Ask the folks who've been there what they think about Robbie Fox's Public House, and you'll hear about the lively atmosphere, a party-perfect outdoor patio, and an amazing happy hour — all hallmarks of a good pub. But Robbie Fox's wants to be more than just a great bar; it wants to be a great restaurant. It's got the "great bar" part down pat.
But great restaurant? I knew Mr. Fox and I were off on the wrong foot when I heard this sound: "Crunch!"
That was the sound of the ice I'd bitten into as I tasted a partially frozen oyster on the half-shell. What was supposed to be delectable was drowned in cold, brittle blandness. And, then, when the plate of unwanted half-shells sat on the table for the duration of my meal, I figured Robbie Fox's had a ways to go before I could call it a great restaurant.
New Times cafe
Robbie Fox's Public House
640 South Mill Avenue, Tempe
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily; 4 to 7 p.m. happy hour Monday through Friday
Corned beef sandwich: $9
Curry chicken: $13
Lamb stew: $12
Robbie's — which joined Tempe neighbors Rúla Búla and Casey Moore's Oyster House in February 2010 — is the new, more upscale Irish lad in town. With its attention to ornate details and an appearance of craftsmanship, the restaurant is reminiscent of the Victorian-style pubs found in Dublin. The hospitable, comfortable interior features a palette of ochre, maroon, and green, with tiled floors and a tin ceiling hanging over Robbie's centerpiece, a beautifully carved and polished hardwood bar, said to be over 130 years old and acquired from a pub in Dublin.
Robbie Fox's may be an excellent place to raise a pint of Guinness or sip from a sizable selection of Irish whiskeys and single malt Scotches, but it seems to have lost its way when it comes to the cuisine. It caters not to the customer it has but to the customer it wants, and with a menu that tries to be everywhere at once.
Robbie's tries to be both posh and party — a tricky formula to pull off. Cutting into a $20 prime rib as drunken soccer fans drop F-bombs and shout at each other over the blaring TV is a jarring experience.
Almost as jarring is the menu, which features traditional Irish favorites alongside French onion soup and a Southern-style chicken sandwich. I found it curious that the oddly designed menu downplayed its Irish fare in favor of more prominently featured items such as wild mushroom chicken and an eggplant Parmesan burger.
Inexpensive pub fare is nowhere to be found here. Bar staples like hamburgers and chicken strips are $9 and $10 — even the toasted, a grilled cheese sandwich that can be found as a super-cheap standard in pubs across Ireland, is a pricey $9.
And, unfortunately, the Irish food was hit-and-miss.
As an appetizer, I did enjoy Irish-style potato cakes, a flavorful mound of scallion-flecked mashed potatoes, topped with two fried eggs and surrounded by tangy and sweet baked beans. It was nearly a meal in itself. And corned beef sliders arrived like three little soldiers, with toothpicks as bayonets. The robust yet tender flavor of the cured meat was lent some crunchiness by lightly pickled cabbage. Served in tiny pumpernickel rye buns, the sliders were a hit.
Eating piping-hot potpies and stews in July may seem like a bad idea, but these dishes are the place to start when it comes to Robbie Fox's Irish entrées. Creamy mashed potatoes topping my lamb stew made for a flavorful and hearty mixing component for the chunks of tender lamb and vegetables in a delicate yet subtly spicy broth. The Guinness potpie, as hearty-flavored as the name would indicate, features the famous Irish stout, tender beef, onions, carrots, and crunchy celery. It starts out more as soup than stew, but adding chunks of the light, buttery crust helps it arrive at a sturdier consistency.
The most un-seafood part of my Ballycotton seafood pie, the topping of cheesy mashed potatoes, was the dish's only success. The name is a nod to a fishing village in Cork, and I expected a complex layering of mixed seafood flavors swimming in a light cream sauce. What I received was salmon soup.
And I'm sad to report that one of Ireland's most popular dishes, fish 'n' chips, didn't much work at all at Robbie's. Over-fried to a dark brown color, the breading of the large piece of fish created a hardened, steaming prison for the scalding-hot fish meat.
On the less traditional Irish side, the curry chicken with rice was quite good — full of flavor and with a spicy finish. Sides of cucumber relish and mango chutney made the dish more interesting as their sweetness cooled the heat.
I was given the hard sell on the wild mushroom chicken on three visits to Robbie's. It actually may have been the biggest disappointment, though, when it arrived blazing hot, the cream sauce already filming up and the chicken sinking into itself. The wild mushroom I anticipated? Effectively killed by a strongly sweet red wine flavor.
In the appetizer, sandwich, and salad selections — too pricey for pub grub, too uninspired for Robbie's dining room — I wanted more but didn't get it.
I was surprised my panko-crusted crab cakes were allowed out of the kitchen. Their tops, black and hardened, had most noticeably been burned. Sautéed garlic shrimp was decent, though the delicate flavor of the large shrimps was lost when slathered with Cajun peppercorn sauce.
The curry chicken reappeared — haphazardly — in salad form. Seemingly scooped from a bowl and plopped artlessly on a bed of greens and thin apple slices, the chicken curry salad was tasty but unappetizing in its presentation, a ho-hum dish that, in the end, wasn't worth the effort.
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Aside from the corned beef sandwich, a larger version of the tasty sliders, many of the sandwich offerings seemed incongruent with the Irish theme (grilled chicken, Western burger), and the ones that did fit on the menu fell flat.
The Foley sandwich, featuring vine tomatoes, basil, Irish cheddar, and scallions with a tarragon cream dressing was nothing more than a flavorless BLT, sans bacon, served between over-toasted bread. The biggest loser was the signature Robbie Fox sandwich. It arrived as an open-face, wobbly Jenga tower of food. Between the undercooked eggs, the Irish bacon, the (again) over-toasted bread, and an unappealing garden of iceberg lettuce, the dish went practically untouched.
Servers in Robbie's dining room were friendly but inexperienced and not altogether knowledgeable about the menu they were serving. And on each of my visits, dirty dishes sat way too long, indicating the place is sorely in need of bussers. The one area each of my servers had no problem getting excited about? Robbie Fox's happy hour.
Say no more.