Pub-lic Inquiry

The pints, the pints are calling.

The Harp's lamb lollipops are feckin' brilliant. - Walter  Novak
The Harp's lamb lollipops are feckin' brilliant.
They say there are more than 11,000 pubs in Ireland -- some, as grand as castles, are filled with stained glass, fanciful ironwork, and mahogany; others, like humble country cottages, have low ceilings, dark corners, and a smoky fire on the hearth. But regardless of the physical surroundings, their patrons can be sure of one thing: When they step into their local pub, they encounter genuine Irish character.

In this country, however, that's far from a given. In fact, it's only been in the last decade or so that America's Irish pubs have even thought about authenticity, in the sense of replicating the look and feel of pubs back home. Up until that time, green paint, shamrocks, and old-timey boxing posters were enough to flag a spot as "Irish" -- big-screen TVs, bowling machines, and bottled Miller notwithstanding.

The "authenticity" trend didn't really take off until the late 1990s, thanks largely to Guinness's marketing gurus, who had taken note of the fact that the more "authentically Irish" a pub appeared, the more pints of stout it sold. It was Guinness's growing obsession with authenticity, in fact, that led directly to the rise of companies that specialize in building pubs -- from the imported flagstone floors up -- and indirectly led to pub chains like Fado and Claddagh.

Despite Fado's semi-recent departure from the Flats, Greater Cleveland still has its share of public houses, both old and new. Claddagh, for example, opened in Lyndhurst's Legacy Village less than six months ago, while Merry Arts, in Lakewood, traces its history back to the early 1930s. And although nary a one of Cleveland's pubs can claim to have been established in 1798 or to have hosted the Kennedy clan or to be haunted by James Joyce's ghost, virtually all of them at least offer a pint of Guinness, a bite to eat, and a reference -- no matter how subtle -- to their Irish roots.

With St. Patrick's Day just around the bend, the time seemed right to size up a few of these spots. So it was that the two of us set out to tour eight of the area's self-described Irish pubs, turning a critical eye toward decor, ambiance, bar selections, and menu, just in time for readers' St. Paddy's Day celebrations. (See a complete list of our stops, and their Shamometer ratings, in the sidebar that follows.)

Places, Please
It's the old double-edged sword. Cram a pub too full of kitsch, crockery, and Guinness posters, and risk creating "Ireland on the Epcot." Or limit the decorations to postcards of the Blarney Stone and photos of Galway sheep, and risk losing all claim to a genuine Irish air.

For our tastes, both The Harp and Nighttown seem to have found a comfortable midpoint between the overwrought and the underwhelming. While The Harp's cozy interior hardly replicates the appearance of anything one would find on the Emerald Isle (where they rarely paint Celtic knots on the ceiling, for instance), it does capture the same easy comfort and welcoming atmosphere. And if Nighttown's eclectic collections impressed us as more generally European than specifically Irish, at least there is an arguable Irishness to its laid-back, lived-in feel.

Spacious and handsome, but a bit too brightly lit for our tastes, Sullivan's approaches -- but doesn't cross -- the line into kitschiness. Besides the plump little wood-burning stove, the comfortable upholstered benches, and the mellow woodwork, we were also quite taken by the authentic-appearing exterior, with its bright blue facade; the rousing and far-ranging soundtrack of Irish tunes playing in the background added another lively touch.

At Merry Arts, though, a mirror featuring a map of Ireland emblazoned with the Budweiser logo seems to say it all: The atmosphere here is much more "Irish-American tavern," than Irish pub. Similarly, Mullarkey's ambiance goes only skin-deep. Clean, well-lit, and with a surface Irishness that looks to have been gleaned from a souvenir shop, the room otherwise feels like any other bar in town: You could change the theme overnight.

The high-ceilinged Flannery's boasts lots of dark woodwork and an actual stage for live performances. But with its light-colored walls and hard schoolhouse chairs, it lacked comfort and warmth. At Claddagh, meantime, the deep-pocketed designers seem to have been so overcome with nostalgia for the auld sod that they integrated three distinct decorative themes into the rambling space: the ornate city pub, the cozy country pub, and what might be called "the Norman keep" -- which isn't a pub design per se, but is evocative of Ireland nonetheless. If only the spot weren't settled in a sea of asphalt, surrounded by a "faux" village, we might have found it all more convincing.

