Irish Eyes

Smiling over the shepherd's pie and a pint of Guinness at Wilde Oscar's

It was on a whim that I drove down to Fort Mason one cold and windy night to attend a reading advertised as a conversation with the renowned Irish author Edna O'Brien, on the occasion of the debut of her play Triptych at a neighboring theater, and the celebrated movie director Phil Kaufman. I got to the theater just as the ticket booth was opening, and a throng of mildly anxious theatergoers who also hadn't booked ahead were cheered to hear that there were 30 tickets still available. Clutching my next-to-the-last-row ticket (the worst remaining seat), I perused the mass of O'Brien books selling in the lobby (and threatening to collapse the folding table they were piled on). I was attracted to a copy of Mother Ireland, a memoir, with a strip of proper Irish green above an enchanting black-and-white photograph of two young (presumably) Irish girls in a (presumably) Irish field, but I didn't buy it. It cost $13, and I was sure I could find a sturdy hardcover copy in a dust jacket (maybe even a first edition) for less online, when I got home.

A terrific Irish band played in the lobby. After listening for a few minutes, the inevitable occurred — I decided I must have Irish pub food for supper after the event. I knew just where I wanted to go: Wilde Oscar's, a newish place on the corner of Folsom and 15th streets that I'd driven by several times, but never when I had the time to stop and hoist a few.

It was a Monday, so I found a pay phone and called, in case the place was closed. “Are you open for dinner tonight?” I asked, and the “Yes!” I received in response was tinged with a bit of surprise, the “of course” understood: Pubs are open every night of the week. (And afternoon.)

I relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. The “conversation” was actually a well-choreographed ménage à trois, with each artist questioned in turn by an erudite interlocutor. I was so charmed by Miss O'Brien's breathy brogue that I was first in line at the book stall to purchase that previously disdained pricey paperback of Mother Ireland; it would be the perfect thing to read over (I hoped) a steaming plate of shepherd's pie. Too bad, I thought with mild self-mockery, that I didn't have a tape or DVD of The Quiet Man waiting for me at home. Now that would be perfect.

Skirting the long line of cars inching their way out of the Fort Mason lot — I'd parked across the street — I zipped my way across town. “Clever girl,” I thought. “Clever clever girl, to have remembered Wilde Oscar's and phoned to make sure it was open.”

Having found an equally excellent parking space almost in front of Wilde Oscar's, I walked into a warm, steamy room, where a lank-haired folk singer strummed a guitar and sang about a guy who'd given her a pain in the arse, with the “r” heavily articulated. Perfect! I grabbed a menu: There was the shepherd's pie of my dreams — no, even better, because it was made with Niman Ranch ground chuck.

I said to the barkeep, “I'd like a Guinness and a shepherd's pie, please.”

And she said, “Sorry. Kitchen's closed.”

I couldn't believe my perfect evening was no longer perfect. “When did it close?” “9:30.” I looked at my watch. “It's 9:33!” I said, desperately glancing at the menu to see if I could find something that didn't need to be heated — a cheese sandwich, perhaps — so I could get my Irish fix. She was patient, even kindly, as she said, “Everything's all been cleaned up and put away.”

I slunk off, no longer such a clever clever girl (Note to self: Add, “Until when?” next time you call a restaurant and ask, “Are you serving dinner tonight?”), toward a cheese sandwich in my own damn house. And laughed when I read O'Brien's reference to “… director [Sean Aloysius] Ford during the making of The Quiet Man,” on Page 33 of Mother Ireland. And, in about three clicks online, found a first edition in a dust jacket for $5.

A few weeks later, I found myself in another lobby on another chilly night, waiting for a performance attended on a similar whim, but feeling less and less likely that I was going to get even one of the worst remaining seats as the clock ticked toward 8 and a steady stream of theatergoers with forethought showed up to honor their reservations. I was 16th on a waiting list for the brilliantly reviewed The Death of Meyerhold. The second the announcement was made that, sorry, all seats were filled, I flew out of the theater to my car. I needed a soothing hot meal, and this night I was not going to be denied.

The room was warm, as was the welcome, and I ordered a cup of New England clam chowder to go with the long-anticipated shepherd's pie and Guinness. “Are you from Ireland?” I asked the dark-haired woman who brought me my drink — stupidly, because she had the map of Ireland on her face (as they say), as well as the accent. “Yes,” she said, “from County Cork.” (O'Brien, I recalled, was from County Clare, but I'd finished her book, which named eating and drinking as two of the few sinless pleasures permitted in Ireland. Along with the carnival, the mission, and the races.)

The chowder was good — really good, in fact. I was amazed at its goodness: lots of chewy bits of clam and fresh vegetables in a broth whose texture and sweet flavor came clearly from real cream. Even with the shepherd's pie coming, I found myself wishing I'd ordered a bowl. The dense brown bread served with it was toothy and similarly genuine.

The shepherd's pie was also the real deal: an oval casserole of well-textured, well-spiced ground beef, with peas, cubed carrots, and plenty of sautéed onions under a layer of fluffy (as promised) mashed potatoes. It was exactly the dish I'd been longing for.

I wanted trifle for dessert (it's not on the menu, but “Trish can make it,” said my server, who turned out to be Anne Murray, the bar's owner, holding out hope that someday Trish might); I settled instead for chocolate mousse, which was really an unusually light-textured chocolate mousse pie, the slice barely holding together in a pool of cream on a plate dusted with cocoa. (Presentation is more key here than in most pubs I've been in.)

It was a delightful little supper, and all three courses and a glass of beer came to $20. I was happy to hear that the place does an Irish breakfast on the weekends (“All the meat imported from Ireland,” said Murray). As I exited under the legend painted over the door — “We at Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde's thank you for stopping by and drinking us dry” — I knew I'd be back soon.

Which turned out to be with Suzanne, for a Sunday brunch enlivened with excellent Bloody Marys. Her Irish breakfast was quite a plateful (two eggs any style, unfatty Irish bacon, Irish sausage, white and black pudding, a mountain of roast potatoes, and a cup of baked beans), and I thought the meats were lovely, especially the crisp-skinned, mildly porky link sausages and the mosaiclike slices of the “puddings,” cereal-and-pork sausages themselves, the black one colored dark with pig's blood. I wanted to try the salmon and potato cakes with fresh dill, but we were told, “They'll be ready in an hour; the chef's a bit behind.” He might have been recovering from the night before, because he sent out my eggs Benedict without the essential ham, although I barely missed it, as the blanket of billowing hollandaise was so luscious mixed with the yolks of the eggs. I liked the room in the thin daylight (especially the two huge oil paintings of Wilde), and I liked the Irish family, with three tots, having their own brunch nearby.

Which emboldened me to plan a family pub lunch, though pouring rain and the cold that was working its way around the clan turned it into a solitary and rather dispiriting meal. I enjoyed the sweet onion soup capped with toast and melted cheese, but I wouldn't call it “French,” since its paleness betrayed neither the requisite beef broth nor truly caramelized onions. I loved the long, golden, fried strips of cod in my fish and chips, but the house-cut chips visibly needed at least a few more minutes in the fryer. A couple at the bar raved over the roast chicken salad sandwich and the BLT (made with Irish bacon and garlic mayonnaise). The proper Irish lamb stew that I toted home made a pleasant supper, warmed up, while the rains pelted down.

But for a glass of expertly pulled dark Guinness with an inch-thick, creamy head, I'd have to go back to the pub.

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