I’m not much on “theme” restaurants. Once I “get it,” I’ve had it, and the rest is rarely worth a return in my experience. O’Brienstein’s is not wholly a theme place, but it has its schtick: O’Brien and Stein owned adjacent businesses and decided to knock out a wall and let the cottage pie mingle with the lox. So if you think about it, you’re not heading into a place with a great culinary history on either side of the ethnic mélange. Boiled spuds and borscht, mmmmm. But Chef John Bullen offers a menu that plays to the theme and features some pretty tasty fare made with top-notch ingredients.
I spent most of my time in the pub wing of the restaurant. The dining room covers the deli connection, and I couldn’t help just sitting in the booth staring at the salad bar. I felt like I was in a food museum and the hulking salad palate was an interactive exhibit. So to the pub I went. There are a few tables, plenty of Irish bric-a-brac and a line of taps with names like Old Speckled Hen, John Courage and, of course, Guinness. Most pints run $4.25, which is about 50 cents too high for anyone who wants to stay and soak up the ambience. It’s dark and the bartender bounces around keeping things clean and calling his customers by name. It wasn’t a limerick-lilting, ditty-singing crowd, but everyone seemed content and nodded to others as they came and went. I settled in with a Hen ($3) and awaited the Reuben ($7.95). This sandwich is the perfect manifestation of the restaurant’s schtick. Corned beef, rye bread, cole slaw. Chips. Kosher pickle on the side. The Irish and Jewish connections are all there, comfortably coupled, condensed and plated. It was an excellent sandwich. The corned beef is sliced in thick strips and melts in your mouth. I never got a mouthful of gristle as I sometimes have. The bread was firm and never became sodden from the Russian dressing. The Sailor ($7.95) seemed like an attempt to answer the question, “How much meat can you put between two slices of bread before it ceases to be a sandwich and becomes architecture?” Again the pastrami and knockwurst were full of flavor and super tender. I also enjoyed the Cottage Pie ($10.95). This traditional Irish mush of seasoned ground beef, peas and carrots is laden with mashed potatoes and tastes much better than it looks.
I found that things began to suffer when they became more constructed than cooked. The Horseradish Salmon ($13.95), for instance, was overcooked and overpowered by the pungency of the sauce. I quickly retreated to the meat and potatoes and another Hen.
You have to hand it to Ripp — he’s got you covered. Whether you are feeling like a robber baron, a rumrunner or, now, a bloke with a yen for gefilte fish (and who doesn’t feel that way sometimes?) Ripp has a spot for you. His most recent venture offers some solid pub- and deli-grub and a bar where you feel welcome and pleased to tarry. S
Randall Stamper worked in restaurants in Boston, New Orleans and Indiana for seven years and has filled every job from dish washer to general manager. All his visits are anonymous and paid for by Style.
1548 E. Main St.
Lunch and dinner: Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday.