The pub is packed. Every tiny table is occupied. But just as we walk in, a spot opens by the window in the raised seating area to the left of the bar. It could be romantic, even if the view is just parked cars off Gaston Avenue in the foreground and a Wells Fargo building next to a large parking lot in the background. Could be romantic, but isn't. A thick black box dangles from chains against the inside window: a neon "open" sign. The cheesy light kills any quaintness threatening to take hold in the coarse, cramped space. Sills are deeply soiled.
At the bar, drinkers are packed three deep. Guys with day-old beards and wearing ball caps and zippered jackets muscle to the bar. Once they've scored, they drift to spots richer in space. But they don't fist beers. They sip wine, sloshing their drinks as they gesture. Two tall, thin women with short hair embrace at the corner of the bar. One wears tight jeans and a lacy white blouse with most of the buttons undone in a casually erotic rift. The other is a pub frump. They fire up cigarettes, sharing a flame. Lots of cigarettes smolder here, but not much smoke rolls over the tables.
Pub clutter is everywhere: beer and ale mirrors, shelved bottles, photos, a painting of The Cock & Bull owner Noel Graham. In one corner sits a cardboard cutout of man slung with a leather jacket. Christmas lights are strewn over the wooden wine racks behind the bar. After several minutes, a burly waitress plows through the bustle, steps up to the elevated dining spot and hands us long, slender ivory menus with script lettering: quail salad with savory liver toast; Muscovy duck with potato cheese gratin; green pea and mint soup. Below the last dessert, a chocolate cloud cake with softly whipped cream, is the credit: "chef Lisa Balliet."
"It's my whole gig," says the onetime AquaKnox executive chef, who's had stints at Dallas' Cafe Pacific and Masa in San Francisco. "You get a lot of people from Lakewood who come here that have a lot of money but aren't pretentious, and they dig it because it's kind of a hole in the wall."
That it is, except for the food, which is miles beyond bar grub, but for a few missteps. Ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and roasted chestnut was a clumsy bit of crafting with gummy pasta pockets crisscrossed with threads of reduced balsamic vinegar that was intrusively fierce. Balliet says she applied the stuff as a foil to the creamy richness of the sauce, but its intensity pummeled nutty notes brought out by toasted shallots, garlic, and mushrooms peeking through the sauce.
Roasted quartered chicken in Tuscany white bean ragout stalled even further. The plate was carpeted with a blend of beans and roasted peppers marinated in a lemon vinaigrette that hit with emphatic bursts of bumptious acidity, sharply distracting from the simple, well-seasoned bird.
But these shortcomings struck when the dining room was tranquil. Now, the robust crowd is thick, the service is slow, and the food seems marooned in the pub's tiny kitchen. Just before the dinner rush, Balliet's oven went kaput. So she had to make due with burners and a flat top. "It's just me on the line," she says, "and I get my ass kicked all the time."
From this posterior sting Balliet draws enormous inspiration. At least it seems that way. When the food is finally expelled from the kitchen through the knots of bodies clogging the pub, it crackles with the current of work in "the zone."
Shrimp skewers impale four firm, dense shellfish tossed over a tangle of spring greens. Tangerine and roasted garlic puree spiked with jalapeno and rice-wine vinegar formed a delicate dressing with a restrained, almost floral raciness. Rich hints of sweetness coupled inconspicuously with the succulent shrimp.
But a long stretch of time buffers the appetizer from the entrees. The tall woman with the disconnected blouse buttons moves on to a potbellied man in a white shirt and suspenders. Her frumpy friend is buried in the blather of a balding wine sipper who remembered to shave but forgot the ball cap.
Behind me, a woman pesters her companion about his upcoming trip to Florida. "What really worries me is that what you're going to do is look for a job. And that you won't come back," she says through a worried smile, fondling his wrist.
Our plates landed between the flatware just as he was assuring her his intentions were solely recreational.
Muscovy duck slammed into high notes with moist, well-seasoned flesh. A wad of smoothly sweet carrot puree and a carefully assembled gratin with thin potato slices and a restrained application of cheese added a hearty boost.
