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Sure, the jokes are hard-earned (I like the one about the Irish seven-course meal: a six-pack and a baked potato), but you’ve got to hand it to the Irish for seeming to insist on complete disinterest in all matters culinary when their famously unimaginative take on seafood and potatoes achieves an accidental perfection. Forget about fixing what might possibly be broke. Wouldn’t that time be better spent shouting back at anyone who’d dare suggest that fish and chips are actually British?
Like all stereotypes, the ones pertaining to Irish food are laced with bullshit, and in America, there’s money to be made in pointing out as much. At first whiff, this seems to be the concept behind Biddy Mulligan’s, the restaurant and bar wedged into the bottom of the newly renovated Doyle Washington Hotel. Its menu is packed with items like duck meatloaf and smoked-salmon cheesecake; it even shares a kitchen (and bathroom) with Claddagh’s, a fine-dining joint that dares to marry Irish food with the techniques (and prices) of new American cuisine. (Lobster shepherd’s pie, anyone?)
Pause before rolling over in your grave. Mulligan’s knows where its bread is buttered. Not only was the place bulging with bodies on St. Patrick’s Day, but its fried fish is superb. I can’t find more than two staffers who agree as to exactly what rough beast is hidden beneath the batterI’d say cod; two waiters won’t even hazard a guesswhich is no biggie, because fish isn’t really the point. The secret’s in the crisp, beer-scented sheathing, which is brown where blistered, golden everywhere else, and nearly doubles the original size of the moist, white flesh it contains. As for the chips, I’ve seen them before, in Great Britain. A little patch of potato skin shows up on the tip of almost every rod. Some are fried to a crunch, some are soggy, and some are in between, almost perfect. The guy working the fryer probably knows that the chips’ quality will vary. That’s why he gives you so many.
Locally, Mulligan’s, which opened in January, is not quite at the vanguard of modernizing the Irish pub. Fadó, the chain that landed in Chinatown just in time for the MCI Center’s invasion, got here first, and the faux-torchlight glow of Mulligan’s dining room suggests an ambition to duplicate the wizard’s-lair decor of its downtown rival. But in fact, if you’re not sitting at the bar, you’ll notice that Mulligan’s wisely borrows most of its ambiance from outside. The restaurant’s windowside seats are about as close to Dupont Circle as you can get without being in it. I hope the place stays in business, because it’s the only restaurant in town that’s managed to bring the circle indoors.
But from the looks of things, Mulligan’s doesn’t need my prayers. It’s routinely filled, in the great tradition of stateside Irish pubs, with people deciding to get with the programhalf-reformed barflies all of a sudden discovering that Jameson’s their brand, Van Morrison’s their man, and Harp’s smooth as spring water. Appetizers are also big, and, given the pubby atmosphere, it’s no shock that the kitchen’s made the slightly tweaked standbyspotato skins served with horseradish-spiked sour cream, chicken strips fried in ale batter, mussels doused in garlicky marinara, pleasantly crisp hot wingsenough times to get them right.
The chances that you’ll leave happy turn slimmer if you travel further out on the limb when you order, but the good news is that cheaper usually equals better. Mulligan’s house “broth” is delicious: a thick soup brimming with wilted kale and plump coins of blood sausage. Purists will cringe at the sight of oysters that have been fried then returned to their shell to be covered in melted brie, but I’ll ‘fess up to happily washing back a plateful with two pints of Caffrey’s. The sandwiches are mostly routine, but one that’s nota BLT with lobsterworks, thanks to thick bacon, real lobster, and bread that’s been toasted on the grill.
All of the tables are equipped with a bottle of malt vinegar, a condiment you might consider deploying in strange circumstances. The entrees that two friends and I order one night are bland enough that, tastewise, they’re hard to tell apart. But their flaws are distinct: The duck meatloaf is in need of grit to redeem its mushiness. The shepherd’s pie has the look of something that’s been assembledas opposed to cut from a pieand its cabernet-rosemary demi-glace doesn’t bring it to life. What the menu bills as Guinness-braised short ribs is actually a stew crying out for salt.
In some ways, Mulligan’s does itself a disservice by executing the predictable things well. What’s the point in taking chances with ground duck when the fish and chips are top-notch? Mulligan’s sours me on Irish food’s haute potential as much as it reinvigorates my passion for the same-old, although, to judge from what I see on other people’s tables, the restaurant’s customers are seeing only its good side. (The kitchen has quit making the salmon cheesecake, I’m told, because of diner disinterest.) It’s not until I try the decent pumpkin charlottereasonably fluffy, surrounded by clumps of honey-bound nutsthat I decide I’ll try the frou-frou food next door at the perpetually empty Claddagh’s. The rule I make is that I’ll only give it a try if I arrive to find other peopleanyonein the dining room. It never happens.
Biddy Mulligan’s, 1500 New Hampshire Ave. NW, (202) 483-6000.
Fish and chips aside, Mulligan’s doesn’t cater to every facet of the Irish food jonessoda bread, corned beef (OK, it’s Irish-American), and meat stew are all conspicuously absent from its menu. Murphy’s in Old Town Alexandria (there’s also a location in Woodley Park) has been perfecting its stew for years, as some of the bartenders are quick to point out. Traditionalists may quibble that the dish is made with beef as opposed to lamb, but there’s no denying its meritsmeat so tender it falls apart with a harsh glance, potato chunks big as a baby’s fist, and enough carrots to make you think you’re getting your vitamins. The gravy’s even got a kick to it. “Kind of like gumbo,” says one guy a couple of stools down, “only blander.”
Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub, 713 King St., Alexandria, (703) 548-1717.Brett Anderson