WHAT DOES ONE REQUIRE of an Irish pub? Well, beer. An atmosphere to facilitate the pleasurable drinking of beer. Food to absorb and augment the beer. And tomorrow, the day of copious liquid homage to St. Patrick, a square foot of space you and your beer can call your own. Unless you get there mighty feckin' early, as Frank McCourt might say, Tir Na Nog will fail you on that last. It, along with the handful of other Irish joints in town, will fill to capacity by 9am and be certifiably stupid with revelry by noon. Live Irish music (starting at 1pm) and a central downtown address, mid-stumbling distance between the business district and Pioneer Square, pretty much sew that up. Tir Na Nog
801 First, 264-2700
Mon-Fri 11am-2am, Sat noon-2am, Sun noon-9pm
AE, MC, V; full bar But what about the other requirements? Yes, Tir Na Nog has beer—10 on draught, including Guinness Stout and Ireland's Caffery's Cream Ale, and a dozen or so, from various international ports of call, in bottles. Its parent corporation, Ram International, which owns (among other places) University Village's Ram Cafe and Sports Bar, also owns the Big Horn Brewing Company chain of brewpubs; hence the Total Disorder Porter and Lowlander Scottish Ale and Buttface Amber Ale on draught. ("I'd like a Buttface please," I informed my waiter. "Well that's not something you hear every day!" she warbled.) So beer it's got. And atmosphere it's got—to burn. Carved a year ago summer out of the Colman Building on the corner of First and Columbia, Tir Na Nog was transformed into a many-chambered stage set of the old country by a team of Irish craftsmen, woodworkers, and muralists. One room boasts a fieldstone fireplace and plank tables; another, wood wainscoting and charming paned windows; another, a tiny nook dubbed "The Snug," a mere two tables; another, a cozy corner bandstand and a glorious glossy mahogany bar shipped from Dublin itself—all further embellished by loads of Irish bric-a-brac. As a result, the pub is rather more excessively Irish than any pub in Ireland, but the result is charming, in a Disneylandish sort of way. Whatever room you're in has its own appeal, wrapping its own cozy self ever more intimately around you with every Buttface gone. Of a Wednesday or Thursday or Friday evening with a Celtic or blues or rock cover band in the corner, the bar rooms can get quite jolly; "Tir Na Nog" is Gaelic for "land of youth," and that pretty well describes the clientele. But for our purposes, of course, we turn our attention to how jolly things are in the land of the dining rooms. THE MENU MINGLES predictable pub grub—onion rings, potato skins, burgers—with Irish food of some pretension, from corned beef and cabbage to Irish stew. Generally speaking, the pub grub is undistinguished—which is not to say bad. An order of onion rings ($4.99), lightly battered and served with ranch dressing, were satisfying and relatively greaseless. A Caesar salad ($7.99) was crunchy and fresh and just fine. Potato skins ($6.99), topped with cheddar and chives and bacon, were perfectly inoffensive and quite surprisingly filling. A Tir Na Nog burger ($6.99) was big and flame-grilled and juicy; plain old good. With it came a heap of fat wedge fries, also plain old good. No superlatives, no disparagement; this part of the menu aims a straight pitch at beer absorption and succeeds. The higher the reach, the more complex the results. Cast-iron mushrooms ($5.99), a savory starter that arrives at the table sizzling and popping from the grill, were richly redolent of the hot Guinness-garlic butter bath that bubbled in the skillet as a kind of gravy. The house soda bread, a dense brown variant served fetchingly with sweet honey butter, was wonderful dredged through the mushroom sauce. Whiskey crab bisque ($4.99, $5.99), by contrast, was dull—too sweet? not crabby enough? I couldn't decide—and none of us had the will to finish even a cup. But then came the pub salad ($7.99), which was as inspired as the bisque had been un-. Wild greens (including the delightful, rarely used radish sprouts) were topped with tomatoes, pistachios (a sparkling innovation), and a sweet pesto vinaigrette. I have no idea if Irishmen gather in Killkenny pubs to savor radish sprout-pistachio salads, but I'll wager they wouldn't mind it at all if they could. The corned beef sandwich ($8.99) was a thoroughgoing corker: thick, hot, falling-apart moist corned beef on a soft baguette, slathered with horseradish cream and Dijon mustard, and served in enormous proportion. So was the lovely coddle ($7.99), in which thick hunks of potato and onion and carrot slivers and pan-seared bangers—those mild sausages that form the backbone of the British Isles breakfast—swim in a delectable bacon-y stock. Those dishes being as right as they were, I was disappointed to encounter a thoroughly uninteresting shepherd's pie ($7.99). Braised beef, cut-up vegetables, mashed potatoes, no discernable herb or spice—perhaps this dish is designed to be uninteresting. If so, it was on the mark. It was not helped a bit by its presentation, dead-clunk in the middle of its plate, altogether unadorned. Same went for the Guinness beef boxty ($9.99), a kind of Irish potato pancake folded tortilla-like over a filling of Guinness-braised beef brisket. There was nothing on this plate but the big white pancake over what looked like computer-punched squares of beef; where were the promised vegetables? As it turned out, this boxty was a fascinating dish, the pancake a quietly delicious crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside foil for its rich beef filling. Better still was the seafood boxty ($10.99), in which the filling was cod, salmon, and shrimp in a light, herby b飨amel. This one came with the promised vegetables, unfortunately: tepid chunks of broccoli and cauliflower. Desserts ended things on the highest note of the evening: a mile-high slice of impossibly delicious vanilla cheesecake ($5) draped in strawberry sauce, and a wedge of dense, cinnamony bread pudding ($5) that was—no lie—a full 6 inches square. It arrived spitting and popping on a cast-iron skillet, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream alongside a pitcher of brandy caramel sauce to pour sizzling over the top. Mercy! Too bad beer doesn't go with dessert. (Maybe in Ireland it does.) For its beer and its dessert are Tir Na Nog's high points, with the starters and mains ranging from pedestrian to delicious. Service is youthful and enthusiastic, kind and carefree; twice we languished long at the door with no greeting. Once they did arrive, however, servers were unfailingly engaging and gracious. This whole place is welcoming like that—right down to the smoking policy. Fair warning to cigaphobes: The cigarette smoke that's meant to be strictly confined to certain rooms at certain times has a sneaky way of curling out of bounds. Now I hate secondhand smoke as much as the next foodie, but I must confess delight that Tir Na Nog has bucked PC convention to act like the Public House that it is. God forgive me, I'm happy for the poor pariahs who at last have a warm place to come inside for a smoke and a pint of ale with their perdition.