I ordered my first pint of Guinness in an Irish-themed pub in Windsor, Ontario. I must have said something about it being my first Guinness ever, because a guy seated nearby turned to me. He wanted to tell me three things.
First, I should pay close attention to how the bartender poured my Guinness. He should stop with the glass only three-fourths full and then wait two minutes ideally, he should walk away and take someone else's order before he finishes pouring. This, my new friend told me, was how you got a perfect cap of silky foam atop your Guinness. If the bartender failed this step, I should refuse the Guinness.
Second, once I had the pint of Guinness in front of me, I should take a penny a penny, he insisted, sliding one across the bar to me and tap it against the bulge near the top of the glass (it went without saying that a Guinness must be served in the proper glassware, as distinctive as a Coca-Cola bottle) and then against a spot near the bottom. Only when the penny made the same tone when struck against both places was the Guinness ready.
Finally, if I liked Guinness, I had to go to Ireland to Dublin, in fact to the St. James Gate Brewery itself. Guinness was immeasurably better closer to the source.
As a matter of fact, I was headed abroad later that year, and on my first day in Dublin, I dutifully visited the brewery. After a lame tour of a mock-up of the brewing process and a cool exhibit of Guinness advertising through the years, I went into the Guinness "pub," handed over my two drink tickets and received a pint of Guinness from the bottom of the keg.
Fortunately, over the following days I enjoyed many delicious pints of Guinness in pubs in Dublin, and I can report that it does taste better there (if maybe not immeasurably so), and if you, too, love Guinness, I'd recommend a visit except that it might spoil you for the rest of your Guinness-drinking life. You'll wander from pub to pub to pub wherever you live and travel, searching in vain for a pint of Guinness that perfect.
Or you can visit an Irish-themed pub and let your imagination make up the difference. You'll need your imagination at The Dubliner, the new Irish gastropub in the Bee Hat Building on Washington Avenue. It's not that the Dubliner isn't authentic, exactly in fact, the décor manages to convey Irish pub without the quotation marks, and I will call no place that serves black pudding inauthentic.
Still, it's impossible to forget you're in a Washington Avenue loft building. It's a huge space, with high ceilings and exposed ductwork, an enclosed private dining room and a mezzanine level for games, music and theater. You might not notice the size that much when you're tucked into one of the high-backed booths, but you never get that sense of camaraderie and fun for all craic, as the Irish say that's inevitable and unavoidable in a cramped, smoky pub. Even the piped-in Irish music sounds no different from ordinary Muzak, distant and tinny.
You'll also need your imagination if you order the fish and chips. Of course, this dish is best eaten in a cone of newspaper, with a plastic fork, before you stumble home after a night in the pub. But you can ask only so much of a restaurant. The quality of the fish and chips is as good a test as any for a new gastropub the dish is listed on the Dubliner's menu in the section called "Pub Fare," after all. So I was a wee bit disappointed when my cod fillet arrived soggy on the bottom, its batter turned to paste. It was a mystery because the fish itself wasn't very greasy. If anything, I thought the fish a tad on the dry side. It flaked too easily, even for cod.
The chips were fine, though, and the fish was the only real misstep I encountered on the Dubliner's solid, if unspectacular, menu. "Pub Fare," available as long as the Dubliner's open, also includes the truly fantastic "Dub Pub Burger," eight ounces of naturally raised beef formed into a thick patty and served with no frills just bloody excellence beneath a perfect char. I also enjoyed the "Beef and Guinness Stew," as thick and heavily spiced as sauerbraten. The Guinness wasn't a pronounced flavor, but the stout did add a light, caramel note to the heady mix.
On the other hand, I couldn't taste the Guinness in the "Stout Braised Beef Ribs," from the dinner menu. The problem, I think, is that the flavor of Guinness isn't that different from the flavors meat develops as it braises. After "hours and hours" of braising, as the menu claims, the two flavors become indistinguishable. Still, as chefs everywhere have rediscovered in recent years, few meat preparations are as naturally flavorful as braised short ribs, and these were no different, tender and, if a little fatty, more luscious for it.
A mixed grill of lamb featured a chop, a piece of loin and a sausage. The chop was fine, the loin a bit tough, but the sausage was incredible. It distilled the essence of lamb, that bright, gamey quality, into each assertive, spicy bite.
(The lamb and most of the meat at the Dubliner is locally sourced and, in general, of very high quality. It's good to find a restaurant without the ambitious mission of An American Place, sourcing locally. When that restaurant is a gastropub like the Dubliner, which relies on dishes such as the short ribs or the mixed grill of lamb or even the burger dishes that succeed or fail largely based on the quality of the meat I'd argue that sourcing well, if not always locally, is more or less essential.)
It goes without saying that just about every entrée comes with mashed potatoes or champ (mashed potatoes and leeks). I liked the champ, but the mashed potatoes were well, the mashed potatoes were mashed potatoes. Not good or bad, just, you know, there. I did like that most dishes came with a dab of puréed sweet potatoes. Several dishes also came with exactly six (I counted) green beans, which was as authentically pub-like as anything at the Dubliner.
Among the starters, one standout was the pork paté. This was titled "Little Pots" on the menu, but instead of several small ramekins, we got one medium-size ramekin with a slightly chunky, deeply flavored paté en terrine. Another starter, a plate of three "Irish farmhouse cheeses," was satisfying, but not very distinctive. The Dubliner also offers a selection of smoked salmon as well as a raw bar, though the availability of the latter changes often.
The Dubliner serves brunch on weekends. I stopped by for a plate of two delectable eggs a simple thing to praise, I know, but eggs over-easy are such a no-brainer for any chef that when you have eggs this good, it's like a revelation potatoes, a small piece of mild breakfast sausage and a puck of black pudding. Black pudding is blood, essentially, with a deeply earthy mineral flavor that you have to acquire. I like it, but the Dubliner's small serving was just about right for my tastes.
More than the black pudding itself, I liked that I didn't have a choice. It came with my breakfast. End of discussion. It speaks to the Dubliner's dedication to Irish tradition. I only wish and this might be the first time I've ever wished this about a restaurant that I was more aware of the booze and the smoke and the music, and everything else that makes a pub a pub.
So I recommend sitting close to the bar. Even if there's no craic to be had, you'll at least have a clear sightline to the bartender pouring your Guinness. Remember: at least a two-minute break before the end of the pour. Otherwise, send it back.
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