I've thought of Irish food, when I've thought of it at all, as probably being like English food, only with more potatoes. And though I've never been to the British Isles, I have a prejudice against English food. You know the old joke: Hell is where the police are German, the politicians are French and the cooks are English.
Of course, Gourmet recently declared London the greatest restaurant city in the world. What do I know?
So I was curious, if not particularly hopeful, about The Auld Dubliner, an Irish pub and restaurant that opened last year west of the UA Main Gate. It's the fourth outlet in a small chain (five restaurants so far) that purports to re-create the classic Irish village-pub experience, right down to the black wainscoting, old posters and signs, scruffy floor and dishes like bangers and champ, Irish stew and shepherd's pie. They've got a sophisticated Web site and fairly high prices, so it seemed at least possible that the food would be lovely peasant cooking in a tradition of which I was simply ignorant.
Nope. The space is beautiful and charming, the beer is great and the people are nice. But the food? It may be authentic, but it isn't very good.
My first visit to The Auld Dubliner, which occupies a deep, shadowy, pleasantly banged-up space in the old Geronimo Hotel, was for Saturday lunch with my husband. We sat in a pretty little semi-enclosed area at the front of the room, with the soft winter light pouring in big, clean panes overlooking the sidewalk. I hate big, cold, bare restaurants--I just don't feel comfortable eating or drinking in the middle of a huge space--and thoroughly enjoyed the coziness. (All the fittings were made in Ireland.) The wonderful old Guinness advertising posters on the exposed brick walls kept giving off zingy little hits of James Joyce--one of my favorite writers.
Our waiter was young and very pleasant, and he knew his beers--the Dubliner has a good, Eire-centric selection of beers on tap--but he seemed to have too much to do. Our food was slow in coming, and he forgot to bring us napkins until we were almost done with our messy appetizer, curry chips (a huge plate of smoking-hot, skin-on french fries with a delicious curry sauce, $5.75). If everything had been as good as the fries, we would have been happy, if horribly full. Like most chains, the Dubliner dishes out grotesquely huge portions. The two of us finished maybe a third of the fries--and they're not something you want to take home.
The Auld Dubliner serves some standard American bar food--burgers and sandwiches, plus grilled steak, chicken and salmon--but we felt that we should try the most Irish things on the menu and ordered boxty dishes, which are filled potato pancakes. Ed had the rasher and cheese boxty ($12.95), while I went all the way and ordered the shepherd's pie boxty--"Savory ground beef and lamb cooked with peas, carrots and leeks in a brown beef stock," wrapped in a potato pancake (10.95). The rashers--Irish bacon, which closely resembles the Canadian kind--were OK, and the melted cheddar was good, but the whole thing was so heavy that Ed ate perhaps a quarter of it. (Of course, we had started off with those fries.) My potato pancake filled with shepherd's pie reminded me of cafeteria food--smushy peas and too much salt--but maybe that's what it's supposed to be like. This cuisine is based on filling stomachs as cheaply as possible.
What was not forgivable, however, was the prettily arranged display of lukewarm, elderly carrot slices and faintly rank broccoli. Sorry. Everything on the plate should be edible, and these vegetables emphatically were not.
The kitchen seemed equally disorganized, or careless, or something, when I returned for dinner with my friend Molly. I recommended the curry fries, which were once again perfect, except that they came after our entrées, which were themselves slow to appear. Molly had a roasted turkey sandwich ($8) in which the turkey breast was dry and nearly flavorless. I ordered the house salad--nice, fresh greens but nothing special, and overpriced at $7.50--and a bowl of potato leek soup ($5.50), which was too thick, and, like the shepherd's pie, very salty.
Going back to the ladies' room, which is at the very back of the deep space, I passed a small room packed with people playing folk music and heard a daddy speaking to his daughter with a lilting Irish accent. The Auld Dubliner is a deeply appealing place, and a wonderful spot for beer and fries. But if it's going to compete with the umpteen casual-dining places on Main Gate row, things will have to change in the kitchen.