Two out of three ain't bad

The beer and the company are great at the Tipperary Inn. Just stay away from the food.

There's one thing you can say about the best in Irish cuisine: If you drink too much of it, you completely lose the ability to enunciate consonants.

Now, it would be way too easy to suggest that the Tipperary Inn is a great place to dine, as long as you don't eat anything. So I'll let Tipperary Inn owner Martin Lombard do all the heavy lifting. When his Irish pub opened some eight years ago, published reports quoted Lombard stating he wouldn't serve pure Irish food, because if he did, no one in Texas would eat the stuff. "In Ireland, it's cold and it's wet and it's kind of miserable, so we're big meat and potatoes kind of guys," he explains. "We've kind of adapted the recipes to suit Texas."

He does this by perking up dishes with peppers, extra salt, scallions, and even basil. He scatters his reasonably priced menu with things like chips and green-chili-tomato salsa, Guinness queso and chips, and Caesar salad among a selection of sandwiches, shepherd's pie, and boxty (Irish potato pancakes).

"In Ireland we use so little in the way of seasoning, even salt, you know," Lombard adds. "Some of the food is very, very bland."

That's why it's hard to know whether what you're eating is authentically bad, or just plain bad. Case in point: traditional Irish stew with lamb. This recipe is generally composed of equal portions of meat, potato, and onion slow-cooked for a few hours and then left to sit so the flavors can meld. But this version was runny, and to borrow a term from Lombard, bland. Plus, there was little of anything swimming in this brown, viscous lake to sink your teeth into. I counted four chunks of meat (dry and fibrous), three bits of carrot, six pieces of celery, and amazingly, zero potato pieces. Dinty Moore is more generous.

But I kept hope alive, until I sampled the corned beef and cabbage. Strips of dry, overcooked meat were arranged next to mushy, washed-out cabbage. The only point of redemption on the plate was the colcannon: milk- and butter-moistened mashed potatoes laced with chopped cabbage. These creamy potatoes with a slightly pungent cabbage spark make a visit to Tipperary Inn worth the effort.

Unfortunately, little else does, at least when it comes to the food. The mixed grill, a collection of sausages (bangers and pudding) and meats, was mostly samples of material that might better be suited to shoe repair. The bangers, links made from ground pork and bread, were dry, shriveled, and leathery. Slices of pudding--white and black pig's blood--were like miniature hockey pucks. One piece was so hard that when I tried to cut it with a fork, the downward pressure projected the thing off into the distance and forced the plate into my pint of beer, sloshing the stuff all over the table. The only worthy occupant on the plate was the chewy and flavorful Irish bacon, which tasted even better splashed with beer.

Other things lifted the general tenor a bit. Besides tasty wedge-cut seasoned fries, the basket of fish and chips held moist pollock sheathed in a thick, crisp coating. I just wish the fish weren't so doggone greasy.

Irish dry smoked salmon and soda bread with diced tomato, onion, capers, and cream cheese was smooth and tender with lots of silky smokiness. The hearts of palm salad, quartered palm-heart spears, was limp and looked thrown together instead of thoughtfully arranged. But the quartered cherry tomatoes were juicy and flush with flavor, while the roasted green, yellow, and red bell peppers were an effectively sweet counterpoint.

Despite being overcooked and dry, the Irish bacon burger with blarney cheese still had a lot of flavor, and those seasoned fries were even tastier on this plate, without the least bit of greasiness.

But let's be honest, food in an Irish pub was never meant for sensuous bedazzlement. It has a strictly utilitarian purpose: to soak up pints of Harp so the brain doesn't bear the brunt of a malted-barley washout and start ordering the mouth to articulate complicated terms beyond its physical limitations. Budweiser, for instance.

And Tipperary has a tightly focused selection of brews that definitely require a belly sop-up. There are stouts (Guinness, Murphy's), ales (New Castle Brown, Bass, Belhaven, Pete's Wicked), and wheats and lagers (Warsteiner, Pilsner Urquell), as well as bottled brews from Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, and the United States, among other places.

