Irish food is getting to be so good and so serious that it is hard to joke about it.
A cuisine that once was an easy target for any comedian -- a seven-course Irish meal was a six pack and a potato -- is now both very good and very important.
There is still plenty of corned beef and cabbage out there. And from today until St. Patrick's Day, Tuesday, the kitchens of McGinn's, the Irish Pub, Kavanagh's and any bar named Kelly's will dish up respectable versions of this customary Irish dish.
But there are also increasing numbers of what I call white linen Irish restaurants. Places that serve fancy Irish fare.
Tuesday night, for example, at Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel, one of the city's swankiest, a team of three Irish chefs is serving a special $50-a-plate Irish dinner of salmon with leeks, salt-cured cod with buttermilk crepes, pork loin stuffed with fruit and a black bread dessert. The chefs involved, Harbor Court's Michael Rork, Pier 500's executive sous-chef Mary Howley and Jim Swensen of Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, also will demonstrate how this finer fare is made.
Meanwhile, Washington's Phoenix Park Hotel, which dubs itself "America's Only Irish Hotel," recently played host to a celebration of Irish cuisine. Three respected Irish chefs, Peter Brady of Jurys Hotel and Towers in Dublin, Chris Farrell of Mount Juliet Golf and Country Club in Kilkenny, and Matthew Darcy of the Park Hotel in Kenmare, put on a series of five gala dinners at the hotel. These sons of Erin turned out dishes like rack of lamb with herb crust, duck with raspberry coulis, veal sauteed in lime butter, and chilled Irish Mist souffle that repeatedly sold out in the hotel's 70-seat restaurant.
The three chefs are back in Ireland now. But Thomas Stack, the hotel's chef and himself a native of Cork, put some of the acclaimed festival dishes, like sirloin seared with Irish whiskey and loin of lamb with oysters and walnut stuffing, on his menu.
"We're a bit beyond the corned beef and cabbage," said Stack one recent afternoon when I visited him at his restaurant, which sits on the second floor of the hotel looking out on Washington's Union Station.
Irish chefs are getting international recognition as well.
Matthew Darcy's hotel in Kenmare has picked up a prized star from France's Guide Michelin. And the Relais & Chateaux, an association of inns frequented by traveling gourmands and gourmets, now counts eight establishments in Ireland among its 387 worldwide members.
"Both the Irish and English cuisines have really improved," said Patrick O'Connell, who recently visited both countries. O'Connell is co-owner and chef at the Inn at Little Washington, an establishment whose food has drawn critical acclaim and a steady stream of visitors to its Virginia mountain site, about 100 miles southwest of Baltimore. O'Connell offered an explanation of why Irish fare has improved. "The Irish are close to earth. You take their talent and mix it with their fresh ingredients, and the result is a marvelous finished product," O'Connell said.
As someone who grew up in a household where Irish food meant Grandma Mahoney's raisin bread, all this talk about raspberry coulis, a fancy sauce, and duck breasts was making me uneasy.
But then the chefs started talking about the potato, and I felt at home again.
Having shown that they can make a coulis with the best of them, these Irish chefs admitted to being ordinately fond of the spud.
"You know me," said Rork, the chef who brought buffalo to Baltimore, "I try to get a potato in every course."
Stack, who created a dish of salmon sauteed in oatmeal for his hotel's celebration of Irish cuisine, makes a point of serving entrees with vegetables that are the colors of the Irish flag.
"For the orange color I use a carrot," Stack said. "For the green, a green vegetable. And for the white I use potatoes, sometime two of them."
And while the duck, the lamb and the salmon are getting a good reception from Stack's customers, the restaurant's longtime favorite menu item is its potato soup.
Stack was gracious when I spoke with him. But just as a leprechaun is not about to disclose the location of his pot of gold, this Irish chef was not about to give up the secret of his potato soup.
"It has potatoes and leeks and celery and chicken in it," said Stack when I asked him for the ingredients. "After that," he said with air of finality, "the recipe gets guarded."