Certain locations seem to bode ill for restaurants, at least until they get the eatery that's right for the site. One prime corner in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, for instance, saw five good restaurants come and go in seven years, until a branch of Cha Am (a Thai-made-easy minichain) moved in and overcame the jinx. Locally, the delightful Ruby's Nightshade just succumbed to another doomed location, depriving Kabuki-goers of intermission intromissions of life-restoring Deadly Nightshades.
Evidently, the old dinner-and-a-flick dating ritual has truly expired: A few doors from the Coronet, the fusion-food palace Orocco died despite rave reviews, and was replaced by Sinead's (named for the owner's baby daughter). Last September, just as the latter was gathering media kudos for its "upscale Irish" cuisine, the chef was abruptly canned. The food cost too much to attract the crowd the owner aimed at -- young Irish immigrants recently flocked to the city. The kitchen was revamped, prices were lowered, and at 10 p.m. the space converts to a nightclub with live music or disco.
It was time for someone to look into Sinead's current incarnation for good or ill. The luck of the Irish furnished TJ (12.5 percent Irish) and me (0 percent) with right and ready partners: Some 20 months ago, John arrived from a village 50 miles south of Dublin ("County Carlow is the Kansas of Ireland," he explains), and found work at the corner grocery. His friend Edna, from another Irish cow-town 10 miles away from his, has been here three years. On a Friday night we gathered in Sinead's striking circular bar area and had our ears blasted by the Gipsy Kings. "This is Irish music?" TJ shouted. "Well," I bellowed, "there's an ancient connection between the Spanish and Gaelic peoples: Molly Bloom, in Joyce's Ulysses, was born on Gibraltar and had Spanishy eyes." We moved on to the handsome, chilly table area under high wooden rafters, with wide-spaced wooden tables, corkscrewy copper light sconces, and unlabeled B&W stills from Irish-American movies. We identified The Informer, The Quiet Man, and Miller's Crossing. The last reminded us of its gorgeous soundtrack, which we all wished we were hearing instead of loud pop flamenco.
The bread basket was authentic indeed, and wonderful. The dense, wheaty Irish brown bread was just like John's mother's: "I haven't had this in several years," he rejoiced. "The Americans usually make it too fluffy." The cakelike white soda bread dotted with raisins was just like Edna's mother's.
Two of our appetizers were slightly Celtic. The Irish smoked salmon I've occasionally found at local stores resembles the Scottish product, which has the texture of Nova lox but a little more smoke. Sinead's oak-smoked version ($6), in rather thick slices, had a harsh, unfinished-furniture flavor (familiar to anyone who's ever mistaken Goodman Lumber for a salad bar). Despite the scattered capers and tasty spring greens accompaniment, it mainly got left. The other Celt-oid appetizer was a fine marinated beet salad ($6), with red and gold beets on baby spinach with a lively orange juice vinaigrette. "In Ireland we have these red beetroots but not the yellow," John commented. "Golden beets are Californian," I said. "Burpee Seed Company invented them."
The other two starters were total exotica to our friends. "They do have calamari in Ireland -- at fancy restaurants in the city," John said. "I've never had it before, myself." He instantly developed a taste for Sinead's excellent fried calamari ($6), with its crisp, well-seasoned batter. The accompanying "chili mayonnaise dip" tasted like regular tartar sauce, though, and both TJ and I soon abandoned the dubious adornment and ate our squids straight-up. We also tried an appetizer of baked brie with roast garlic ($7). "What's brie?" John asked. "We don't have that, we have Cheddar," Edna laughed. "This must be a French thing," John mused, dipping in. A gratin dish held a melted quarter-pound wedge, rich but stodgy, with a few browned garlic cloves afloat, accompanied by slices of onion focaccia for sopping. Bamboozled, perhaps, by those Gipsy Kings, I'd expected less cheese and more garlic (i.e., a whole roasted head).
TJ and I voiced surprise that the main courses didn't include corned beef and cabbage. "At home you don't find that in restaurants," Edna said. "It's a holiday dish; it's not everyday." "Our corned beef comes in dry cubes, not slabs still in the brine," John added. "When I started working at the deli counter, I didn't even recognize your version. 'Well, that's not corned beef,' I said. My boss said, 'Trust me, it is!' What we do eat is bacon and cabbage -- our bacon is like your corned beef. I'm surprised this place has none of the cabbage dishes we eat all the time -- no colcannon, no 'bubble and squeak' ...."
