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Irishful Thinking

Rula Bula rules when it comes to true Irish dining.
Leah Fasten

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.

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.

During the day, Rula Bula appears to cater mainly to a well-dressed college crowd, attracted by the upbeat, classy atmosphere and a variety of hearty sandwiches priced under $9 (most cost less than $7). The students line up at the dark bar with their Palm Pilots aglow, chewing on whiskey burgers, deep-fried cod sandwiches, and corned beef sandwiches gussied up with red onion and Swiss cheese on rye.

The demographic of the evening diner is anyone's guess, though, with a cornucopia of twenty-, thirty-, forty- and fiftysomethings in all variety of attire. The popularity of corned beef and cabbage spans the ages, the brisket lightly pickled in brine and boiled to tenderness with onion, garlic, herbs and Guinness. Simmered carrot and potato are fine partners, but it takes several bites to get past the odd sweetness of the cabbage -- I don't know what it is, but it overpowers everything on the plate.

Fish and chips are as traditional as they come, with chunks of cod dipped in beer batter and deep-fried. The bready bundles served here won't win any major culinary awards, but they're still pretty good, tossed atop fresh-sliced chips and served with a side of creamy coleslaw.

For a more stylish and satisfying feast, Guinness and beef in puff pastry is a standout of succulent, slow-cooked sirloin in spicy stew. Braising the large chunks in Guinness has the same function as the wine in Coq au Vin -- the acid and moisture create a remarkably toothsome texture. A topping of puff pastry is good enough to eat plain, but turns magical when dipped in beefy broth.

Rula Bula's oh-so-comforting shepherd's pie is destined to be a cold-weather friend this winter. Think of it as a loose potpie, stocked with ground sirloin, carrots, potatoes, parsnips and peas in a rich broth of red wine and a garden full of fresh herbs. The blend bubbles under a cap of champ -- essentially firm mashed potatoes spiked with scallion and no shortage of butter, baked to a crispy finish. If this is what the Irish ate during the potato famine, it's difficult to feel too sorry for them.

There's a lot of attention to detail going on at this pub, from friendly, informative servers who keep us updated on an evening that finds the kitchen backed up and short-handed. No matter, I'm okay with waiting when my steak's as commendable as Rula Bula's Gaelic version. There's nothing too involved with the juicy, grilled fillet, but a pool of Irish whiskey sauce is wonderfully restrained and not at all sugary, as it tends to be. There's just enough of it to moisten an underlying slab of fried potato cake without rendering it soggy, and the fillet's toupee of fried leeks offers a pleasing, bitter crunch. A side of cottage vegetable sauté hasn't been overlooked, either, with chunks of peppers, squash and carrots in a light butter bath.

The kitchen has mastered pork, too, with a brilliantly basic marinated tenderloin entree. These sliced medallions are melt-in-the-mouth perfect, subtly flavored under a slick of Woodpecker Cider demi-glace. If only there were more of the moist, herbed onion stuffing and chunky, tart applesauce served alongside -- these two sides are poster dishes for why there's no duplicating the quality of homemade food.

Pork returns in its glory as a Dublin stew, but read the menu carefully. The "stew" base is rich cream, luxurious with apples, onions and brandy. It's quite a bit more voluptuous and sweeter than most diners expect, and something the kitchen has been considering toning down. Still, it's capped with more of those wonderful champ potatoes.

For something sweet, finish with Irish custard, a creamy, mellow concoction reminiscent of puréed tapioca. It's topped with fresh strawberries and mint leaf, and is especially good when paired with sips of steamy hot Irish coffee spiked with lots of whiskey.

Call it perseverance. Call it the luck of the Irish. Call it what you will, but this restaurant was worth waiting for. In our Celtic dining landscape, Rula Bula rules.

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Rula Bula

401 S. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85281

480-929-9500

www.rulabula.com


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