A good Irish pub is so much more than a bar, and so different from a restaurant. True to its proper name, it is a public house, a place to share a meal and a laugh, play some darts, catch a game, to feel—at least for an hour or three—like we’re all in this together.
At every pub in Connecticut, Guinness is good, and there will be an old metal sign telling you so. You’ll also find a big bar, dark wood and enough memorabilia to fill a booth at Brimfield; Irish music seisiuns and trivia competitions will likely be offered, along with soccer on the telly and libraries of beer. But how’s the food?
That’s the question this writer and a friend sought to answer on a statewide pub crawl. We found that there are three broad categories of Irish kitchens. The first is the most traditional, focusing largely on old favorites like shepherd’s pie, fish-and-chips, and bangers and mash, as well as the “new traditionals,” that is, the wings, nachos, burgers and salads found in virtually every pub these days. The second reflects the ever-expanding palate of contemporary Ireland with items like panini, quesadillas, pasta, curry dishes and a halfway decent wine list. The third is the rare and wonderful pub with a fully engaged chef, where original dishes are freshly prepared and lovingly plated. This is true Irish cuisine, a relatively recent phenomenon, utilizing the best of local land and sea. Yet even the most cutting-edge publican includes a few Old World staples on the menu, thus identifying the place as a true Irish pub versus any old place with a shamrock on the door.
At The Black Sheep (Niantic, 860/739-2041, theblacksheepniantic.com) the old and new ways live together in sweet harmony. This gleaming beauty situated right across the street from Long Island Sound defines itself as “upscale,” and decor and menu live up to the promise. A dish of Clams Shannon (steamed littlenecks in an iron skillet with Irish bacon, hot and sweet peppers and Kerrygold cheddar) seemed the very embodiment of modern Irish cookery, blending artisanal ingredients with snapping fresh seafood. There’s playfulness on the menu—pretzel-crusted chicken, Poutine “All the Way”—plus surprises like Carolina pulled-pork barbecue, but it’s the shellfish specialties that make us dream of summer lunches on The Black Sheep’s patio.
At Kelly’s Gastro Pub (New Haven, 203/776-1111, kellysnewhaven.com), the talented chef/owner Patrick Hogan takes a world of inspiring offerings such as yucca fries, chimichurri sauce, English Stilton twice-baked potatoes and shrimp bisque sauce, and brings them home in dishes like City Point Wasabi Crusted Salmon, Fair Haven Lobster Ravioli and Wooster Square Stuffed Breast of Chicken. With high ceilings and expansive windows, Kelly’s looks a bit like an urban loft with a bar and fireplace; it’s a favorite spot to sup on a bowl of PEI mussels with andouille sausage, served with—be still, my heart—a finger bowl. With lemon.
Across town, O’Toole’s Irish Pub & Restaurant (New Haven, 203/562-7468, otoolesforapint.com) has been a rollicking good time since it opened last year. Here, revelers can scan an enormous menu—there are nearly 60 items—and find quality dishes like Gaelic smoked salmon with capers, hard-boiled egg, red onion and Irish brown bread; a Dingle Fish Pie (as much fun to eat as it is to say); and a righteous Angus New York strip with a mushroom demiglaze, mashed potatoes and green beans for under $20. The weekend Soccer Brunch is a blast for sports fans, and includes such dishes as the Anfield Hangover Roll and the Craven Cottage Corned Beef Omelette.
We visited Tigín (Stamford, 203/353-8444, tiginirishpub.com) on a day so cold and gloomy that my friend and I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and give up. Glad we didn’t: We would have missed basking in the warmth of Tigin. With cozy little rooms that seem carved out of the side of a berm and fireplaces all aglow, a hobbit could be happy here. We certainly were. Beginning with that cultural mash-up known as an Irish Whiskey (famous for containing all four food groups—alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat), we restored body and soul with Salmon Bites (yum!) and a rocking Irish breakfast of eggs, ham, bangers, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and black-and-white pudding. Breakfast is served all day, so don’t give up. Yet.
The Half-Door (Hartford, 860/232-7827, thehalfdoorhfd.com) is the house that wit built. It calls itself a traditional Irish pub and indeed, the place feels ancient in its bones. The expected dishes are served, including chicken potpie and Irish stew. But there are other olden dishes, such as a Scotch Egg, and surprising creativity as in the Warm Scallop Salad with cider dressing. We laughed out loud at entries like the Big Arse Breakfast and Box O’ Lucky Charms (“They’re magically delicious!”). Best of all was a rambling pitch about a brunch drink written by chef Matthew Backe and taped to the menu. It begins, “Next to ‘free,’ nothing starts a sentence better than the words ‘hot buttered.’” Patrons are treated to a new piece of his mind—and a new special—every week.
At some pubs, during off hours you get the sense that the bartender is slipping into the kitchen to heat up a pre-fab dish for you. Or maybe there’s a dishwasher back there, doing double-duty as a line cook. We suspected that was the situation at The Local Public House (Waterbury, 203/573-9355). Never mind; the place had so much personality (weekdays there’s a “Crappy Hour” with $2 beers) that we ordered anyway. The results were mixed—thumbs down to the corned-beef-and-cabbage chowder, thumbs up to the Irish Nachos—but there was a standout dish here, an old Irish staple named the Local Toastie. The mother of all comfort food, this was a golden, bubbling cheddar sandwich with sweet caramelized onions pressed against slices of thick bacon and tomato. With a side of chips, it was stuporific. More so on St. Patrick’s Day: That’s when the Local Public makes Boozy Toasties, using tomatoes infused with a Bloody Mary marinade. Hope there’s a cot in back.