More than just green beer

It was only Baile Corcaigh's second day, but already word-of-mouth had spread among the Irish-American community, the type of patriotic Irish who come back to Corktown to march on St. Paddy's Day. Drinking Irish whiskey or Irish beers on tap at the bar, standing in line for a table — they were enjoying the buzz. A new pub had opened in the old neighborhood.

In these days when almost every restaurateur will tell you he's trying to run a "neighborhood place," Baile Corcaigh achieves that feel — even if many of the patrons travel far to get there. The bar is long and welcoming, and food prices are low enough to invite stopping by regularly.

Chef Martin Costello, who's from County Limerick, offers afternoon tea with scones, and breakfast is served anytime. There's a seven-item menu for "the little people," e.g., O'Macaroni and Cheese. No wonder patrons already looked as if they felt like regulars.

It helps that the place, which is on the former site of the Catholic Worker House, is beautiful. Owners Leo and Sharon Mooney Malinowski found Gothic stained-glass windows from a 19th-century church and used them as dividers. They installed dark oak paneling and built a quarry stone fireplace, embedded with a map of Ireland (including Northern), made of one stone from each of the 32 counties, labeled in Gaelic. "Irish people like to touch something that came from the old country," Mooney says.

It may not seem like an auspicious time to open a restaurant that touts cuisine based on the lowly potato, embraced by neither the lo-carb nor the lo-fat folks. But Baile Carcaigh's patrons don't care. They're eating spuds in leek pie, Connemara broth, Irish stew, and fish and chips. They're offered six versions of potatoes as side orders, from colcannon (spuds and cabbage) to scallion champ (mashed potatoes and green onions with a well of butter in the center).

Sharon Mooney, who studied at an Irish cooking school for 12 weeks, sums up Irish cuisine as "fresh food prepared simply" (Baile Corcaigh has no freezer). The most asked-for item on her menu is faintly sweet and indeed simple: an Irish stew of lamb, carrots, potatoes and onions.

Because I visited when the pub was brand-new, I can't come down hard on any opening-week flaws — and the place was so popular that some of the staple dishes, like leek pie and dingle pie (lamb stew baked in crust), were gone by 7 p.m. My steak with caramelized Irish whiskey sauce came without the sauce. But it was offered in replacement for the leek pie, at the same price, and the server threw in a free dessert as well.

A highlight is the Irish soda bread baked on the premises, served with excellent butter. Costello makes his own scones too. Yeast breads will be added soon.

What he does with humble root vegetables is impressive. Parsnips and beets are their plain and full-flavored selves; carrots, on the other hand, are caramelized and drenched with butter. Both methods are good.

I'd never have predicted that cabbage could add so much to potatoes; the colcannon is actually piquant. "Irish chips" — fried slices — were inconsistent, though: way too tough one night but bacony and just right another.

In its specials, Baile Corcaigh branches out from homespun Irish fare. Melt-in-your-mouth scallops with coriander, curry and lemon, for example, were served in a buttery sauce that tasted of both sweetness and the sea, surrounded by huge raspberries and blackberries.

Desserts all feature softly whipped cream. A long list of whiskeys and cordials includes Irish Mist, made with honey.

For the St. Patrick's parade, on Sunday, March 13, the pub will be open before, during and after, serving Irish breakfast — soup in bread bowls — from a tent outside, and corned beef and cabbage inside.

Baile Corcaigh is now closed Sundays and Mondays, but a Sunday brunch is planned for the near future. A rustic extension of the pub, with fireplace and darts, will open downstairs late this year.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].