Pubbed to Death
Yet Another Irish Bar And Grill Offers Refreshing Takes On Standard Fare
Harborplace’s Light Street Pavilion is undergoing one of its ritual tenant mix-em-ups. Local favorite Edo Sushi has moved in and—apocalypse-watchers take note—a Spanish tapas lounge is on its way. Meanwhile, the two-story, hot-corner vacancy created by the demise of Planet Hollywood has been filled, on the first floor by the country-clubby M&S Grill, and now upstairs by an expansive Irish bar and grill by the name of Tir Na Nog (201 E. Pratt St.,  483-8968), a phrase from a Gaelic legend that translates as “land of eternal youth.”
The world feels at home in an Irish pub, and installing one close by the Convention Center makes an obvious kind of business sense. Certainly, its owners, who opened similar establishments first in Manhattan (across the street from Madison Square Garden) and then Philadelphia, have invested a lot of equity and sweat into creating a handsome and accommodating destination for lonely travelers. Much of Tir Na Nog’s furnishings and bric-a-brac have been apparently imported from Ireland and installed by bona fide Irish citizens. And there’s been clear effort taken to breaking up the space, as in a traditional Irish pub, into several discreet and intimate drinking and white-linen dining areas. I’m particularly taken with the boozy, almost gloomy back bar.
But it’s still Harborplace, and all of the stained glass, brocade, high-backed benches, inlaid floors, and daguerreotypes, real as they may be, still can’t help but accumulate into a general ersatz impression. And diners unaware of the furnishings’ authenticity won’t be blamed for assuming that it was all ordered from a build-your-own Irish pub catalog. (And aren’t there any modern pubs in Ireland?)
The menu, however, has been happily unconstrained by misty-eyed nostalgia. Think of it as traditional Gaelic pub fare leavened by New American cuisine: white truffle essence updates a potato and leek soup; beet salad and wasabi oil modernize grilled duckling breast; and ratatouille and basil oil make a boneless lamb rack worth considering. Notably, some of the more tempting menu items (poached apple and goat cheese fritter salad, foie gras, black-and-white sesame seed encrusted calamari) from the New York and Philadelphia menus—I peeked—are so far absent from the Baltimore offerings. Maybe they’ll arrive later.
The appetizers tried at Tir Na Nog impressed as fresh reconsiderations of standard fare, and in one case an impressive take-it-or-leave-it hewing to tradition. Spicy Thai calamari ($8.95) turned out not to be fried—which the too-reticent menu could have made more clear—but simply braised in clean, tender rings with oil and pepper, and prettily served with wilting cress and thin cucumber slices. This was the freshest, most alluring Thai appetizer I’ve tasted in any restaurant all year.
Oak-smoked salmon ($9.95) felt fresh, too, when dressed up with a bitterly crisp, bone-white kohlrabi remoulade and accompanied by grilled slices of wheaty Irish bread. Pan-roasted traditional sausages ($8.95) in chanterelle sauce turned out to be a boldly simple placement of black (blood) and white sausage in a bold mushroom reduction. Not for the faint of heart but vigorous and restorative.
The entrées tried didn’t please as much, although they each made a striking and hopeful visual first impression. An entrée of seared sea scallops ($22.95) needed only a few more scallops to win us over. The mollusks were pan-seared adroitly, allowed to retain their natural flavor, and were flattered perfectly by a touch of lemon and a vivid green arrangement of leeks, capers, and green onions. Roasted trout ($21.95), wrapped with Irish bacon, proved, in spite of a terrifically alluring lumpy crab butter sauce and summer-crisp green beans, to be a heavy-going business. Heavy, almost sodden, the trout took on the feel of poultry and weighed the plate down.
Traditional Irish favorites, oddly, didn’t work at all well. The mashed potatoes that topped Tir Na Nog’s shepherd’s pie ($13.95) were too watery, and the lamb itself was afflicted by overpowering aromatic herbs—it was like eating the insides of a clove cigarette. And even though the interior flesh was sweet and flaky, the batter on the fish and chips ($14.95) was way too soggy and absent assertive salty and peppery flavor.
In a city full of Irish pubs, Tir Na Nog comes tantalizingly close to making a case for drop-in by locals. It’s at the very least a place to recommend safely to a passing group of conventioneers.