O'Dud's

O'Dowd's Little Dublin dresses well, but eats unkempt

Dear Mr. O'Dowd:

Right off the top I'll admit I don't know much about Irish food (is there a lot to know?). I'm German. And there's not a whole lot to know about German food either, at least not in a haute sense. Assembling cool kitchen appliances, we've got that nailed. Building hot SUVs in Alabama, got that down pat. But food? Germans are known for dishes like stuffed sow's paunch. What more needs to be said?

I'm not really hip to Irish culture and customs either, other than what I've gleaned from the first page and a half of Finnegan's Wake and the River Dance commercials on cable (I've always admired how your folk artists have the good sense not to wear lederhosen). Also, I was born in a city (Chicago) that had a famous Irish mayor (Richard Daley). Historically, Daley was known as one of the most effective big-city mayors and also the most personally moral (he didn't drink to excess and was fiercely loyal to his family). Daley was also an astute innovator, having pioneered the use of county coroners and morticians in voter-registration drives.

That, of course, has nothing to do with Irish pubs. I've always been a fan of pubs -- Irish, German, or other. As you know, pubs are generally places that have little to do with food and have a lot to do with bonding, camaraderie, and most important, thirst quenching. So who cares how good the food is, as long as it's edible and soaks up the stout?

I'm not sure I know the answer to that. But I look at O'Dowd's Little Dublin Irish Ale House and Pub, and I think good God, you've spent bundles of green on that patch of McKinney Avenue real estate. Press materials boast the entire O'Dowd's interior was designed and built in Dublin by Irish craftsmen and then imported directly to McKinney. Bars, booths, tables, chairs, stairways, banisters, and columns are either genuine antiques or reproductions made of dark mahogany and pine. Some materials were acquired from ancient Irish churches and other old Irish buildings and are "true to the authenticity of the finest Irish pubs throughout history."

My question, Mr. O'Dowd, is with all of this time and effort expended on atmospheric and structural authenticity, why was there not an equal focus on the food? Not that your fare is bad, or rather, not that it's as bad as it could be. And some of the little twists in the menu work fairly well. Guinness beef crostini ($7.50) with those strips of meat braised in stout beer and served on a crostini carpeted in Brie and covered with mozzarella, is a stout-foam spit in the eye to the French (and maybe the Italians). Plus, the blue cheese dipping sauce is smooth and silky. But the meat is a little dry and tough. Cure that shortcoming, and you'll have a killer pub munch.

Another good twist is the spring lamb sandwich ($6.50), a slice of lamb meatloaf slipped between a hoagie bun that holds listless lettuce, tomato, and onion. The meat is alluringly sweet and gamy, but drier than a Baptist wedding reception. A ramekin of delicious jus crowded with rosemary needles aided the meat somewhat. But you know, meatloaf isn't that hard to keep moist, even the sheep kind.

Dryness really wrecks one Irish staple: corned beef and cabbage ($9.50). Strips of ruddy beef are exceptionally arid, to the extent that each bite needed a slug of brew to wash the chips and crumbles down. But maybe that's the idea. Nuzzled next to the meat is a heap of washed-out red cabbage pulp that's virtually tasteless. The really weird thing is that the side of steamed vegetables -- zucchini, squash, etc. -- is far better than the cabbage. That's pretty weird for an Irish pub, don't you think?

Your place comes pretty close to an authentic Irish pub, at least judging from blurbs and illustrations I've seen in travel books and descriptions I've heard from those who have been in a real one. It's dark and cozy. Patrons cackle and chortle. Smoke billows where, in these strenuously PC times, smoke is permitted to billow. There's even a brown ceiling with swirls and outlines that look like water stains, suggesting perhaps that authentic Irish pubs leak. A snug little Bailey's corner with little stools and a strange sloping sofa that looks like it was plucked from a fashion-conscious living room in North Dallas has been reserved, I guess, for sipping Bailey's Irish Cream.

You've also assembled a list of Irish sayings on the menu. My favorite is "is maith an t-annlann an t-ocras," or "hunger is the best sauce." I found myself wishing for a good ladleful of that when the fish and chips arrived, given how ox-chokingly generous the dish was. Now, if there's anything other than corned beef and cabbage one might expect O'Dowd's to do admirably, it's the thing you call Old Dublin-style fish & chips ($7.95). But this generous assortment of beer-battered cod planks was dismal. The thick batter coat was greasy and gummy, and it easily separated from the fish, which was a blessing, because the fish wasn't bad: moist, sweet, and flaky. Chips were fairly good too.

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