Cafe Reviews

Blarney Boned

Holy headcheese, not another freakin' Irish place! Now, don't ruffle your kilts, lads. After all, it is St. Paddy's Day, and this is the only time of the year I'd bother writing up two new purveyors of Celtic comestibles in a row. Last week, it was Scottsdale's smashing Skeptical Chymist, and this week, it's Mesa's less-than-smashing Molly Brannigans. But before I crank up The Chieftains and start pelting you with references to the 26 Counties, lend an ear as I give a shout-out to Arizona's new culinary Superman.

I'm talking about Beau MacMillan, executive chef at the Sanctuary resort's Elements restaurant, who recently wiped the smirk off BBQ bad-boy Bobby Flay during a March 5 airing of the Food Network's Iron Chef America competition. The importance of MacMillan's victory over Flay cannot be overstated, particularly since the secret ingredient that both MacMillan, Flay and their sous chefs had to work with was "American Kobe beef" -- that is, meat from pricey, U.S.-raised wagyu cattle. The cocky Flay has crafted an entire career out of authoring such books as Bobby Flay: Grilling for Life and hosting TV shows like Boy Meets Grill. A win over Flay using any ingredient would've been a coup, but with the finely marbled musculature of a wagyu bull? That's like striking out a still-juiced-on-steroids Barry Bonds, bub.

MacMillan seemed jazzed from jump; when he was asked how he intended to win the bout, he informed the host, "I'm gonna rock!" MacMillan pointed out Flay to compete against from the assembled masters of Kitchen Stadium before knowing that beef would be the ingredient du jour, the stuff from which both Flay and MacMillan would have to create several courses in under an hour to woo a trio of experts: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy food-fascist Ted Allen; Bon Appétit editrix Barbara Fairchild; and former Bachelor star Andrew Firestone of the Firestone Family Estates winery. No slouches, food-wise, and they each seemed to take their jobs very seriously.

Overconfidence doomed Flay. The dishes he produced were praised highly by all three judges in regard to taste, but they looked awfully uninspired to me, from a glorified steak McMuffin topped with quail's egg, to a fancy-pants Philly cheesesteak. Jeez, Bobby, why didn't you just serve up a T-bone while you were at it? MacMillan, though, showed imagination, his preps including both a carpaccio and tartare dish, a ravioli-like beef won ton, and a rosemary-crusted beef tenderloin with salsify fondue. The scoring was close, but considering Flay's status as a celeb chef and gourmet griller, the victory could not have been more savory.

MacMillan was the first Zona chef ever to compete on the prestigious show, and he blistered Flay's New Yawk fanny. Ha-ha! Take that, Gotham! Like they say on the street, and in the kitchen, you've been served.

Now back to Molly Brannigans, the Mesa outlet of a Pennsylvania chain that generally aims to do for Irish fare what La Madeleine has done for French cuisine -- Americanize it to the point of extinction. Almost everything about this glass cube filled with faux Gaelic bonhomie turned me off, and I was poised to hate it with all the bile my gallbladder could churn out. But then I ate Molly's boxty, and no, I ain't touching that double entendre with a 10-foot fork, sport.

As I explained last week when I noted its absence on Skeptical Chymist's menu, the boxty is a stuffed potato pancake, sort of a tuberiffic omelet folded over various innards. Whatever else I have to say about Molly's, if I were again in her 'hood, I might stop by to nibble another of her huge corned-beef-and-cabbage-filled 'tater tacos. The boxty itself was warm and soft, and drizzled with grainy mustard, and flapped over shredded corned beef and braised cabbage, which, despite the meat's stringy dryness, was slightly better than the corned beef and cabbage over at the SC. Following this boxty, a pint of the Black Stuff (Guinness to you, boo), and a shot of 21-year-old Bushmills Malt, I felt as satisfied as a Turkish pasha in his harem. Too bad that's the only plate at Molly's that left me so sated.

The shepherd's pie, actually cottage pie, was uniquely grotesque, covered in too much cheese and not enough mashed pots. The layer of ground beef beneath was bland, like someone had poured it right out of a can. After two or three bites, I didn't pursue it any further. To the management's credit, my server noticed this and took it off my bill without my asking. He stated that several people have said the same thing about the dish, which makes you wonder why Molly's corporate minions don't do something about it. What am I, John Wayne in The Quiet Man here? Who do I have to knuckle-up on to get 'em to fix their fare?

The Irish breakfast, "mixed grill" on the menu, was an utter disaster. The black-and-white pudding was tasteless, and I'd almost swear my banger was a bratwurst. The grilled tomato was nearly inedible -- too salty on top and mostly raw. And when I asked for a side of soda bread, I got some muffin-shaped thingees that were so hard I may need to visit my dentist next week to make sure my choppers don't vacate my cake-hole. MB charges you an extra dollar if you desire a pair of the rubbery embryos they call eggs. Hardly worth the paper on which Washington's portrait is printed.

The "St. James's Guinness stew"? Served in a bleedin' bread bowl, of all things! Flavor-wise, Donovan McNabb's mom could do better with her Campbell's connection. Moreover, the bread bowl tends to keep the portion size small, which may be a gift horse considering the quality of what was in it.

Plenty of egg rolls, wings and quesadillas on offer, of course, as well as this one appetizer called "Blarney Stones," deep-fried orangeish goo described as "bite-sized Reuben puffs" accompanied by a Thousand Island dip. I think they call them Blarney Stones 'cause after one of those ghastly gobs kisses the lining of your stomach, it'll be sitting there like a rock at the bottom of Galway Bay for the next 24 hours.

Boxty aside, Molly Brannigans has little to recommend it, and so I won't. And with that, I bring St. Paddy's Day to a merciful close, and promise not to review Irish food for at least another year, if I can help it.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons