Finnegan’s Cake

 

I was wandering through Bloomsday Books the other day. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular — it’s my neighborhood bookshop — but since I had just eaten dinner at an Irish pub, I picked up a paperback copy of Dublin-born James Joyce’s first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I held on to it as I moved past the fiction shelves, toward the store’s bounty of cookbooks and culinary titles.

Among the dozens and dozens of offerings, not a single book celebrated Irish cuisine. There were paeans to Italian and Spanish foods, Moroccan and Chinese, French, Creole, Mexican and Thai — even a book about the influence of the Pennsylvania Dutch on the American palate. But those foods beloved to the Emerald Isles — fatty stews, pork sausages, mackerel rolls and that visually unimpressive mound of boiled potatoes, chopped cabbage and leeks known as Colcannon — were bluntly ignored.

Maybe for good reason. Even Joyce couldn’t work up much passion for his native cuisine; his 1916 novel made references to watery tea, damp bread and mutton stew “in thick peppered flourfattened sauce.” This is the same writer who, six years later, wrote that a character liked grilled mutton kidneys — “which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

So I wondered if the idea of Ireland’s less tangy, better-loved exports — fine whiskey, hearty ales, mournful ballads and Liam Neeson — was romantic enough to lure customers to a charmless Johnson County strip center. W.J. McBride’s Irish Pub sits in a squat brick building cattycornered from Tires Plus and across the parking lot from a fortress-sized Super Target. Unlike its Plaza rival, O’Dowd’s Little Dublin Pub, which at least looks like the Disneyland version of an old Irish pub, there’s nothing alluring about McBride’s Pub’s location. In fact, if you didn’t already know it was there, you wouldn’t give the building a second glance.

I certainly didn’t. I had to drive around the perimeter of the Pinnacle Village shopping center several times before I stumbled upon the McBride’s entrance. On that first visit, I had hauled along my friend Bob, who made a sour face at the very notion of “Irish food.”

“I hate Irish food,” he scowled. “It’s horrible.”

But like most Midwesterners, his actual experience with Irish cuisine was limited to corned beef and cabbage (which he hated) and lamb stew (ditto). That’s not an uncommon reaction. My own parents, who had pretty cosmopolitan tastes, shuddered at the idea of boiled cabbage: “Poor people’s food,” said my father, the son of frugal, working-class immigrants. “I’d rather starve than eat it.”

This perception of Irish suppers and stews — heavy affairs guaranteed to fill up hungry stomachs — lingers, though there’s nothing resembling peasant food at W.J. McBride’s. Like the remarkable interior of this spacious pub, the menu comes as a pleasant surprise. I’m not sure what shocked me most: the dark wooden beams, the antique stained glass, the plank floors or the delicious bowl of corned beef and cabbage.

Bob had given the evil eye to all the traditional Irish dishes on the menu: the batter-dipped fish and chips, the shepherd’s pie baked with a crust of champ potatoes (rough-hewn mashed potatoes made with scallions) and the platter filled with a real Irish breakfast (bacon, sausage, eggs and sautéed mushrooms, beans and toast). He’d ended up ordering the Cabra burger — because the name “sounded Irish” — but, topped with bacon and melted cheddar, the burger was obviously all-American.

He was more adventurous when it came to tasting an appetizer of curry and chips, an oddball creation of crispy fried-potato slivers (our server had already alerted us: “Our chips are really American fries”) piled around a bowl of tawny soup made with ground chicken, cream and curry. We dipped the hot potato slivers into the curried concoction and let the pungent spices mildly burn our tongues — until Bob finally picked up a spoon and started lapping it up. “This would be a wonderful soup on a cold night,” he suggested to the waitress, who didn’t seem remotely interested in his observation.

I ordered a cup of the Dublin coddle, a light broth heaped with quartered boiled potatoes, bacon and chunks of delicately seasoned pork sausage. It had less punch than the curried-chicken invention and would have benefited from a dash of garlic.

But the corned beef and cabbage made up for it. McBride’s makes it with seasoned, brined beef: Less salty and a vivid red, it’s much more tender and flavorful than the grayish stuff of cafeteria lines. The beef slices came draped over a mound of champ potatoes and surrounded by braised cabbage flavored with nutty caraway seeds and given a sleek coat of mustard-flavored cream sauce. If it was a peasant dish, it was wearing very sophisticated clothing.

And with recorded music that veered from Van Morrison to old Irish reels to something that bordered on Belfast-style hip-hop, the energy in the joint was infectious. We noticed the staff was clearing tables and chairs from the big “dance hall” just beyond the dining room (we’d peeked in earlier to see a festive crowd — mostly men — playing pool and watching a big-screen TV). After paying our bill, I asked the server if there was going to be live Irish music and dancing.

“No,” she said. “It’s a 1980s retro band. But people do dance.”

Unfortunately, on a follow-up visit with my friend Jeanne and her kids, our waif-like waitress was so confused she might as well have been attending her own private U2 concert. The kids wanted to eat out on the patio and since it was a cool evening, we obliged; we ordered an appetizer that never arrived and our server hauled out dinner salads and entrees at the same time.

“Maybe that’s how they eat things in Ireland,” said nine-year-old Alexandra philosophically. Her sympathy lasted only until she looked down at her plate to see an Ellis Island sandwich (the McBride’s version of a Reuben) instead of the turkey-herb croissant that she had ordered. In front of our very eyes, this sweet child turned as nasty as Abnoba, the Celtic goddess of the hunt. “This is not what I ordered,” she snapped, sending the waitress scurrying back to the kitchen so fast she almost knocked down our table’s umbrella.

With its inaccurately filled orders and missing dishes, that dinner was a comedy of errors Oscar Wilde might have appreciated, although the food was consistently good. Jeanne loved her grilled Strawberry Fields chicken, topped with a tart strawberry salsa. I had difficulty choosing among the three boxties — a thick potato pancake made with baking soda, a boxty is said to have been invented as a side dish during the Great Irish Famine. But there’s no starving at McBride’s; the soft, doughy griddlecake comes covered with vegetables, corned beef or seafood. The latter was a gorgeous jumble of sautéed peppers, tiny scallops and little pink shrimp smothered in a light, slightly smoky cream sauce.

Desserts were less impressive, although Jeanne loved the combination of fresh, firm bananas dappled with caramel sauce over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. A wedge of cheesecake was as big as the Blarney stone, while a little disc of bread pudding, described on the menu as “an Irish legend,” wasn’t worth remembering — and it was surrounded by so much soupy crème anglaise I could have taken a bath in it.

But crème anglaise and cheesecake aren’t traditional Irish dishes. They’re the decadent stuff that well-fed American diners like me expect to find on a restaurant menu. If we wanted something simple, like a plain scone or an apple-potato cake, we’d have to travel to Ireland, not Overland Park.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews