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Potatoes and Beer 

Irish intentions go awry at O'Hare's Tavernhouse in Powhatan.

click to enlarge food17.lede.ohares.148.jpg

Now don't get me wrong — I'm Irish. My Grandma Maryellen's "jigg's dinner" of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes is one of my favorite meals. But in a ranking of world cuisines, the offerings of the Angry Isle lie somewhere near the bottom. There's a reason your typical Irish menu includes "an Irish seven-course meal" (a baked potato and six small beers). O'Hare's goes one better — you get a twice-baked potato with your beers.

The desire to lift Irish pub fare into the realm of fine dining — in other words, to have everything — is an ambition that, at O'Hare's, starts off awkwardly and ends up discordant. From the moment you enter the dining room, there's tension: the clash of brass chandeliers and teenage servers in T-shirts; the clash of high-backed red leather chairs with the Bon Jovi karaoke leaking through the thin walls that separate the empty dining room from the packed bar.

I was the dream customer — Irish and ravenous after my 40-minute drive from downtown. Of course, being Irish, I should be used to disappointment.

First on the table was a crab fondue for two with potato-bread croutons. The same dip you can get at a dozen spots in town, O'Hare's version was straightforward and tasty, with plenty for two or more.

Hopeful, I was delighted to find smoked duck appetizer with blackberry compote on the menu. Imagine what it could be — bites of rich meat drizzled in a wine-colored berry-thick compote atop a bed of greens. It wasn't.

A skilled kitchen staff works through each chore with the customer's pleasure in mind. At the most basic level, this means preparing items that are easy to consume. For example, lettuce should be cut into pieces that fit a diner's mouth. The duck arrived with a heap of lettuce, but my first forkful resulted in a single leaf that had been cut so as to create a ribbon stretching from my mouth to the plate. I don't even know how you do that. The smoked duck was served as chilled medallions that, having come straight from the fridge to the plate, were almost without flavor. Cold and fatty are not a good pair. At the end of the platter was a dark pool of thin blackberry sauce that tasted inexplicably of beer.

My entrée that first night was Irish cordon blue with corned beef, Dubliner cheese and a Dijon cream in place of the traditional pairing of ham and Swiss cheese. The kitschy innovation was decent, but not an improvement over the standard recipe.

The shepherd's pie defies any recipe I've ever sampled or made. Instead of a golden brown crust of potatoes topping a delicious mélange of meat and cheese and veggies, I was served a mishmash of ground lamb and beef under melted cheese with a mere squiggle of mashed potato around the edge. Alter a classic dish that much and you may as well change its name.

Even the safest bets on the menu — the straight bar food — fell flat. The porter-steamed pork ribs were tough and had not been properly cleaned (they arrived at the table sporting the back membrane that makes pulling the bones apart a chore). And though the menu promised a whiskey molasses sauce, all I could taste was black pepper; no smoke or spark, just burn.

The fish-and-chips may have been the biggest disappointment of all. This should be sacred ground in a pub — the perfect pairing of carbs and grease laying a foundation for a long night of carousing or curing the ills of one. Ensuring the proper consistency of its beer batter is serious business in the Old Country. Sadly, I spied the perfect parallelograms of a certain food service company's "beer-battered fish" occupying space in a basket with overseasoned steak fries.

When an Irish "tavernhouse" serves bad fish-and-chips, something has gone terribly wrong. In this case, it seems that trying to be good at too much has resulted in being good at too little. O'Hare's has some decisions to make. Is it going to be a packed pub serving stellar basic bar food or, like Cuchulain wrestling the tide, is it going to struggle to create Irish haute cuisine and face a daily test of its very nature? S



O'Hare's Tavernhouse ($)

1795 South Creek, Suite F
Powhatan

378-8600
Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday- Saturday 5-9 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

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