Acidity wasn't a problem with the lemon-cured halibut resting on a small heap of saffron rice settled in a puddle of smooth, gravy-like caper sauce. Crowned with a clump of faultless sauteed spinach with crunchy edges, the fish flesh was firm, flaky, and tender.
The only thing that betrayed trouble in the kitchen was the sirloin steak. Ordered medium rare, the thick slab was served military gray with just a hint of ruddiness in the center. Plus, the thing was jaw-achingly tough. Yet it retained juiciness and richness. A galette of cured apples and Yukon potatoes was moist and delicate with a hint of sweetness that added complexity without being cloying.
Subtlety was successfully evicted in the dessert: New England apricot bread-and-butter pudding. The moist, satisfying cakey square with shreds of whiskey-soaked apricot was plopped in a puddle of whiskey caramel sauce. The nutty punch of the spirit was out front and forceful, invigorating the sweetness with a fiery edge.
The only startling deficiency at The Cock & Bull is the conspicuous lack of a wine list. We were offered glasses of a passable California syrah and a barely drinkable Chardonnay. It seems the wines are more like catch-of-the-day specimens than thought-out and crafted to match the menu. That's regrettable, because the food deserves more, and this neighborhood pub-bistro is fertile ground for an inventive, distinctive list--like a roster based exclusively on Commonwealth wines: a bold, creamy Chardonnay and rich, concentrated Shiraz from Australia; forcefully crisp Sauvignon Blanc, delicately rich Pinot Noir and lush Merlot from New Zealand; and a host of simple whites plus the exotic Pinotage from South Africa. It might give this pub some serious pull.
Cock & Bull was launched by Noel Graham some 18 months ago as a wine bar and restaurant. Balliet sublets the kitchen independently of the bar. The demarcation is a little too apparent, but with a little work, the blend could be seamless. Then, the only dinner distractions would be pub laggards.
There's a blurb on the Blarney Stone's menu explaining the name. The Blarney stone, it says, is a rock set in the wall of the Blarney Castle tower when it was built in the Irish village of Blarney in 1446. Legend has it that a hag cast a spell on the stone that gives whoever kisses the thing the gift of gab.
Maybe if the Irish didn't spend so much time puckering up to rocks, their cuisine would taste better. Still, a meal at Blarney isn't as bad as sucking on stone. There's even a little culinary imagination here. Irish nachos, boiled potato disks gooped with melted cheese and sprinkled with lettuce, tomato, and onion with a freshly cool dill sour cream sauce, was a fair twist on the Tex-Mex dish. But for my taste buds, it would have been a screaming jig if the potato disks were sliced thinner, brushed with oil and then baked until golden.
Kilkenny corned beef and cabbage also was good. Sliced thin, the boiled meat was moist, chewy, and savory, while the cabbage was supple and crunchy. The only drawback was the vegetables, which included a cluster of old, woody baby carrots with splits down the middle.
And fooey on Foley's stew. A slow-brewed mash pumped into a bread bowl, the thick, sticky sludge had chunks of hard, tasteless lamb, mushy green beans, and potatoes. The whole thing was bludgeoned with black pepper in an attempt, it seemed, to resuscitate the suffocating mass.
Sandwiches worked better. Despite the boring slices of white bread, the tuna fish salad sandwich was thick and creamy with little bits of grape plugged into the mix.
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The Tinkler, purported to be an Irish pub favorite, was thin slices of hot ham cemented with melted cheddar imbedded with scallions and juicy tomato slices. Again, the roll was a bit too pedestrian to elevate it.
Plugging the pub into the spot that used to be the Tiburon bar, Blarney Stone co-owner Ivan O'Mahoney, former bartender at the Dubliner, kept the Tiburon's shark tank behind the bar and crusted the place in dark wood paneling. He also slapped a bright yellow map of Ireland on a brick wall opposite the shark tank and slabbed the floor and patio areas with rough-hewn stone. So after a few draughts, you can get to work Frenching the rocks to see which one's Blarney.
The Cock & Bull. 6330 Gaston Ave., (214) 841-9111. Open for dinner 6:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 6:30-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$
The Blarney Stone. 2116 Greenville Ave., (214) 821-7099. Open daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m. $-$$