The Truth About Patrick's of Pratt Street
Doha, Qatar--From the front steps of the Doha County Library, one can look out at a vast expanse of rolling tobacco fields. Occasionally, a gnu or lemur hops into view, and the sight is breathtaking. But I haven't come here to admire Doha's unique scenery, but to track down a former New York Times reporter who may be able to help me with research for this restaurant review.
Patrick's of Pratt Street in Baltimore claims to be "America's oldest Irish pub," a boast that any reputable restaurant reviewer is duty-bound to prove true or false to his readers, even if it means traveling to distant locales such as Doha, where the reference collections on 19th-century American-Irish bars are reportedly unsurpassed (another claim I have to research!).
Here, briefly, is the story of the Baltimore pub, as outlined on its menu and its Web site: The pub now known as Patrick's of Pratt Street was founded in 1847 by Patrick Healy, the great, great-uncle of its current owners. The pub moved across the street in 1862 and has occupied that space ever since. Anne and Patrick Rowley assumed operation of the pub in 1999, stripping away the exterior Formstone and restoring much of the pub's interior furnishings, including the tin ceiling, marble "stand-up" bar, and ornate cast-iron table bases. An old-timey photograph hanging near the Pratt Street entrance shows a group of men standing at the bar as it appeared in about 1890.
Expect to be greeted warmly and repeatedly upon entering Patrick's. The staff is assertively but genuinely friendly. Be prepared, too, to give up your names to Joe O'Vancavage, the bartender/waiter who rules over the narrow strip of a dining area. The marble-topped tables easily accommodate four 19th-century-sized people, but behemoths of our time might feel a bit squished. There is, though, a prized round table in the corner, usually saved for parties of five or more, but which Joe generously ceded to us on the somewhat slow night that we visited.
While the Rowleys have been guided by the goddess of authenticity in refurbishing the bar, the menu they have created is a contemporary mix of international bistro fare--shepherd's pie, yes, but quiche Lorraine, sauerbraten with dumplings, and penne marinara, too, not to mention a half-pound crab cake that should secure Patrick's a post position in the eternal crab cake sweepstakes.
From a listed repertoire of about a dozen soups, Patrick's offers two or three on any given night. We passed on the Maryland cream of crab and ordered two special creations--African peanut soup and vegetarian black bean chili. We didn't wholly take to the peanut soup ($4.50), an untraditional variation with what seemed to be an infusion of carrot; it lacked bite. But the black bean chili ($4.50) was tremendously tasty--full of vividly fresh summer vegetables like corn and zucchini and particularly well-seasoned. Every spoonful pleased.
A spinach salad ($8.95) combined healthy-looking leaves with blue cheese, walnuts, fresh fruit (strawberries for us), and onions, accompanied by a raspberry vinaigrette. Presumably, the chef's choice of fresh fruit changes periodically, if not daily, but a raspberry vinaigrette seemed like overkill with the strawberries. Still, a pretty salad, and portioned generously.
Patrick's quiche Lorraine ($10.95) is not the familiar wedge cut from a pie but an individually made six-ounce serving about the size of a coffee mug. Overall, this quiche pleased us a lot--no one found it afflicted with such typical maladies as egginess, overdenseness, or underseasoning. Possibly there was too much salad surrounding the quiche, which shouldn't have had to fight for attention.
The shepherd's pie ($14.95) substitutes beef tenderloin for ground meat (typically lamb or mutton), which is not necessarily an improvement. The consistency of ground beef might just work better with the mashed potatoes topping it. Ground beef holds spice and seasoning better, too, I think. In any case, Patrick's shepherd's pie was overall a little bland. The potatoes, though, were creamy, buttery, and delicious.
Great potatoes (the potato preparation changes nightly) also accompanied Patrick's whopper of a Maryland crab cake (market price--$17.95 for us). Without any research at all, I wholly believe the menu's claims of using all backfin and no filler in their unfussy recipe. I loved the cake's silky and salty texture, and of course its mammothness.
Now in Doha, my extensive research has uncovered no American Irish bar older than Patrick's. New York's famed McSorley's opened in 1854, and neither Boston nor Philadelphia has a pub that claims to be older. Still, I wait here every day for my elusive Times reporter--gorging myself on Qatar's native mangoes--but he never shows.