Hooked on Craic
Fibber Magees, see, is an Irish restaurant and pub. It celebrates the Celtic concept of "craic" (pronounced "crack"), meaning a fun, down-to-earth experience. Like any proper pub, it's smoky and loud, thundering with live music on weekends, and pouring huge amounts of draught beer, like Harp, Guinness and Bass. It's got the expected Irish pub menu, with staples like Northern Irish beef stew, fish and chips, shepherd's pie, and corned beef and cabbage. Prices are bar-friendly, ranging from a lunch "meal deal" of any sandwich with a side salad, cup of soup or fries and a soda for $5.95, to a 12-ounce New York strip steak dinner for $12.95. There's also a "beat the clock" deal, where Sunday through Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m., select meals are discounted to correspond to what time they were ordered (hint: Get there at 7 p.m. for the portadown pork chops, two center cut beasts grilled, topped with buttered leeks and served alongside apple chutney, champ and vegetables).
Yet here's where it gets weird. Apparently, no one has told Fibber's head chef he's working in just a pub. His name is Raul Lomas, he's recently come on board, and living in his own little world, he seems to believe he's running a kitchen in a fine restaurant. I show up for a simple beer and a boxty (Irish potato pancake), but discover actual cuisine. Plate after plate arrives at my table, and with each one my astonishment grows. Ingredients are remarkably high-quality. Presentation is artful, and periodically there are sparks of creativity that show this guy knows his way around a professional stove.
This is pub grub? How completely, marvelously strange.
Head chef. I have to snicker when I drag my dining companion in one Friday evening, and explain that there's a guy in this restaurant with such a fancy title. My buddy is highly skeptical as we stand in the foyer, ignored by the entire wait staff. We've been assaulted by toxic cigarette smoke as soon as we entered, we can barely see in the dim bar lighting, and can barely hear each other over a cacophony of music, TV sets and boisterous customers. He's brought along his 13-year-old son, and I'm thinking he's wondering what sort of debauchery to which I'm introducing his young one.
All he can say is, "Really," as we finally give up being hostessed and squeeze ourselves into rough wooden chairs at a rough wooden table, so tightly pressed with other diners that I'm shoved completely into a rough wooden wall. But it's true, I promise him: Lomas has trained at the Boulders, that chic resort in Carefree, and at Vincent's, arguably the best fancy restaurant in all of the Valley. I offer him a little proof. On Fibber's largely traditional menu, Lomas sparks things up with surprising touches like daikon sprouts (in a BLT), charon sauce (sort of a tomato béarnaise, served with smoked salmon atop boxty), and a robust Cheddar ale sauce (on the brown bread stuffed chicken breast). Soda and brown breads are baked fresh daily, and there's an interesting Sunday brunch with dishes like bacon Benedict, bringing char-grilled imported bacon with poached eggs and béarnaise atop toasted soda bread. On the specials board this evening is something pretty high-class, a mixed grill of fresh ono, ahi tuna and shrimp in a curry cream sauce. Periodically, Lomas comes out of the kitchen, dressed in a crisp white chef's jacket, visiting tables to make sure everyone is pleased.
My dinner pals still think I'm nuts. The television tonight is tuned to female boxing -- it's not pretty; we can tell they're women only because, as our teenage friend points out, male boxers don't wear shirts. It's sick, but we're mesmerized, sipping perfectly poured Guinness, deep chocolate-colored with a thick, foamy white cap. We rely on the child to read the menu to us out loud; it's too dark in here for us old folks to decipher the menu printed in ornate Celtic type. And in the chaos, a band of seven hyper musicians is belting out Van Morrison's "Domino" ("Roll me over Romeo!").
But then the appetizers come. Pinch me -- this is a sci-fi dream -- the smoked salmon is so lovely to look at and even better to eat. It comes in a huge rosette of silky pink fish, a serving that would cost easily twice as much at any other restaurant. The top is littered with tangy capers, the bottom is anchored by thick slices of slightly, nicely sweet homemade brown bread slicked with dilled Irish butter, and the plate is fanned with crisp cucumber slices, juicy tomato, and thin-sliced red onion. (Irish butter, FYI, comes from "happy cows," grazing in "cow heavens" of lush pastures and spring water. It's quite rich and creamy.)