And finally, there is Brendan O'Neill's in Westlake. Despite its bland and undistinguished exterior, the interior is warm and embracing, with deep red walls that provide a refreshing change from the stereotypical green decor. Still, the bold choice is undermined slightly by the addition of painted renditions of Irish beer and liquor labels on the walls, as if the designers feared patrons might forget themselves and begin ordering osso bucco or foie gras.

The Reigning Pour
The one element of authenticity on which no self-respecting pub should compromise, of course, is the proper dispensing of Guinness. Just for starters, it requires an accurately adjusted dispenser (to guarantee the optimal gas ratios), a spotlessly clean nozzle, and well-trained bartenders who know the secrets of the "two-part pour" -- a process that should take at least several minutes to complete. If all goes well, the stout tastes crisp and well rounded, with a creamy white head so thick that it's possible to draw a shamrock on it. On the other hand, if a beige cloud is streaming upward through the beer when the glass reaches you, you've gotten a bad pour, and the taste will be bitter and harsh.

Our expert Guinness-drinker put each pub's pint to the test. Four passed on our visits (Sullivan's, Claddagh, Flannery's, and The Harp), and four failed (Merry Arts, Nighttown, Mullarkey's, and Brendan O'Neill's).

A Wee Sup
When it comes to culinary bling-bling, Irish pubs aren't expected to rival French bistros or Italian trattorias. Imagine our delight, then, when we discovered some truly memorable eats at a few of the local establishments.

For instance, Claddagh's version of crisply fried fish 'n' chips -- pearly Icelandic cod, blanketed in Bass Ale batter, and served with fluffy-interiored potato wedges -- undoubtedly sets the local standard for delicacy, flavor, and value. And the luscious lamb lollipops at The Harp -- bite-sized, macadamia-nut-crusted choplets paired up with creamy colcannon, steamed asparagus, and a lusty Cabernet-fig reduction -- were a fine riff on the more modern strains of Irish cuisine.

If Nighttown's take on traditional lamb stew didn't win us over, the house specialty, Dublin Lawyer, made its case with a well-balanced blend of lobster meat, mushrooms, and scallions in a creamy, cayenne-tweaked Irish whiskey sauce. And while Sullivan's ample version of salmon boxty proved to be a hearty repast, the upscale rendition we tucked into at The Harp, with a meltingly tender, crisp-edged salmon filet beneath a slim potato pancake, on a pool of delicate sun-dried-tomato cream sauce, went down easier than a pint of cold John Courage on a steamy August day.

Sullivan's flaky-crusted shepherd's pie, Claddagh's beefy Irish stew, and The Harp's sweet, freshly baked Irish soda bread also earned high marks. Unfortunately, we didn't fare nearly as well at our other stops.

The inexpensive menu offerings at Merry Arts mostly run to burgers, wraps, and routine bar noshes. Oddly enough, quesadillas are a house specialty; too bad, then, that they seemed so ordinary. And while a Friday-night fish fry, with Mom's homemade cole slaw and golden French fries, seemed headed in the right direction, it was ultimately derailed by the overcooked perch.

Except for an order of freshly cut fries, Mullarkey's inexpensive food also left us yawning. The otherwise flavorful Irish stew (a house specialty, served in a bread bowl) suffered from tough, chewy beef. And although a toss of corned beef, cabbage, and fried potatoes delivered a homey, beer-friendly wallop of salt and grease, the dreary presentation was anything but memorable.

At Flannery's, the eclectic menu runs from Sante Fe spring rolls to shepherd's pie. But despite (or perhaps because of) the diversity, nothing here tasted very good. Irish stew not only was light on the beef and veggies, but was overwhelmed by the flavor of dried thyme. Bland beer-battered cod was tough yet watery. And the kitchen's bizarre interpretation of boxty looked identical to crab cakes, with the texture of turkey stuffing and the aroma of pickles!

Brendan O'Neill's is one of the few local spots we found that serves a traditional Irish fry, with Irish bacon, sausage, black and white puddings, grilled tomato, sautéed mushrooms, bread, and eggs; other than the grievously overcooked fried eggs (ordered "over medium" and delivered tough as scouring pads), the preparation was sound. But we were understandably turned off by the moldy-edged cantaloupe on a fried-brie platter. And steamed mussels, served in a mammoth two-pound portion, had an unsettling "off" taste. A sweet ending -- an enormous Mitchell Brothers' Guinness-flavored ice cream sundae, slathered with hot fudge, butterscotch, pecans, and whipped cream -- helped us get over it.

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