Whisky. Judging from the busy bar, this subliminal advertising seems to work quite effectively.
The woodsy dining area, paralleling the long bar, features green, Formica-topped tables, cloth napkins--a nice touch--and friendly waitresses who greet you like a regular by the second visit. You can see the televisions in the bar, always tuned in to a sports event, from just about anywhere.
The small pub menu--the same at lunch and dinner--offers fare that Oliver Cromwell's conquering army would have run into 300 years ago. Fish and chips, Irish stew and meat sandwiches are the principal attractions, although there's a bacon cheeseburger and chicken or tuna salad for the terminally unadventurous. No soups, no appetizers. Just main-dish grub with a pint, iced tea, soda pop or coffee.
While hardly worth an invasion, the food is good enough to attract a fair-sized office lunchtime crowd.
The Irish stew is the clear winner. Made with beef, not the traditional lamb, it's a bowlful of tender meat. Chunks of carrot, potato and peas swim alongside in a gravy rich enough to scoop up with a spoon. But you won't have to, because the stew comes with a couple of thick slices of homemade soda bread, perfect for dipping. It's a good way to have a hearty lunch without feeling the immediate need to curl up for an afternoon nap. I'm usually pretty leery of fish and chips, a pub dish that often carries as much oil as the Exxon Valdez. While Samus McCaffrey's version is unlikely to meet Pritikin diet guidelines, its two large, crisply battered pieces of cod have no greasy taste or texture. But watch out for the chips. You get a pile of starchy, underdone, commercial-tasting fries that will make you think that the Irish facility with the potato is just a myth. Most barroom sandwiches don't aspire beyond the merely edible. But the meat-loaf sandwich here is first-rate, because it's not treated like just another form of hamburger. The thick slab comes with an appealing charred top, and the meat is flecked with flavorful bits of pickle. There's no mushy bun, either, but a grilled kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato and onion.
The corned-beef sandwich, though, lives down to pub-food standards. Some tired-looking meat comes slathered with half-melted Swiss cheese on rubbery rye. The unappetizing quality is enhanced by a thick layer of mayonnaise that looks like it was applied with a trowel.
All the dishes are accompanied by coleslaw, potato salad or macaroni salad that would have remained untouched even at the height of the Irish potato famine.
Downtown Phoenix is not the most promising location to offer a "wee bit of Ireland." But Samus McCaffrey's is not a bad choice at all for a wee bit of lunch.
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