I'd never imagined finding such a shrimp cocktail in a bar, one with wooden floors, stained-glass partitions advertising beer, and a drink menu that rivals a short novel. It's another special this evening, but needs to be made a permanent offering, pronto. A half-dozen firm critters overflow a martini glass, speared with sprigs of herb and resting on rémoulade, piquant with mayonnaise and chopped pickles, plus, in this case, fresh shaved ginger and what tastes like horseradish. It's gutsy, spicy, and so luscious that my buddy spreads it on bread, then dumps the remainder into his dinner salad (that vinaigrette does need reworking; it tastes only of vinegar).
Fibber's owners are Trevor Kingston and Steve Fuller, and the general manager is David Maxwell. I normally wouldn't care all that much about these positions, except that all three are natives of Ireland. Supposedly it's their "family recipes" upon which the restaurant was based when it opened this past spring. And if these guys deserve the credit for the spectacular shepherd's pie served here, then I need to put the honor in print. In fact, readers should put down this newspaper and go get some right now. Honestly, my dining pal, who has been a pretty dedicated vegetarian for the last 30 years, can't stop dipping his fork into my plate. No wonder -- I can't get enough of it either, the braised ground beef, peas, carrots and onions capped with champ (soothing, salted mashed potatoes swirled with sliced scallions) and Irish Cheddar (see "Irish butter = happy cows"). The seduction is in the sauce, a savory, rich, salty jus that confirms that my decision to force these two fellows to join me here was a very, very good one.
Fibber's offers "Armagh" steak (named after a city in Northern Ireland), and it's fine, char-grilled, drizzled with whiskey-green peppercorn sauce and served with roasted vegetables and champ. In bar spirit, Fibber's serves potato skins, chicken wings and nachos. There's immense value in a burger, a full pound of Angus for just $7.95, complete with hand-cut, skin-on steak fries, homemade pasta salad, red potato salad or coleslaw. A few dishes stray to the offbeat, including Mexican champ with chorizo, pico de gallo and cheese; and "Italian Job" champ with Parmesan, basil, tomato, garlic and grilled eggplant.
But what brings me back is the Irish stuff. I love the bangers, crisp-skinned pork sausages that are plump like bratwurst, but mildly seasoned and blissfully ungreasy. I can get them in a bun, on a toasted French roll with whole-grain mustard and sautéed onions, or in a "cork" champ, where they're sliced and scattered over two rounds of champ with the interesting addition of baked beans. During the lunch hour (a much quieter, largely smoke-free time), I feast on a tremendous salmon sandwich, the fish marinated in lemon, char-grilled to the edge of moistness, and slicked with tarragon mayo. Plowman's Dubliner is odd but interesting, layering Irish Cheddar with crunchy cucumber, daikon sprouts and sweet mango chutney. Sides are no oversight, with thoughtfully crafted roasted red potato salad, tricolor pasta salad, creamy slaw or skin-on thick cut steak fries that show concern for their freshness.
The only thing I have yet to work up the appetite for is the full Irish breakfast (served all day), an intimidating ensemble of bacon, sausage, beans, two fried eggs, grilled tomato, fried Irish soda bread, and black and white pudding. It's a bit more than I can handle eating in this hot weather, and besides, that b/w pudding is freaky, being black sausage fashioned from pig's blood, suet and oatmeal; the white version is from oatmeal and ground pork. Under Lomas' care, though, I'd bet this dish is as good as it gets anywhere.
I'm sitting at the bar now, musing with the bartender about the quirky nature of this place and its chef. The beer slinger says that Lomas is fanatical, not afraid to throw away expensive salmon if it's not exactly perfect quality. It gets expensive for the bottom line, the barkeep agrees, though it's cool that the cook is so committed.
An honest-to-goodness head chef who works in a casual, craic-y Irish pub. How unreal is that? I have found the Twilight Zone, and it's located in Chandler. On the southeast corner of Dobson and Elliot, to be exact, next to an Eatza Pizza buffet (madness in itself, only $2.99 for all the greasy pie you can stuff down your throat). This zone of oddity I've landed in is called Fibber Magees, and there's no gentler way to put it: The place is truly bizarre.
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