Finnegans Cake

O'Reilly's Irish Puband Restaurant
622 Green (at Stockton), 989-6222. Open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Irish breakfast until 4 p.m. every day. Dinner reservations required for special feasts (e.g., St. Patrick's Day). The restaurant is wheelchair accessible but bathrooms are tight for larger chairs. Street parking hopeless; city garage on Vallejo and two small, expensive private lots on the block all fill up early. Muni: 15, 30, 41, and 45. Sound level: lively.

A striking mural on the far wall of the barroom depicts Ireland's great modern writers at a pub table: Here sit O'Casey, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, and Beckett; young Brendan Behan stands glass in hand, perhaps framing a toast to James Joyce, who sits a little apart, head cocked, regarding O'Reilly's patrons in silence. Outside, a small poster depicts the historic sites of Bloomsday (June 16, the day on which all the action of Joyce's Ulysses took place), while inside, gracious staffers speak softly in their various Ould Sod lilts.

Joyce also adorns the menu cover in the adjoining restaurant, opened four years ago by world-traveling Dubliner Myles O'Reilly. The left side of the dinner menu offers Celtic classics (fresh oysters, Colcannon, Irish stew, et al.) and hearty pub grub (huge burgers, fish with double-fried "chips"). The right half lists fancier fare (pastas, rack of lamb, seafood), re-flecting not only California tastes, but the rising foodiness of the homeland: Traditional Irish cooking relied on simple preparations of fresh ingredients (e.g., Eire's superb lamb and rich, cold-water salmon), but ambitious Dublin restaurants and rural resorts are now developing a worldly "New Irish Cooking," treating these good Gaelic ingredients to Gallic techniques and more adventurous seasonings.

Irish pubs are always finding excuses for parties. This month's party will be, of course, St. Paddy's; last month's was Valentine's Day, the occasion for a Medieval Feast ($25 prix fixe), loosely based on the medieval banquets that several castles in Ireland currently stage for tourists.

That evening, the staff were charmingly costumed and an acoustic band played jigs and reels on fiddle, concertina, and bodhran (Irish drum). The wood-paneled dining room is, if not quite medieval, well-encrusted in antiques, with cobblestones (from the famed Temple Bar) on the floor, 18th-century stained glass insets in the windows, and an 1810 Dublin streetlight stanchion looming over the corner between the pub and the restaurant. Though the medieval menu wasn't very medieval, either -- sorry, it was already the Renaissance when Columbus discovered potatoes -- it did show off the kitchen's nouveau-Irish skills.

"Love Potion Soup" was a light, velvety chowder (based on house-made chicken stock) of smoked and fresh salmon and potatoes, with weightless, toothsome deep-fried dill croutons afloat on the surface. "Romantic Melodies" were emerald-hued cantaloupe balls in whipped creme fra”che, their inner orangeness Irishly masked by maceration in green creme de menthe. And buttery puff pastry made a tender, flaky mattress for tiny shrimps and scallops in a chardonnay-touched light cream sauce.

Romantic indeed was tender chicken breast stuffed with crab and crisply breaded, highlighted by a dreamy lemon-saffron cream sauce lent zest by piquant slivers of lemon peel. A heap of dead-plain butterless mashed potatoes absorbed this elixir, and were transformed from pauperish to princely, while alongside was an intriguing semimashed root blend, which rigorous analysis revealed to be carrots and parsnips. A bowlful of angel hair was dressed with smoky-sweet grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, wild mushrooms, and melting goat cheese, the melange growing tastier as it cooled and the flavors snuggled together. For dessert ($4-5), a moist Guinness chocolate cake tasted powerfully of hops; it would have been a fine sweet for the legendary Finnegan, who (in the old ballad) sat up at his own wake demanding a drink. Strawberry cheesecake was its delicate opposite, barely heavier than sugared air.

My favorite dessert was an Irish coffee, its thick, unsweetened whipped cream topping sprinkled with a few melting grains of brown sugar. For less potent beverages, the wine list is brief, reasonable, and adequate, recently expanded by a house-labeled Oregon pinot noir. An impressive brew assortment includes choices from Ireland, England, Germany, Holland, and several California microbreweries.

We returned on an ordinary night with a well-traveled guest from County Waterford (source of cut glass), this time to sample the folk fare from the left side of the menu. Happily chewing over the house-baked brown soda bread (made with wheat and oat flours, lightened by buttermilk), our friend found it milder and denser but less fibrous than his hometown's sturdy version. Smoked salmon on boxty ($7) presented a generous portion of satiny cold-smoked Irish lox, tactfully assertive in flavor. Garnished with creme fra”che and all the chives you could want, it was served over a pleasingly chewy potato-and-flour "pancake" (more of a galette, really). Armagh crab cakes ($7), however, were rather stodgy but for the accompanying spring greens salad with a slightly sweet dressing.

Lamb stew ($9) in classic Celtic fashion had unbrowned meat and a pale but hearty potato-thickened gravy. O'Reilly's improved this rainy-night soother with a chicken stock base and hints of thyme, cumin, cayenne, and a lot of coarse-ground black pepper. Chunks of carrots, celery, scallion greens, and potatoes surrounded succulent cubes of fatless, gristle-free boneless lamb neck.

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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