Visiting chefs show new Irish cuisine is good and haute

HAPPY EATER

January 24, 1993|By ROB KASPER

WASHINGTON — Washington-- When I heard about the series of gala dinners cooked up in the nation's capital by visiting Irish chefs, I wasn't sure what to expect. Potatoes stuffed with caviar? Corned beef a l'orange? Soda bread and snails?

Instead I found lobster, sole, lamb, and -- may the saints save us -- sorbet.

It was all quite good. And that surprised me. Ten years ago when I visited Ireland, the only remarkable dishes were the pastries made with homemade cream.

Yet here I was eating lobster terrine with a chive dressing made by chefs who were unmistakably sons of Erin. The occasion for this fine food was the second annual Celebration of Irish Cuisine, a series of weeklong visits by Irish chefs to the kitchens of the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, an 88-room hotel near Union Station.

From now until Feb. 6, two chefs, Christopher Farrell of the Mount Juliet Golf and Country Club in Kilkenny and Michael Rath of the Nuremore Hotel in Monaghan, will each spend a week cooking at the Phoenix Park. On Friday and Saturday nights, the visiting chef teams up with resident chef Thomas Stack to turn out multicourse gala dinners ($59 a person) like the one I attended. The galas are open to members of the eating public, not just the Irish.

The night I ate there, the visiting chef was Gerald Costello. When I met him a few minutes before dinner was scheduled to be served, Costello told me two things. First, he said that back in Ireland he cooks in a castle. This I didn't believe.

Then he told me he wasn't sure what he was going to fix for dinner. This had me worried. I thought he might be full of blarney.

I turned out to be half right. Costello actually did work in a castle, a 32-room affair called Adare Manor on the banks of the Maigue River near Limerick.

But not only had Costello decided on the menu, he had committed it to print. A menu listing the six-course meal was waiting for us when I sat down.

First up was the lobster terrine, wrapped in carrots with chive dressing. "You can catch lobster off the coast of Ireland," said Stack, who helped Costello with the meal. Stack was born and educated in Ireland before coming to the Washington hotel.

The price of lobster falls in the summer, Stack said, when the catch is plentiful. But the Irish would consider eating lobster in winter -- when the supply is low and the price high -- a treat. With each forkful of lobster, I felt grateful.

After the lobster came a smooth celery and cider soup with a hint of blue cheese. Then came fish. Not a big critter with its head on, but a fillet of sole dotted with sesame seeds.

The broiled lamb cutlets were similar to what Grandma cooked. But the parsley sauce and the shiitake mushroom tartlet that come with it were decidedly New Age Irish.

When I told Stack that I had never met a shiitake-eating Irishman before, he laughed. "Wild mushrooms are very popular in Ireland now," he said.

As for the parsley sauce, he said it was nothing more than chicken stock artfully mixed with parsley. Irish chefs, like other chefs, are getting away from relying on cream to make their sauces.

The wine from Washington state, Columbia Crest Chardonnay and Merlot, was pleasant. The dessert -- a cup of homemade vanilla ice cream and oranges topped with caramel, then cooked briefly under a broiler -- was superb.

The entire evening was, as the Irish would say, grand.

"Over the past 10 years the food of Ireland has improved by leaps and strides," said Stack. "What has happened is that a lot of guys, like myself, have been to Europe and America and learned the new cooking styles."

There are other signs that Irish cuisine is well on the road to respectability. Students at the Baltimore International Culinary College, for instance, now go to Ireland to study with chef Peter Timmins. Timmins, coordinator of culinary education at the European Education Centre in County Cavan outside Dublin, recently earned several medals at the prestigious Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany.

But still, some habits are hard to change. The other night, in the middle of this elaborate meal, there was a pause for a palate cleanser. Out came cups of the chilled grapefruit sorbet.

It had an excellent flavor. And, according to Stack, tropical fruits are often used in Irish cuisine these days. But to me, when you talk about a palate cleanser during an Irish meal, you're talking about a glass of Guinness.

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