In 1998, with my love of both riding and eating animals (not at the same time, nor the same animal) hitting its crescendo, I traveled to Ireland to do the Ring of Kerry on horseback and to study at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Cooking school in Ireland? Hard to imagine, I know, especially when Irish cuisine conjures up images of colcannon, cod (fried, of course), and other cholesterol and calorie-laden foods. But Ballymaloe draws people from around the world who appreciate chef Darina Allen’s sophisticated approach to Irish cooking.
Ten years later, the goal is to find good Irish food in Seattle. Frankly, I was hesitant to take this assignment: We asked three Irish pubs to prepare a St. Patrick’s Day dinner that would make this Darina-influenced, discriminating diner proud.
My first night after a day of cooking at Ballymaloe, some locals took me to a pub and told me that my Guinness “is like a blended sandwich, and frankly, better than any food you can find in this place.” Paddy Coyne’s reminds me of that Irish pub. It’s a pleasant enough place in the ever-growing South Lake Union area, where most anyone would feel comfortable taking a seat at the bar, in front of the fireplace, or, in my case, at a table by one of the broad, streetside windows. Most of the customers seem to know each other, clinking glasses in that “where everybody knows your name” sort of way.
Beyond the beer, though, the food is another story. For starters, the teriyaki chicken skewers with peanut sauce make me wonder whether I’ve crossed the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, at least until the potato skins remind me that this is basic pub grub. The potato and leek soup is underseasoned and gluey; the same can be said for the Guinness-braised Irish beef stew. And while I had heard good things about the fish and chips, the breading is heavier than I like, and the accompanying cole slaw is undressed – the driest I’ve ever seen. Feeling overstuffed and understimulated, I pick at the chocolate bread pudding with Jameson butterscotch sauce. But it’s too dense, and combined with some whiskey praline ice cream, I can’t stomach much more of it.
Paddy Coyne’s is inviting, but not inventive. It’s delightful for drinking, but the food is just filler. This night leaves me leery about the two Irish meals still to come.
The next night, still stuffed, I’m off to T.S. McHugh’s. Stepping inside, the overall feel is a bit sparse, quiet, and kind of tired. Starting to dread another Irish dinner, I perk up when I see the Ballymaloe Cookery School mentioned in the menu. Is there hope?
The artichoke hearts au gratin, lacking zip, are not an audacious start, but the ploughman’s platter offers more promise, highlighted by a tasty lamb and pork banger. Two large platters, dominated by protruding puff pastry, deliver mixed news. The bad: the champ (Irish mashed potatoes) lack taste and proper texture; the salt seems to all be in the squash, making both side dishes inedible. The good: the beef and Guinness pie is enjoyably earthy. Even better is the Dingle pie, made with lamb and roasted vegetables, tasting almost creamy. The secret is roasted cumin (lamb and cumin are a classic combination in some of my favorite Chinese dishes, such as simple skewers I’ve eaten in Shanghai) according to the owner who, it turns out, went to Ballymaloe years ago to bring back recipes for the restaurant. One is what will be my favorite dessert of the three restaurants: Darina Allen’s bread and butter pudding, with its warm egg custard and deliciously plump raisins reminding me of Ireland.
Where I see Paddy Coyne’s as more of a drinking spot, careful combing of the menu can make T.S. McHugh’s an eligible eatery for a pre-game or pre-theater bite. The Ballymaloe dishes are worth more ballyhoo, and I’d like to see the restaurant faithfully reproduce more of those recipes.
I’m still waiting to be wowed, worried St. Patrick will bring pizza this year. Can Mulleady’s wake up my taste buds and save the day?
The answer is a resounding yes. The space is open, warm and welcoming, and I’m told the place is transitioning to a gastropub, so I get to sample some interesting twists on traditional Irish cuisine. This food is creative and elevated. (That said, even the traditional Guinness Irish stew is the best I’ve tried locally.) The two appetizers are immediate winners. Pig ear stuffed with hedgehog mushrooms, smoked pork shank and carrots reflects the Irish imperative to eat the whole beast, nose to tail. The texture contrast is wonderful. The same is true for the lamb and barley fritters (again crispy outside and creamy inside), served with a refreshing lemon-mint sauce and green pea puree. Next, a far cry from fried fish, sockeye salmon gravlox comes topped with clover sprouts and sits on a bed of – check the twist on potatoes – sunchoke latkes, offered with a trio of sauces (kumquat is my favorite). The cider-braised pork belly is tender, and though not as fatty as I prefer, delicious with the maple-nut brown ale sauce. Best of all is the belly’s accompaniment: a tart of apricots and perfectly roasted cabbage that gives great balance to the overall dish. Eye-opening and mouth-watering! Apricots reappear in an apple-citrus bread pudding with caramel sauce, an elegant end to a surprisingly elegant meal.
I’m happy at last, and glad I persevered through the Irish food challenge. I want to drink and eat here. If Mulleady’s can go gastropub, I believe it can transform from a little-known neighborhood eatery to a true destination for dining.