On St. Patrick's Day, it is said, everyone is Irish. And everyone seems inclined to prove it by layering on the Donegal tweeds and Connemara caps, and cramming into the area's friendly pubs. On the other hand, come mid-July, we all suddenly seem to think we've become Latino, our thoughts turning to alfresco meals of mangos and fruity martinis -- and at least at Sullivan's, in Lakewood, business slows, if not to a crawl, then at least to a dignified jog.
Oh well. 'Tis all the better for snagging a tall stool at Sullivan's long, L-shaped bar. After all, just because warm weather sets Clevelanders to thirsting for margaritas and mojitos, that doesn't mean a pint of Guinness or Beamish no longer tastes as refreshing, or that the rousing strains of a Celtic tune no longer sound as sweet.
So it is that during the hot, humid, rip-off-your-shirt and par-tay days of summer, owner Patrick Sullivan keeps a stiff upper lip -- as well as a fine assortment of British Isle brews on tap, including Bass, Harp, Boddington's, John Courage, and Bulmer's Cider -- and waits for cool weather to return.
Sullivan, a 1990 culinary graduate of Rhode Island's Johnson & Wales University, opened his pub in late March, to a rousing welcome from West Siders who still entertained seasonal fantasies of snug thatched cottages with toasty peat fires smoldering on the hearth. Although things are a wee bit quieter now, the place was by no means deserted during our recent peak-of-the-summer visits. Chalk up the continuing interest to the fact that, even though the AC was running full tilt, the pub still managed to exude a vibe as cozy as Irish mohair. Open airy, yet handsomely subdivided into four intimate dining areas by devices that include stone archways, frosted glass panels, and tall bookshelves, the rambling space has been cleverly designed to capture a sense of age and authenticity. Furnishings and woodwork were imported from Ireland. Wall colors, tin-ceiling patterns, and even the lay of the wooden floors can be seen to change subtly from one area to the next, as if the pub had been expanded repeatedly throughout the years. And wood-burning stoves, vintage advertising posters, and enough artfully arranged crockery, beer bottles, and copperware to stock a flea market lend a rustic, earthy appeal to nearly every nook and cranny.
The menu's focus tends to be equally rustic, with plenty of old-fashioned country dishes such as lamb stew, corned beef and cabbage, and the traditional Irish breakfast of fried eggs, sausage, black and white "puddings," bacon, baked beans, and tomatoes. This isn't sophisticated cuisine, designed to evoke gustatory goose bumps; nor is it exactly what we pine for when the temperatures soar and the humidity starts nudging 100 percent. But while heavy dishes like shepherd's pie didn't initially get us stoked, that particular menu item turned out to be a happy mouthful, from its buttery pastry "lid" to its savory filling of slowly simmered ground beef, carrots, and colcannon (that stick-to-your-ribs mash of potatoes, onion, cabbage, cream, and butter).
Boxty (the Emerald Isle's version of Bubbe's latkes) didn't seem much like summer fare either, but again, it proved well prepared and satisfying. In Sullivan's rendition, the crisp-edged potato pancake was wrapped, tortilla-style, around a filling of sautéed green and red peppers, mushrooms, and red onion, then lightly napped with an understated white-wine sauce; a tennis-ball-sized scoop of colcannon, a similar portion of mashed parsnips and carrots, and two thin slices of raisin-studded soda bread rounded out this carb-loaded feast.
If the boxty proved more comforting than scintillating, a third entrée -- apple-cider chicken -- almost made us snore. Despite its enticing aroma and cheerful good looks (golden, sautéed breast meat, ruby-red dried cranberries, and a touch of ivory-colored cider-cream sauce), the taste fell flat; some salt, pepper, and perhaps a pinch of rosemary might have done wonders for the dish.
Another pub standard, fish and chips, also failed to move us, mostly because of its limp "tempura" breading. But at least the cod inside tasted fresh and mild. The same couldn't be said for the thick grilled-salmon sandwich, which was marred by an in-your-face fishiness. Instead, the high point of both of these dishes was the side of "chips": thick wedges of batter-dipped, deep-fried potato, all moist and fluffy inside, and nearly irresistible with a sprinkling of perky malt vinegar.
The chips can also be had by the basket, as an appetizer, and they would undoubtedly pair up well with a frosty pint. Likewise, an out-of-the-ordinary starter of melted Irish cheddar, flecked with finely diced red pepper and scallion, and served with wedges of boxty for dipping, was a pleasant change of pace, yet it still managed to deliver the one-two punch of salt and fat that is the hallmark of every good bar nosh.
On the other hand, a sophisticated starter of baked Brie made us briefly consider turning in our tankards for stemware. (The moment passed quickly enough, though, since the pub has only the most perfunctory of wine lists; the whiskey collection, however, is superb.) Although the Brie could have been warmer, it was still soft and nutty inside its flaky phyllo wrapper. And with lots of sliced canned pears, mandarin orange segments -- and, unexpectedly enough, chopped scallions -- in a wash of nectar-like honey-shallot dressing, the interplay of flavors and textures was a tonic to a weary palate.
Meal-sized salads, too, were ample and well composed, and offered a fine warm-weather alternative to the heavier entrées. A tasty toss of crisp mixed greens, diced tomato, mushrooms, thickly shredded cheddar, egg, and bacon, served with a mellow garlic-ranch dressing, made up the ample house salad. The same mix of greens, now ringed with fresh apple slices, canned pear slices, and mandarin orange segments, and topped with chopped walnuts and two small poufs of warm goat cheese, was also a winner; and although we initially had some reservations about the Pepto-Bismol-pink dressing (a creamy raspberry vinaigrette, as it turned out), its clean, fruity flavor was just what was needed to pull the salad fixings together.
But we saved our loudest shout-out for the warm apple and bacon salad, a house specialty -- and for good reason. Lots of leafy greens, plenty of crisp bacon bits and sautéed apple, a piñon-tree's-worth of pine nuts, and a warm, unobtrusive dressing of sour cream, English farmhouse cheese, and apple-cider vinegar made for a meal that was relatively light, while still registering high on the flavor scale. It would be a nice touch, though, if the kitchen could send out some bread or rolls to accompany the full-meal salads.
Although the pub imports its soda and wheat breads from the auld sod, Sullivan's desserts are made in-house. A thick slice of dense cream-cheese pound cake, sided with whipped cream, a sauce of crushed strawberries, and a chocolate shamrock, delivered a little taste of summer and was more than large enough to pass around the table. Ultra-rich New York-style cheesecake was some of the best we've had, even if we couldn't make out more than the vaguest whisper of the alleged Bailey's Irish Cream sauce. And semisweet chocolate mousse, loaded into a thin, crisp cookie "bowl" and topped with whipped cream, melted on our tongue like butter; but once again, the promised presence of Bailey's remained a rumor at best.
It's worth mentioning that, although Sullivan's is settled right in the heart of "Madison Village," with sort-of-edgy neighbors that include Capsule, Chris' Warped Records, and Chain Link Addiction, it's a thoroughly family-friendly venue, with clean-cut staffers, recorded music that ranges from the Beatles to bagpipes, and frequent live entertainment, including Thursday-night Irish jam sessions. But while it may seem like an odd addition to an area that some Lakewoodites call "the Coventry that never was," we're glad to see it take hold. And who knows? With a little fine-tuning in the kitchen and a few more seasonal dishes for the summer months, the pub could easily become a year-round dining destination.
After all, we may not be Irish in August, but we've still gotta eat.