- Walter Novak
- Shepherd's Pie and the requisite chaser.
In Ireland, there's no lack of things to do. You can scuba dive in Skelligs. Tee up at the Knockanally Golf Club. Tour a 15th-century parish church. Or visit a former feudal castle. But for all of its splendor, there's one thing you can never, ever do in Ireland, and that is celebrate St. Patrick's Day on the shores of blue Lake Erie.
To have that much fun, you have to stay in Cleveland and pay a visit to The Harp, Mike and Karen O'Malley's charming Irish pub and restaurant. Big portions of homey yet deftly prepared foods are Executive Chef Bob Sferra's signature, and he and his staff cook up a variety of well-known Irish dishes, including boxty, colcannon, and Irish soda bread. Is everything on the menu authentic? Not at all, and cross-cultural types can happily munch away on burgers, nut-crusted brie, and lemon-basil fettuccine tossed with lobster. Then again, when a peek into some modern Irish cookbooks turns up surprises like cod stir-fry, blackened mackerel with salsa, and monkfish with grapefruit, who are we to say what is and what is not likely to come out of an actual Celtic kitchen?
The almost two-year-old restaurant bordering the Shoreway is a study in good design, with a half-timbered Tudor-style exterior and an airy, attractive inner space distinguished by vaulted ceilings, extensive wood moldings, and tall windows overlooking the lake. The space is divided into three distinct sections, with a towering pine-and-granite bar at the rear, a fieldstone fireplace in the central dining room, and an intricately painted ceiling treatment, centered around a mystical Celtic knot, adding character to the raised, nonsmoking dining area near the front door. Natural light fills the restaurant during the day; after dark, vintage-style wall sconces and ceiling lamps make warm puddles of illumination on the bare wooden tabletops. The noise level, as befitting a busy pub, can get very high, but rather than annoy us, it encouraged us to lean across the table on our elbows and chat companionably, head to head. The resulting effect was pleasantly evocative of the Ol' Sod, without the least hint of Disneyesque contrivance.
Of course, any Irish pub worth its name has a killer selection of brews and spirits, and here The Harp excels. Guinness Stout, Harp Lager, Murphy's Irish Amber, and Caffrey's Irish Cream are all available on draft, in frosty 20-ounce Imperial pints, along with Hardcore Cider, Amstel Light, Tennent's, Bass, Newcastle Brown, and Heineken. Irish whiskey choices include Bushmills, Tullamore Dew, Power, and several varieties of Jameson. Mixed drinks, as well as a host of hot liquor-laced Irish coffees, are available, and the restaurant has a small but carefully chosen wine list emphasizing big, jammy reds well-suited to the substantial fare. And after an evening of toasting the saint, what could be better than a bracing cup of imported Barry's Irish Tea, "just like back home?"
As best we could fathom from sneaking peeks at other diners' meals, Sferra's boxty dishes are favorites among The Harp's cognoscenti. And for good reason. The enormous grilled potato pancakes have a startlingly creamy texture and are delicious when folded, omelet-like, over fillings that range from simple saut´ed vegetables to salmon. In fact, our lunchtime choice of chicken boxty, stuffed with tender strips of grilled breast meat, saut´ed mushrooms, onion, and red and green pepper, and topped with a spinach cream sauce, was far more than we could polish off in one setting, but entirely too good to leave behind. We took it home and made a lovely dinner of it.
Sferra and his staff also do fine things with soups. Golden cream of acorn squash, one day's special, was as sleek as Connemara marble and bursting with freshness, and the everyday chowder of potatoes, carrots, and parsnips, in a creamy chicken broth, was wonderfully well-seasoned with cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon, and Marsala, and so chunky that we ate it with a fork. We also gave high marks to baker Kevin Stachnick's addictive Irish soda bread: dense, brown, slightly sweet, and studded with raisins. No wonder the restaurant sells the stuff by the loaf to go.
But not everything coming out of the kitchen is rustic. An appetizer of two plump crab cakes, with chunks of sweet meat inside a light but delightfully crunchy crust, was a good example of Sferra's ability to tweak the standards. Here, he settled the crisp patties on a bed of saut´ed spinach, garlic, and tender-crisp julienned carrots and leeks, and finished them with a bit of charred tomato vinaigrette, turning what could have been a fairly mundane dish into something both sophisticated and unusual. And an entr´e of pan-seared beef tenderloin filets, nestled in a shallow bowl beside roasted-garlic-and-tomato-flavored polenta and a pile of saut´ed vegetables, topped with a turban of delicately breaded onion rings, and drizzled with not quite enough of a sweet coffee demi-glace, was a far cry from corned beef and cabbage.
Several menu offerings incorporate spirits. For instance, the venerable Dublin Lawyer -- big chunks of succulent lobster claw meat stacked on wild rice -- was polished with a subtle sauce of lemon, mustard, and Irish whiskey. And an outstanding braised double-boned pork chop, served with colcannon (a traditional tasty dish of boiled and mashed potatoes and cabbage, seasoned with butter, cream, scallions, and black pepper), melt-in-your-mouth sauerkraut, and a big, bright drizzle of apple, apricot, and whiskey reduction sauce delivered an exceptionally high "Wow!" factor. The spirituous flavor-play even extended to desserts, where malty Guinness ice cream was perfectly matched with chocolate chunks, butterscotch sauce, and honey-roasted pecans, tucked into a frosty pint, and given a tall head of homemade whipped cream.
Staffers at both the bar and in the dining room were welcoming and friendly, and the wait between courses was never long. Our waiter knew his brews and whiskeys, and gave us some worthwhile counsel when we made our selections. However, we apparently took him by surprise when we ordered a bottle of Deloach Zinfandel ($28) with our meal, and the tiny little wine glasses he poured it into were a downright shame. With such an intelligently chosen wine list, we would have expected wine service to be a tad more polished.
However, across the course of several meals, the culinary disappointments were minor. A basket of handcut potato chips sounded like a fine match to our icy pints, but the unsalted, room-temperature crunchies left us cold. An attractively constructed poached pear salad had its highlights -- crisp baby greens, plenty of toasted walnuts, and a generous amount of crumbled blue cheese -- but was ultimately undermined by an oily, one-note dressing (alleged to be a port-wine vinaigrette) and the unripe, flavorless poached pear that topped it. And an enormous warm apple crisp, supporting a lovely scoop of slowly melting vanilla ice cream, got points for its sturdy crumb crust, but dropped a grade level for its undercooked Granny Smith filling.
Besides the hearty food and drink, traditional music from the British Isles is also part of the package at The Harp, with musicians usually performing every Wednesday and Saturday evening. Be aware, however, that this week's schedule has been altered in honor of the saint, with live performances scheduled for tonight and Friday, and an Irish music jam session slated for Sunday, beginning at 2 p.m. Music makers get the night off on St. Patrick's Day, although The Harp will open at 9 a.m. that day, serving its regular menu inside, as well as beer and sandwiches on the attractive outdoor patio. (A tent will be set up in case of rain.)
It's too bad about those folks in Ireland, isn't it? Castles, colleens, and thatch-roofed cottages notwithstanding, they're missing all the fun.