By Albert Eisele - 03/14/07 07:27 PM EDT
I’ve been patronizing this lively Irish pub and restaurant since it opened in 1974 and am a friend of Coleman, the gregarious Irish-American — is there any other kind? — who owns the Dubliner and the Phoenix Park Hotel whose ground floor it occupies.
I watched President Carter’s inauguration on television at the Dubliner with my daughter, and once had a drink there with Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate who stays at the Phoenix Park when he’s in town. And my Irish-immigrant grandfather’s relatives still own a pub in County Clare, which I visited in November.
Having confessed my lack of objectivity, I feel free to praise this Capitol Hill landmark as the ideal place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and the arrival of spring. I did that by inviting a longtime friend, Bill Richard, and his wife Carli (that’s short for Carlotta — she’s Italian), to dinner there Tuesday. Winter finally had loosened its grip on D.C. and both the Dubliner and its next-door neighbor, Kelly’s Irish Times, opened their outdoor patios on F Street for the first time this year.
The place was jammed by 6:30 p.m., partly with a number of firefighters who had been lobbying Congress. But our hostess found us a table outside, which was fortunate because it would have been impossible to have a conversation while Irish troubadours John McGrath and Morris Minor held forth in the main bar area. Coleman wasn’t there, but his son Gavin was, and we exchanged a few shouted words of greeting before escaping the boisterous crowd of people, many of them wearing illuminated shamrocks.
Richard, a St. Paul Irishman and top aide to Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), and his wife, the editor of the American Pharmacists Association magazine, both arrived on bicycles, which they use to commute to their home near Gallaudet University about a mile away (we Minnesotans take global warming seriously). They followed my lead by ordering Smithwick’s Ale, one of the best of the many Irish beers served at the Dubliner, which purports to be America’s largest purveyor of Guinness stout.
We started with the warm spinach and artichoke dip ($8.50) and the Irish oak-smoked salmon ($11.95). The former, a gooey mixture of spinach, artichoke hearts, Romano and cheddar cheese, was served in a crock accompanied by sour cream and nacho chips. It was delicious. The translucent slices of salmon were served with capers, onions and Irish soda bread, and were equally delicious.
Coleman closed Powerscourt, his white-tablecloth restaurant on the hotel’s second floor, several years ago, but Executive Chef Hugo Malone kept one of my favorite entrees on the Dubliner menu. It’s entrecote Jameson, a New York strip seared with crushed peppercorns and garlic, flamed with Jameson Irish Whiskey and finished with cream and diced tomatoes. It’s a carnivore’s dream and a bargain at $21.95, so I ordered it. It was a good as I remembered, even though it was cooked well beyond medium-rare as I had ordered.
Richard opted for the shepherd’s pie ($11.95), while his wife chose the grilled filet of salmon Dingle Bay ($12.95). The former was a hearty casserole of ground sirloin, chopped onions, peas, carrots, garlic and brown gravy, topped with mashed potatoes, which he pronounced excellent but was unable to finish.
The salmon, served with herb-roasted potatoes and vegetables and finished with lemon beurre blanc, met with Carli’s enthusiastic approval — and mine, since she let me taste it. But I have to report that it has the makings of another Washington scandal; our waitress confessed that the salmon doesn’t come from Dingle Bay. This may call for a congressional investigation.
The Dubliner desserts are tempting, to say the least. There’s decadent bittersweet chocolate cake, traditional Irish bread pudding, sherry trifle and Baileys Irish cheesecake, which you can pair with any of a half-dozen fancy Baileys drinks for $10. But we held to our Lenten vows to give up sweets and called it a night.
As we were eating, I noticed Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) strolling by with a woman I assumed was his wife and entering the Irish Times. After bidding goodbye to the Richards and cautioning them to drive safely as they peddled up busy North Capitol Street, I walked next door and brashly interrupted Tester and his companion, who was not his wife but his chief of staff, Stephanie Schriock, as they ate with a group of other aides.
Tester, a bear of a man with a trademark crew cut who fits the mold of a patron of the Irish Times, which is more akin to a working man’s bar than is the Dubliner, graciously agreed to talk as he ate his grilled Reuben sandwich. I ordered another Smithwick’s Ale for myself as Tester explained that he was waiting for a former fellow state legislator from Montana who was visiting Washington with his kids on their spring break.
He informed me he would be spending the weekend, and St. Patrick’s Day, in Butte, which he explained is considered “the Irish capital of Montana.”
Then his friends arrived and I excused myself, but not before paying for my Smithwick’s and finishing it at the bar as I toasted my Irish grandfather. I left and walked past the Dubliner patio, still filled with people celebrating the first signs of spring. It was a good night to be Irish.