Finnegans Cake

Equally outstanding was the juicy, coarse-ground meat of the cottage pie ($7.50), a beef version of the more familiar shepherd's pie. (Ground to order for the restaurant, this beef also goes into O'Reilly's burgers, topped with imported white Irish Cheddar.) Mingling with the meat were finely diced carrots and celery and rich, dark, flavorsome gravy, under a "crust" of well-seasoned, buttery mashed potatoes.

Contrary to rumor, corned beef and cabbage ($10.75) is not an Irish dish. In Eire, the cabbage is cooked with Irish bacon, a lean smoked loin like our Canadian bacon. (This original bacon version will be featured on the St. Patrick's Day feast menu.) Our guest reminisced that in his childhood, not everyone could afford the meat, so after one family poached bacon and cabbage, they'd pass the bacon-flavored water to the next family to cook its cabbage in.

When the Irish migrated to America, they found our bacon both exorbitant and excessively fatty, and substituted cheap corned beef. In turn, Irish-Americans visiting the ancestral homeland demanded the revised version, and in the last few decades it's percolated into home kitchens there. "The only way you can ruin corned beef," our friend's mother would say, "is by soaking it so much it loses its flavor, or undercooking it as though it were bacon." At O'Reilly's, the corned beef emerged, alas, simultaneously tasteless and chewy. "They must be real Irish cooks here," our friend opined. "They've oversoaked and undercooked it -- but at least they've topped it right," that is, with parsley-dotted white sauce. Underneath was authentic thin-shredded cabbage; alongside were soggy snow peas and a reprise of the first night's butterless mashed potatoes (but without the enchanting sauce to soak up this time).

I'd order nearly any other dish again -- we were delighted by both the other classics and the feast's more ambitious fare, and especially the superlative baked goods; I'd come back for breakfast, if only I ate breakfast. "I thought, being an Irish pub in California," said our guest, "the food would be spiced up for local tastes, but they really respected the basic nature of our cuisine. I feel I've really eaten Irish food here.

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