It is a good thing when Munch visits a chain restaurant and can't immediately gauge whether it's a chain restaurant or not. This happened earlier this week at The Claddagh Irish Pub, in the SouthSide Works. The pub has all the trappings of a shiny new chain -- servers in uniform, bound menus, pricey fixtures, extensive beer list, art on the walls -- but it didn't feel like one.
The Claddagh Irish Pub is at 407 Cinema Drive in the SouthSide Works (412-381-4800, www.clad-daghirish-pubs.com).
Why? Its vibe -- which is easy like Sunday morning.
The Claddagh Irish Pub is a Midwestern chain with locations in Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. The restaurant attempts to capture the laid-back, fun flavor of the Irish pub -- truly impossible outside of Ireland -- and it comes close. It is authentic in its unpretentiousness and genuine in its comfort. People of all ages were gathered there; clustered around the central bar, there was a sharp skew toward twentysomethings.
When Munch thinks pub, dark, crusty and smoke-filled come to mind. This is not what you find at The Claddagh, which is new and clean, filled with the honest fragrance of fresh lumber and hot potatoes. On the walls and ceiling, hand-stenciled Guinness ads and Celtic symbols aren't yet dulled by smoke and grime. The tables are solid and smooth, not sticky.
Give the place 50 years.
The music is a likable and varied whirl -- all Irish, all the time -- of jiggy fiddle tunes, the Pogues and throaty, lamenting female voices. Munch noticed a little foot-tapping one table over. Munch noticed a little fork-tapping by Kid Brother of Munch, and had to club him with a menu to get him to stop. That's how siblings are.
When at a pub, start a meal the Irish way: with a pint. Munch bought KBOM a dark, fat Guinness ($5) as reparation for the whack, and ordered a SmithWicks ale ($4) for Munchself. The SmithWicks, if you're not familiar, is a smooth and fruity amber, brewed by Guinness.
To start, we ordered a tasty platter of smoked salmon, soda bread, capers and red onions ($8.95). The coral slices of cured fish were laid over a salad of mesclun greens and, on the side, was the coldest dollop of sour cream ever to be forked apart by Munch.
Munch's dinner was a warm risk: The Irish Monte Cristo ($7.95), of sourdough slices filled with turkey, rasher bacon and Swiss cheese. The whole is egg batter-dipped and grilled, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a tiny pot of brambleberry jam. Munch took a chance on the IMC, thinking that a weird sandwich like that, if done well, would say a lot about the overall quality of the pub's food.
It worked out. The Irish Monte Cristo is like a French toast sandwich, soft and browned, salty and sweet. It came with a pile of pub fries (chips), chunky and double fried, fluffy inside, crunchy outside, very nice with a squirt of malt.
KBOM's Irish Beef and Guinness Stew ($12.95) was sweet with carrots and rich with lamb so falling-apart tender it doesn't need to be chewed. The stew is served over a heap of garlic mashed potatoes; the whole is big enough to make two meals.
The pub fare is simple, but varied. Munch was torn between several interesting sandwiches: The Turkey, Rasher, Lettuce and Tomato (TRLT), The Monaghan Melt of glazed meatloaf on toasted sourdough, the Bass Ale-battered fish sandwich. KBOM had all his favorites to choose from -- lamb chops, park chops, Kinvara salmon -- as well as traditional fare such as shepherd's pie and bangers and mashed.
After such a spread, there's no room for dessert, though they're tempting: bread pudding with whiskey sauce, Bailey's crepes, mocha white chocolate creme brulee.
But there's always room for whiskey.