The Irish aren't exactly known for their subtlety. That pesky potato famine sure did a number on the homeland; the IRA has been known to send a message by car bomb; George Bernard Shaw never met an overwrought turn of phrase he didn't love. Then, of course, there's the whole joke about Irish cuisine -- which could only be dubbed subtle if the word's definition was stretched to mean "bland, lackluster, devoid of integrity."
That line of thinking, though, comes to an abrupt end the moment one heads through the door at McGurk's, Soulard's proudly Irish pub and saloon that has stood as one of the city's good-drink-and-eats institutions since 1974. What makes the place so endlessly inviting, so near-impossible to ever disappoint, is in fact its subtlety -- the way it gets so many of the little things right.
Just as one example, take the ambience. Anyone who's ever caught a Cheers rerun on Nick at Nite knows that a welcoming bar can be constructed from little more than hardwood flooring, oak furnishings and yellowed photos of bare-knuckle boxers on the walls. Yet there's something extra going on at McGurk's, and after some pondering it seems that the all-amber lighting is what does the trick, turning the establishment into a warmer, cozier, almost womblike environment. Notice how the women almost never shuttle off to the bathrooms (which, I regret to report, forsake the comfy décor for a white-tiled, institutional look) to reapply makeup or that even the scraggly bar regulars look more appealing than they really are. Another much-appreciated nuance is the music's volume. Whether live music is played (as it is most nights) or CDs are employed, it's high enough that solo diners and drinkers can absorb themselves in it but not so loud that it impedes conversation.
The service also hits all the right notes: friendly without being overbearing, and attentive to detail. McGurk's bartenders arguably pull the best Guinness in town, serving it a little warmer than do other establishments so that, unlikely as it may sound, the stout goes down like an expertly prepared cup of gourmet coffee. Table service earns kudos for never letting an empty water glass or finished plate sit for more than a full minute.
Most such details probably go unnoticed by the clientele, who come either to get properly fuzzy-brained at the bar at the end of a long day or to stuff their gullets on the extensive lunch and dinner menu. That's as it should be; although the food may go far beyond standard pub fare, folks don't go to places such as McGurk's to get their inner foodie-snob all rankled. And even if they did, they'd have to get pretty nitpicky to find much about which to complain.
You know a kitchen is more than doing its job, for example, when an appetizer plate of chicken wings is served without any dipping sauces and, truly, without any need for them. Just the right spiciness is achieved here, the kind that cartwheels around your mouth but refrains from rushing headstrong up your nasal passages. Blessedly, Wet-Naps also prove superfluous; the wings aren't slathered beyond recognition in barbecue sauce. In short, these are the antithesis of the overproduced wings found in most every sports bar and happy-fun-time restaurant chain, the kind that can actually convert non-wing-lovers.
The two toasted-ravioli plates -- traditional beef with a side of marinara and a spinach-and-artichoke served with spiced honey sauce -- benefit, as the wings do, from a uniform crispiness. This is why the disappointment of the homemade Irish chips -- the only subpar starter on the menu -- comes as such a surprise. Although each chip is limned with that tempting burnt-brown border, some inexplicably wind up with soggy, undercooked middles. Likewise, one chip may come out of the basket with bracing saltiness but the next registers as tasteless. Serving them with malt vinegar would help, as would making them "sliced and fried to order," as the menu claims.
Main course choices incorporate plenty of Irish staples, with a few nods to Continental cuisine and American eats, and are categorized on the menu under "House Specialties," "Sandwiches" and "Dinner Favorites." Trust that the house knows what it's talking about when it says "specialties" -- the homemade Irish stew, for one, soars. Proffered in a bread bowl that ably holds the heat, it can be eaten with a fork or spoon, as stews with perfect consistency should be. The lamb and vegetable ingredients are simmered to the point of splendid softness, and a sprinkling of gorgeous green peas on top (which, remarkably, maintain their firmness in the stew) nicely offset all that brownness.
Another superlative is the fish and chips, even if the chips, as previously mentioned, aren't always up to snuff. Flash-fried in a buttermilk batter, the flaky slabs of cod come jacketed in a flawless crunchy shell. The accompanying tartar sauce is whipped up with more egg than usual, adding extra oomph to the dish. Just as wonderful is the house-named burger, which manages to pack a mouthful of juicy tastiness without turning into the kind of burger that falls apart halfway through the eating. Order it medium with cheddar cheese on top and opt for the new-potato salad on the side over the chips, and you will find yourself racing to devour every bite.
Other entrées more than hold their own. Pesto tortellini comes in a cream sauce that's almost sweet, but that can be cut through by requesting extra diced tomatoes. For heartier appetites, the "Irishman in the Bronx" (a fourteen-ounce New York strip steak with garlic champ and green beans) satisfies without qualification. The only weak spot I found among the main dishes was the "Dubliner," an open-faced sandwich of shaved roast beef, sautéed onions and mushrooms, and Murphy's Amber barbecue sauce. It suffered from a sauce too sweet and heavy to allow the more delicate onion and mushroom flavors to surface and from an overly toasted sourdough hoagie on bottom that competed against the meat for your canine teeth's attention.
You could probably count on one hand the number of Irish pubs worldwide (or at least across the Midwest) worthy of visiting just for dessert. And although McGurk's regular sweet-tooth offerings top out at two -- a whiskey bread pudding and a Bailey's cheesecake -- both are whopping mounds of sweet sublimity. First there's the presentation: ridiculously plump berries (black for the cheesecake, rasp for the bread pudding) and molasses-thick sauces (fudge and raspberry, respectively) adorn the plate with an artistry that's almost embarrassing for such casual environs. The bread pudding, equipped with a good crust, spiked heavily with nutmeg and topped with the aforementioned raspberry sauce, hits the palate in a fugue of welcome textures and tastes.
The subtler-tasting cheesecake, meanwhile, goes down so smooth and cool that my tongue kept thinking it was having ice cream. In fact, the only contention worth making against the desserts is that they're just too much. After the overwhelming bounteousness of a full meal here, it might be wise to do right by your digestive system and settle in with a Bailey's and coffee instead.