Yet even in this culinary environment there are opportunities for imaginative pub play. Pretzels with horseradish mustard sauce, listed on the appetizer menu, piqued my interest--especially at two bucks and a quarter. I guess I expected some kind of large salt-encrusted soft dough knot with a splash of Guinness baked into it or something. Instead, this opportunity for a clever Irish twist was squandered: It was nothing more than a basket of Mr. Salty tiny twists with a plastic cup of Dijon. Don't most pubs shovel this sort of thing out gratis to pave mouths for additional beer washes?

Once a manager of the Galleria restaurant Huntington's, Lombard, along with his wife, Anne, opened Tipperary Inn on lower Greenville Avenue in 1990. Four years ago, they moved their pub to a spacious location on Live Oak near Skillman. Decor is limited to posters for Guinness and Harp, Jameson Irish whiskey, and Pete's Wicked Ale. It's a comfortable spot with live Irish and Celtic music, darts, shuffleboard, billiards, trivia contests, and service that's warm and inviting. Plus, the camaraderie of the patrons, seemingly regulars, is infectious. Tipperary Inn would be a great place to hang if it just had a tighter grip on the grub.

The stone-crab claws at Truluck's Steak and Stone Crab, the Addison restaurant that just replicated in the former Fog City Diner space on McKinney, are ruinously expensive. A sampler platter consisting of a pair each of medium, large, and jumbo claws plus one colossal one is around 50 bucks.

That's why I was thrilled to learn that Coconut Grill, the new casual seafood venue on Skillman Avenue in the former Blue Conch digs, was offering all-you-can-eat stone crabs Monday nights for $16.95. (Truluck's has the same Monday-night deal for $34.95.) Stone crabs, shellfish that congregate mostly around Florida and the Caribbean, have large crusher claws they can jettison when spooked. Hence, fisherman harvest the crabs, lop off that claw, and toss the amputees back in the water, where they regenerate another lemon-butter dipper in roughly 18 months.

The meat isn't generally as rich as snow or king crab, but it tends to be succulent. Coconut Grill serves its dismembered crustaceans either hot or cold.

A handful of unbroken claws is delivered in a basket along with a mallet, a cracker, and a board upon which to smash the appendages. This creates all sorts of relentless all-you-can-eat havoc with racket and crab debris exploding everywhere. I witnessed one man, planted on a barstool, catapulting a piece of claw shell through the air and right into the cleavage of the startled bartender. Kinetic entertainment is what this is.

Unfortunately, eating the stuff is far less engaging. Though much better than the hot claws, which tended to be overcooked, dry, and fibrous, the cold crushers were still mushy (some of them squirted) and relatively flavorless. A side of mustard sauce did little to ease the pain.

Lest you think the above was just a case of mishandled body parts, let me assure you that whole crab cadavers were just as disabled. A pair of grilled soft-shell crabs plopped on a bed of rice pilaf were tough and rubbery on the outside, bland and squishy on the inside.

Items off the sandwich side of the menu were more successful. The fish sandwich, grilled or fried tilapia on a bun with tomato slices, shreds of lettuce, and a chunkless tartar sauce, was moist and fresh, but strenuously bland. Fish tacos were similar. While the soft tortillas held creamy ripe avocado wedges and fresh pico de gallo, they were saddled with moist but flaccidly flavored fried fish. A side of bright red salsa, culinary napalm without any redeeming roundness, was utterly useless as a taste enhancer.

The only item that seemed to hold its own was the boiled shrimp: six pieces of moist, firm, and sweet half-moon krill with cocktail sauce.

A partnership between Aw Shucks and Blue Goose founder Bob Peterson (who also owned Blue Conch) and Tom O'Leary, owner of the defunct O'Leary's Bar & Grill, Coconut Grill is a cool, crisp neighborhood slot with a spectacularly detailed beach mural painted on the walls. Apply that same brush to the food, and this place would be unsinkable.

Tipperary Inn. 5815 Live Oak at Skillman, (214) 823-7167. Open daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m. $-$$

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