Irish Disneylands? You bet they exist. Actually, I'm as sure that Shane MacGowan likes his Jameson that you've been to one. Hard to avoid 'em in this town or any other American city. They're called Irish pubs. And if a little green man approaches you in one of them and offers to show you his shillelagh, chances are you've had one too many jars of Guinness, boyo.
I'm as susceptible as the next person to all that Emerald Isle shtick this time of year, though in most cases it's as authentic as a big bar of Irish Spring. Hell, I could design a successful Irish pub: Make sure there's Guinness and Harp on tap, keep the lighting low so the patrons can't tell that all that "antique" furniture is just crap you bought at IKEA and stained dark brown, and put at least one "traditional" Irish item on the menu, like, um, fish and chips -- yeah, that's the ticket -- along with plenty of burgers, nachos, and quesadillas. No one really wants to eat Irish food, right? What is that, anyway, corned beef and cabbage?
Well, pardon my Gaelic, but Póg mo thóin. That's the origin of The Pogues' original name, Pogue Mahone, a phrase I like to loosely translate as "butter my buns with your lips." See, corned beef and cabbage is an American-Irish meal. Boiled cabbage goes back to the old country, but corned beef is something Irish immigrants bought from their Jewish neighbors on Gotham's Lower East Side. Oy, so now they tell me. Doesn't matter. It still tastes savory when done well, even if the best corned beef and cabbage in this burg tends to come from decidedly non-Irish outlets.
Forget the brined brisket for minute. And for Yahweh's sake, don't throw that Irish-pub fave the Reuben sammy at me, because that's as Jewish as Larry David in a yarmulke. Seen the current cover of that pinkie-wagging foodie rag Saveur? The editors dedicated the entire issue to "Delicious Ireland," to the country's cheeses, butter, seafood, soups, and -- get this -- tapas! They take Colcannon cakes and soda bread seriously, and I could kiss every one of those slow food nut-job scribblers for doing so.
But then we arrive at the matter's crux: Why bother with Gaelic grub when you'll be hard-pressed to even find a decent boxty at many of the places that lay claim to Aah-rishness? Boxty being that versatile tuber pancake, so satisfying when stuffed with beef, lamb, or even corned beef and cabbage. And from the P.O.V. of merchants, why try to hawk a bunch of weird stuff that you'll just have to explain ad nauseam to twits drawn in by the repros of ale adverts? All they want is nachos, burgers and quesadillas with their Guinness, anyway.
There's got to be some middle ground, and the team behind Scottsdale's weeks-new Skeptical Chymist is making the effort to locate it. No, there's no boxty on the menu -- yet. But manager David Maxwell promises there will be, and I believe him if only because Skeptical Chymist is owned by the same moneybags who own Chandler's Fibber Magees, a spot that has its boxty down. Overall, when it comes to Valley restaurants, FM has made one of the more sincere stabs at including Irish comestibles on its menu, and in doing those same dishes well.
Fibber's has the atmosphere, of course, and so does this new venture, its name swiped from some centuries-old tome by Anglo-Irishman Robert Boyle, a key figure in the transition of the pseudoscience of alchemy to chemistry. This idea allowed someone to go ape with the apothecary theme, and buy up all the bedpans, mortars and pestles, scales and old glass bottles they could lay hands on. The bar looks like you walked into a druggist's circa 1900. There's even a library to one side with a copy of Boyle's The Sceptical Chymist in a place of honor behind a small window. Kudos on the ambiance, fellas, even if your spelling differs a bit from Boyle's.
Yes, SC is one of those spots I look forward to getting snockered in as often as possible. Sitting on a green cushion with a pint of silky-smooth Smithwick's in hand, listening to a live guitar-violin duo belt out "The Long Black Veil," I'm happier than Sinéad O'Connor with a new buzz cut. Is the food all it should be? No, but then SC just freakin' opened, and I'd say it's at 70-30, positive to negative, and rising.
Like Fibber's, SC does a solid Irish breakfast, with toasted wheaten bread, black and white pudding (blood sausage and oatmeal sausage, respectively), sausage, rashers (think bacon but leaner), baked beans, two eggs, and a grilled tomato. The tomato didn't seem as big as need be, but otherwise the plate was acceptable. Loved SC's shepherd's pie, though really a cottage pie because minced beef was used instead of lamb. The meat was slightly spicy with peas and onions, and the mashed pots atop it all were fluffy with a light brown crust and melted cheese. Nearly perfect.
SC's Harp-battered fish and chips? Not nearly as perfect. Nice big piece I received, but the cod's flesh had that slight twinge of the icebox. Loads of malt vinegar vanquishes this, but still . . . As for the Guinness beef stew, a little too Dinty Moore-ish, and it was lukewarm when delivered. The corned beef and cabbage wasn't horrible, but I doubt your rabbi will be dancing any jigs over it. SC tries fancying it up with some mustard-onion gravy. Just give it to us straight, with a big hunk o' cabbage. Otherwise, you ruin it.
But, hey, SC has Colcannon potato cakes, and they're damn delish, though terribly simple. The salmon and herb potato croquettes with tarragon aioli are even better, and the cockles and mussels are appetizing in their garlicky butter. The "cockles" are actually baby clams, but I'll let 'em slide on that one, 'specially since the bivalves come atop two slices of wheaten toast, with which you can soak up the butter.
I had one of my best filet mignons ever at SC, peppercorn crusted with a thick Jameson sauce topped with caramelized mushrooms and onions. At $21.95, it more than made up for the desserts, a strangely blah Irish coffee tart, and a sticky toffee pudding that needed more toffee-ness to distinguish it from a big muffin. In any case, the Skeptical Chymist is on its way, so save some elbow room at the bar for me, will ya?
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