Raising the Bar
Slainte Brings Refreshing New Cheer to Irish Pub Fare
I’d almost sworn off reviewing Irish pubs altogether. Greasy, underseasoned comfort food served amid oppressively whimsical bric-a-brac—no thanks, and show me the way to the next tapas bar. And the prospect of a new Irish pub in that great culinary Fallujah, Fells Point, filled me with something approaching dread. But my scouts returned singing the praises of Slainte, a new restaurant adjacent to and operated by the popular tavern Kooper’s.
Slainte (pronounced “SLAWN-cha,” the Irish “cheers!”) makes a grand first impression. It’s been beautifully furnished with bar furniture imported from Ireland. Black leather banquettes give the narrow downstairs dining room a masculine feel. Upstairs consists of a tidy dining room and a knockout bar, with walls stained to resemble red leather and barstools covered in alternating shades of crimson and vermilion. We ended up eating at the bar on a lonesome late autumn evening and were treated like instant regulars. The bartender betrayed evident—and appropriate—pride of place.
The menu takes what at first glance would seem misplaced confidence in the enduring allure of Irish foods. Few, in any, concessions are made to New World tastes—the sandwich menu does toss in a grilled chicken breast and fried fresh oyster po’ boy, and a raw/steamer bar offers mussels, shrimp, clams, and oysters. But the big risk, hewing closely to traditional Irish food, pays off in the end. What we tried here was unmistakably Irish pub fare, but fresh ingredients, adept execution, and precise presentation raised everything to nice-dinner-out-on-the-town levels, without ever resorting to either gimmickry or fussiness.
Take the Guinness onion soup ($5.50). Here’s onion soup the way you like it, with gooey cheese—Irish cheddar here—swirling around your spoon and tufts of porous bread bobbing in a dark, oniony broth, stout adding a layer of depth to the taste. A special homemade chicken soup ($5.50), brimming with large pearl onions, fresh carrots, and hunks of real white-meat chicken breast, conjured up images of immigrant grandmas. What I liked best about the food at Slainte is the kitchen’s absence of fear about tossing a pinch or two of salt into a broth, a stew, or a savory pie. When applied to wedge-cut fried potatoes, dear old NaCl created a plate of first-class curry chips ($5), some of the best fries we’ve devoured in months of Wednesdays. But the curry sauce itself could have benefited from a bit more spice; we found ourselves not much concerned with it.
It’s usually at this point where I bemoan crackerjack appetizers being followed by slovenly entrées. But not here. Two old standbys, the chicken pot pie ($12) and the shepherd’s pie ($11), show up at the table with, respectively, puff pastry and whipped-potato crusts broiled a golden brown. The savory fare underneath these inviting toppings—gloppy but not gelatinous chicken, flattered by vivid, fresh-cut vegetables; and finely ground, peppery beef, flecked with fresh peas and carrots—satisfied hearty late-autumn appetites. In fact, these portions groaned, and I’m left wondering where more modest appetites would turn—bangers and mash? Fish ’n’ chips? It’s a good thing to have sandwiches available, as well as a Caesar salad with the typical selection of throw-ons.
Slainte’s salmon entrée ($16) provides another suitable light-dining choice. Here the kitchen proved itself adroit with searing technique, which created for the fillet a crispy-textured skin while keeping the flesh moist and mellow tasting. A side of smashed potatoes indicated that Slainte is no shyer about reaching for butter and cream than it is salt. Nor about cooking vegetables beyond the crunchy phase. I hate smug little undercooked vegetables. Let’s boil some water!
The dessert selection here is limited to carrot cake and a cheesecake with a choice of flavored drizzles, a rare intrusion of cuteness in an otherwise thoroughly sensible establishment. The carrot cake ($5), by the way, moist and hefty, with a real cream-cheese icing, comes circled by homemade vanilla-flavored whipped cream, a dessert in itself.
All told, Slainte’s take on the Irish pub impressed me so much that I might have to reconsider another of my long-held antipathies: my aversion to Caribbean-themed lounges. Seems Slainte’s owners are at work at converting their third-floor deck into a Virgin Islands-inspired bar, and for them—only them—I’m willing to reconsider.