You never hear people say, “Let’s have Irish food tonight” the way they might say, “Let’s have Italian,” or Indian, or Chinese.
Irish cuisine, to most New Yorkers, means corned beef and cabbage, washed down with pints of Guinness on tap. So when I invited friends to dinner at an Irish restaurant recently, their response sounded a little dubious.
Bellew, which is in Murray Hill, is named for a town in Galway (where the owner’s mother is from). It’s not a pub, but it’s sleek and clubby, with a long bar and wood paneling that give it the feeling of an old New York tavern. There are no shamrocks and shillelaghs, but there are drawings of Irish poets and writers hanging on the wall as you come in, and the dining room is up a couple of steps at the back, decorated in a discreet dark green with beveled mirrors, mustard-colored booths and banquettes. A pianist was tinkling away in the corner when I arrived, and I found my friends already getting into the swing of things over a glass of Bushmills. They were puzzling over the menu, trying to figure out what was Irish about it.
For there is no corned beef and cabbage served at Bellew. Nor are there potato cakes. But in fact, this menu would not look at all out of place in one of the better restaurants in Ireland today. If you’ve been there recently, you may know that the food has changed as drastically as the country itself. Tweeds, hunting scenes, draught beers and Irish stews have been jettisoned in favor of Liberty silks, Matisse prints, fancy wines and aged balsamic vinegars. Irish cooking, as one chef put it somewhat portentously, has become “a global evolving cuisine,” with a new generation of Irish-born chefs, many of whom have trained in trendy American restaurants where the chefs buy from organic farmers and artisan cheese makers.
Our waiter brought over an offering from the chef, a spoonful of minuscule steamed mussels with a dollop of chutney placed in the center of an enormous white plate.
“Not exactly a manly portion,” commented a friend, devouring it in one gulp. “But good.”
One of my companions was an Irish novelist who was making the point by drinking beer from the bottle (not Guinness, but Amstel). “Where’s the soda bread?” he demanded when the waiter offered him a roll.
We had ordered the house-smoked salmon, cured with brown sugar, sea salt and herbs in a recipe the chef said later was a secret. Instead of presenting it the traditional way, with brown bread and butter and a wedge of lemon, he had rolled the salmon around a filling of chopped marinated vegetables that included cabbage and leeks mixed with segments of orange and mint. The rolls came with a paprika vinaigrette and were garnished with preserved beets. This all sounds very busy, but it was subtle, and the combination worked.
While the Irishman was no stranger to braised lamb shanks and oxtail, I don’t think he’d ever had them quite like this before. The meats were layered in a terrine with a mirepoix of root vegetables, arranged around a medium-rare piece of lamb tenderloin wrapped in spinach. They were soft and creamy, subtly seasoned with a sauce of carrot juice with nutmeg, cinnamon and cayenne, and pickled carrots were served alongside.
The chef at Bellew, Christopher Daly, was formerly at the Plaza Hotel’s Edwardian Room (where he employed four Irishmen who have since gone home to cook in Ireland). He is not Irish himself but has done extensive research on the cuisine. The Irish have always created wonderful dishes from the abundance of shellfish growing on their shores, and so does Mr. Daly, who gets his from Maine. His flavor combinations are distinctive: steamed cockles and plump mussels in a heady lobster jus with parsley; a snowy chunk of moist, wood-grilled halibut with white beans, garlic, cockles and littleneck clams; and a mussel chowder (much like a classic French Billi-bi) made with saffron, potato and bacon. (Mr. Daly said the first mussel farmer in France was an Irishman who was shipwrecked off the coast in the 1750′s and noticed the traps he made out of wooden planks to catch birds also caught mussels.)
Irish farmhouse cheeses, once an endangered species, are now being brought back to life (despite the Government’s ban on raw milk), and at Bellew you can end your meal with a tasting plate of several varieties. The rustic cheeses also show up in various dishes, such as an endive and corn lettuce salad with Cashel blue, apples and walnuts, or a burger at the bar, topped with Woodford cheddar.
Roast pork is as Irish as you can get, and at Bellew just about every part of the pig is used: roasted chop, smoked and fresh ham, along with bacon, crackling and crubbeens. Crubbeens are usually made with pig’s trotters, but Mr. Daly throws in the head and tail and ears, too, and coats the mixture in mustard and bread crumbs. He crisps the lot so that if you’re fainthearted, you would never guess what you are eating. It’s as addictive as chips.
Several parts of the animal are also used in the “Epigram of Lamb” (a title James Joyce would have liked). It includes a juicy pink chop, a roast leg, a braised neck en croûte with Dijon and bread crumbs, and a slow-cooked shoulder layered with olive oil, mashed potatoes and grain-mustard chutney. The roast chicken is particularly good, with its crisp skin, juicy meat and rich, dark sauce with garlic and lemon thyme.
“So where are the potatoes?” my Irish friend inquired.
My own Irish grandmother used to say that everyone had a potato-shaped space in his or her stomach. “Ninety percent water!” she would exclaim as she heaped up our plates. And in Ireland you are still offered three kinds of potatoes with dinner. At Bellew, however, we only got one: a bowl of buttery mashed potatoes that arrived with the pork and made the Irishman happy.
As we looked at the dessert menu, he began mistily to recall the puddings of his child-hood, dishes that I know well-Black Forest gâteau, sherry trifle, apple tart with custard, Queen of Puddings. At Bellew, pastry chef Thomas Ramirez riffs on those old Irish desserts, and they’re nothing like Mam used to make. I loved the caraway bread with caramelized Bramley apples and caramel mousse, and the Bailey’s Irish Cream bombe, topped with gold leaf and garnished with almond brittle. When you cut into the bombe, which was made of chocolate, caramel oozed out of the center. He also makes a pudding with warm Irish whisky and brown bread under a crunchy topping.
My friend took a forkful. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing Irish about this,” he noted.
He took another mouthful, then another and another.
167 East 33rd Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Well chosen, reasonably priced
Credit cards: All major cards
Price range: Lunch main courses $14 to $20, dinner $20 to $29, prix fixe three-course dinner $35
Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30 A.M. to 2 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Friday 5:30 P.M. to 10 P.M., Saturday 11 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor
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