Sampling a tradition

For St. Patrick's Day, we tasted corned beef and cabbage from five local restaurants

March 11, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

Americans don't give themselves enough credit for corned beef and cabbage.

Too often, corned beef and cabbage is thought of as an Irish dish. It's actually an Irish-American hybrid: Cooked cabbage may have old-world roots, but the corned beef is a distinctly American addition. So is the tradition of eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day, according to Margaret M. Johnson, author of The Irish Pub Cookbook.

"It's definitely an Irish-American dish, derived from the very Irish bacon and cabbage," Johnson said. "You don't find it in Ireland. Maybe on a rare occasion."

Considering how many Irish pubs there are in and around Baltimore, corned beef and cabbage is big business this time of year. Some area pubs that don't normally serve the filling meal will prepare it just for St. Patrick's Day.

With the holiday coming next Tuesday, we sampled five plates of corned beef and cabbage from around the region. We looked for the most tender beef, supple cabbage and hearty potatoes - served piping hot, of course. We may have gained a few pounds in the process, but the search yielded some delicious finds.

An Poitin Stil

Address: 2323 York Road, Timonium

Phone : 410-560-7900

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

With Irish-themed tchotchkes crowding every wall, this sprawling suburban restaurant beats you over the head with its brogue. The pile of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes is worth savoring, though. At $13.29, it's a pretty good deal, too.

Let's start at the bottom, where melt-in-your-mouth potato chunks sat in a watery sauce. The potatoes were blanketed by a layer of large, steaming cabbage leaves. And finally, pink corned beef that came apart in hunks at the touch. This is Irish-American food at its best: warm and comforting.

Kelsey's Restaurant and Irish Pub

Address: 8480 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Phone: 410-418-9076

Hours : 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

"Hope you're hungry," the waitress said as she set down this dish of corned beef and cabbage, $14.99. We were famished, but still could barely finish everything on the plate.

Several spears of corned beef - tender enough to slice with the side of a fork - lay next to a pile of creamy mashed potatoes and a halved head of cabbage. Mashed potatoes may be less traditional, but they were no less welcome. And the sauce underneath the corned beef, cabbage and potatoes was rich enough to lend some flavor to the food without overpowering it.

Kelsey's has a more formal setting than the Stil, with less Irish-themed memorabilia. The restaurant likes to advertise that its corned beef marinates for hours before it's served. We believe it.

Quigley's Half-Irish Pub

Address: 633 Portland St.

Phone: 410-539-9052

Hours : 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

Even a half-Irish pub should know better. Instead of offering hearty hunks of corned beef, this Ridgely's Delight establishment served tough strips of meat that looked more like beef jerky. This chewy corned beef was sliced extra-thin and sat next to a pile of red-skinned potato chunks, cabbage and crunchy carrot spears.

Little about the cabbage or potatoes was remarkable, either. Everything except the carrots tasted bland and, at best, the dish was barely passable. The whole order cost $7.69 - about half the price of the others we tried.

The Irish Channel Restaurant and Pub

Address : 1053 Maryland Route 3 North, Gambrills

Phone: 410-451-4222

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Sundays

Nothing stood out about this order, $13.99, except the sheer size of it. Several corned beef strips - each about the size and shape of a piece of biscotti - shared a plate with chopped potatoes and moist cabbage. All told, it felt like 2 pounds of food. But the beef and potatoes bordered on dry, and the cabbage wasn't cooked quite long enough. Overall, this order was just middle-of-the-road.

Slainte Irish Pub

Address: 1700 Thames St.

Phone: 410-563-6600

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mondays-Fridays; 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays

The first few bites of this order, $12, tasted fine. The long, thick strips of corned beef, which sat between two halves of a head of cabbage, were soft and juicy. A few forkfuls later, we realized there was a pool of butter at the bottom of the plate, and everything had been drenched in it.

Normally, we'd say the more butter the better. But - believe it or not - there is a limit to just how much melted butter you can soak food in, and this corned beef and cabbage went over it.

For the price and the amount of food, Slainte could easily have made this into one of the best corned beef and cabbage deals in town. A little less butter would have gone a long way. As it was, this dish was just too rich.

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