We decided that Sinead's will probably offer corned beef for St. Patrick's Day. "Here, they make much more of a fuss over St. Paddy's," said John. "In Ireland it's mostly a religious holiday and an excuse to get drunk. Why do you suppose all the fuss over here?"
"I think it's because everybody's families came from somewhere else," I said. "Now that we're all here together, every group makes a fuss about their national origin. They don't just take it for granted the way people do in countries where everyone's the same."
For a main course John chose Irish stew ($8.50), described on the menu as "lamb and vegetables cooked in a rich hearty broth." There was a lot of broth but hearty it wasn't; it was pale and yellowish, bearing a few mushy wisps of diced potatoes and carrots, and small chunks of lamb that could've used longer cooking. "Irish stew is supposed to be ploughman food -- thick and dark with a lot more potatoes," John noted. "This is too watery, too light." Edna's two hefty grilled pork chops ($10) were good and juicy, with the black crosshatching of a gas grill. They came with "apple honey sauce," a pleasantly tart, coarse-textured applesauce that we all loved, though we couldn't taste any honey. "My mom makes these," Edna said. "They're stewed apples -- just cooked in their own juices with no sweetening added to them." Sharing the plate were some overboiled nude veggies and a heap of "fennel creamed potatoes" in which the middle word again seemed inoperative. Edna identified it as authentic home-style Irish cooking -- that is, probably boiled until the potatoes fall apart and the water cooks away, leaving a lean, pleasant "mash" made with no cream or milk. The same vegetable assortment came with my grilled "Gaelic steak" ($13), a 10-ounce flavorful rib eye, probably choice grade, done rare as requested, topped with sliced wild mushrooms (perhaps mere shiitakes, but they tasted mighty wild) in a delicious red-brown Irish whiskey glaze. I thought both the grilled meats were real bargains at Sinead's prices. But TJ was out of luck with baked red snapper ($10) in white wine, topped with tomato slices and feta crumbles, and oven-braised until all the flavor was leeched out and the fish-flesh was dry. "What kind of fish is this?" Edna asked. "Dead fish," I answered. However, the accompanying herb-roasted red potatoes were dilly and crisp-crusted.
Meanwhile, from a short, unexciting list of mainly California wines, Edna and I shared a bland $21 Bonterra chardonnay (at nearly triple-retail markup), while our beer-drinking gent friends had a world of choices, including Guinness on tap ($4). For dessert, though, I made up for it with a glorious Irish coffee ($4) -- strong and not oversweet, sharpened by a double shot of Paddy's, with a mere daub of whipped cream scattered with bitter chocolate shavings. It was a good foil for the very sweet desserts. Irish Mist creme caramel ($4) had a heavy, eggy custard with the classic thin caramel liquid on top. "Another French dish," said John, as he and Edna polished it off. Vanilla cream-cheese cake ($4) was tall and rich. "Now, this is my idea of cheesecake," said TJ. "Sure, it's homemade Sara Lee's," I sniped. "Quite heavy," said John, evaluating it carefully -- neither he nor Edna had even heard of cheesecake before their arrival in the U.S. Chocolate truffle torte ($5) was, of course, a chocolate decadence, very close to Narsai David's original of the 1970s -- mainly just bittersweet chocolate and butter, like a humongous truffle for folks who can't eat just one. "This tastes just like our Bournemouth candy bars back home," said John. "They're less popular than regular [milk] chocolate, but those that like them, demand them."
By now, they were starting to roll up the dining floor and turn it into a disco, and with the first squawks from the loudspeakers we made tracks. Checking back with John and Edna, they said they wouldn't go out of their way for another dinner at Sinead's. On the other hand, I thought that if there was something good at the Coronet I'd ask Sinead's if they would disguise their squid as popcorn so we could sneak it inside.
Errata: In our review of Vinga, while awaiting arrival of our new eyeglasses, we placed Barcelona on the Atlantic instead of the Mediterranean. We also referred to Catalan as a "dialect." Catalan is actually a language, not a dialect, and is largely incomprehensible to Spanish-speakers.