Pleasing Irish cuisine with American touches

You won't go home hungry after a meal at James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant

Sunday Gourmet

January 19, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Baltimoreans always seem to have room in their hearts for one more authentic Irish pub, especially one that comes with a few modifications to make it more palatable to American tastes. I'm thinking of NFL 2Night on the TV over the authentic Irish bar, the five-layer Tex Mex dip on the menu as well as corned beef and cabbage, and the authentic Irish snow peas served with the Molly Bloom's chicken.

But the new James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant also knows where not to compromise: The good-natured staff includes a number of Irish natives, which gives a fine flavor to the place. Traditional Irish dishes are well represented. And five nights a week there's live Irish music.

Much has been made of the fact that the interior was shipped here from the Old Country. Still, the pub feels shiny new, with gleaming hardwood floors and freshly painted walls.

Once past the bar at the entrance, the restaurant unfolds in a series of intimate spaces (including a small dining room with a fireplace) and plenty of "snugs," or nooks. Be warned: With all this bare wood, good cheer, Irish music and drinking of stout -- well, the noise level will knock your socks off when the pub is busy.

James Joyce's strength is its Irish dishes, which offer quality comfort food at a decent price. Of course, you have to like potatoes and cabbage. Low-calorie can't be a factor in your choices. Then you will be happy with the rich, salty potato soup, cloud-like potatoes whipped with cabbage, and mashed carrots and parsnips. Flaky pieces of mild white fish dipped in a beer batter, fried crisp and served with an alluring sheen of grease will delight you. Guinness stout gives the pub's beef stew a pleasing alcoholic buzz; dig through the tender braised meat, vegetables and flavorful gravy and you'll unearth a deep bed of the seductive mashed potatoes.

As long as the kitchen is cooking with stout, you shouldn't miss the grit-free mussels, plump and fresh-tasting, which thrive in dark ale just as they do in white wine. The mussels fall into the light meal category, as does the oak-smoked salmon with homemade Irish brown bread and cream cheese, and most of the other appetizers.

You could start your meal with a six-inch potato cake draped with spinach, onions, and peppers, and cheddar cheese melting into all the nooks and crannies. It's a bit much for me. Or how about the wraps made with cabbage leaves stuffed with corned beef, potatoes and onions with a mustard cream sauce? Delicious in a guilty pleasure sort of way, but an ender, a filler-upper -- not a starter.

If you haven't given up on your New Year's resolutions yet, the James Joyce Pub may not be the place to eat. Even the crusty rolls are too good to pass up. However, you do have the option of various dinner salads, and the house specialty is something called the Salmon of Knowledge, an extremely healthful steamed salmon with "garden" vegetables. (Are there any other kind?) We didn't order it because our waitress looked at us like we were crazy when we asked her advice.

There are, of course, crab cakes on the menu for the tourists; but these aren't the way to go if you're used to the Maryland variety (lump crabmeat and little else). If you don't feel like the Irish food, try instead Molly Bloom's chicken, in which a golden-crusted boneless breast is wrapped around whipped cream cheese, spinach, and red pepper perked up with a delicate but sprightly tomato-basil sauce. With this dish and the mussels, the kitchen shows it can do something more than comfort food. My main complaint is that someone back there has a heavy hand with the salt shaker.

If you have room for dessert, and I can't imagine why you would, head straight for the fabulous, not-too-sweet bread pudding layered with a few blueberries and thinly sliced peaches, all of it bathing in a delicate vanilla cream. Of course, if you must, there are a warm brownie with ice cream; an odd "James Joyce ice cream" made with brown bread, vanilla ice cream and Bailey's; and a thick-crusted apple pie. But they don't hold a candle to the bread pudding.

Rather surprisingly, children are welcome here -- at least judging from the fact that there's a kid's menu. But I can't imagine children in James Joyce, which is fast becoming the newest place for Baltimore's hottest young singles to hang out. That's not to say that if you're over 40 you'll feel out of place; the staff is good at making everyone feel enthusiastically welcome.

James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 616 President St., Baltimore

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$9.95; main courses, $9.95-$17.95

Call: 410-727-5107

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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