You might wonder whether Baltimore really needs one more Irish pub, and you would be right to wonder. Their number is probably eclipsed only by the number of steakhouses that have appeared in the last few years.
I date the area's high profile Irish pub explosion from the success of An Poitin Stil in Timonium, which opened in 1999. The new Tir Na Nog, located where the second floor of Planet Hollywood used to be, manages to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack by, well, not being terribly Irish.
I like that.
I've had enough of authentic Irish pub decor to appreciate our window table handsomely set with white linen. True, the flat-screen TV had an Irish sports channel on, but the sound was muted. (The downside was truly dreadful American music coming from the bar, along the lines of "Build Me Up Buttercup.")
Tir Na Nog hadn't been discovered yet when we ate there in late August. The restaurant was almost empty, although a few tables were filled on the terrace and a couple of people were drinking at the bar. By the way, the bar proper, done in all green with stained glass, organ pipes and a giant candelabra dripping with wax, does have much more in the way of Gaelic decor, but it's more medieval Irish castle than Irish pub. I prefer the contemporary feel of the narrow dining area along the windows.
That may be because it more accurately reflects the food, which is New American with a strong Irish accent. It's surprisingly sophisticated, with clean flavors and artful presentations. The potato and leek soup is a good example. It's elevated to star status with "chive cream and white truffle essence."
But, yes, fish and chips is on the menu too. It's not, probably, like any fish and chips you've ever encountered. The flaky white cod is thick with a heavy ale batter, as it should be. But the chips are baked lengths of potato with their skins still on, and a buttery, mustard-grain sauce is pooled around them. That's all very well, and normally I would love those potatoes; but in this dish, they should be fries, perhaps even a little greasy.
There's more that's less traditional. Tir Na Nog offers a silky smooth, mild chicken liver pate with toast points; its origins are as much French as Irish. A first course of smoked salmon comes with capers, fresh dill and horseradish and the trendiest garnish in town, mache -- a promising starter, except that its remoulade sauce was missing.
If you want something more along the lines of Irish pub grub, try the flavorful sausage plate: three different kinds of pork sausage arranged with sauteed mushrooms. Give the kitchen credit for making this look not only appetizing, but artful. For something lighter, have the cold plate of scallops and shrimp with greens. The seafood benefits from a pool of lemony sauce.
Boneless rack of lamb (interesting concept) is rosy rare and flavorful without being demandingly lamb-y; it has both a red wine sauce and a swirl of pale green basil oil. Ratatouille and haricots verts add complexities to the plate. (If you like your lamb more traditionally Irish, there is also a shepherd's pie.)
The Irish theme goes out the window with the fine grilled pork chop, sporting a spiced peach sauce, chutney and a sweet potato hash. Balanced carefully between New American and Irish is a boneless trout baked with Irish bacon. Colcannon, that combination of mashed potato and cabbage, works beautifully with it, although this is one time cabbage should not be tender-crisp, which it is here.
Desserts are better than they have any right to be at a self-styled bar and grill. Several of them involve Irish whiskey -- no surprise there. Creme brulee with a brown sugar crust is made with Bailey's, and a beautiful array of strawberries, blackberries and blueberries lies in a smooth custard sauce sparked with Bushmill's.
Even better is the creamy rice pudding flavored with orange and studded with golden raisins; the faint flavor of Irish Mist gives it an edge. If a dessert with no alcohol is your thing, the lemon buttermilk tart is a standout.
Tir Na Nog is the third restaurant in a small chain. The other two, all owned by three brothers, are in Philadelphia and New York. Their new venture is smartly conceived: Those who want the full Irish experience can eat shepherd's pie in the bar. Those who are simply looking for a nice dinner out will be happy at a white-clothed table overlooking the harbor.
Tir Na Nog Food: *** (3 stars)
Service: *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Where: Pratt Street Pavilion, Harborplace
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers: $5.95-$13.95; entrees: $13.95-$25.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
Have a question about dining out in the Baltimore area? Ask Elizabeth Large, The Sun's restaurant critic. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to Elizabeth Large, The Sun, Features, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278.