Everyone seems to have an idea of what an Irish pub should be. But unless you have been in an actual pub on the Emerald Isle, your idea is up to interpretation.
Most here are just regular bars named Something OWhatevers with a few Irish paintings and knickknacks and maybe Guinness on draft if you are lucky.
JK ODonnells Irish Ale House on Wayne Street, however, takes its faux Irishness seriously and does a great job of pulling it off. Its modern-rustic design of hardwood floors, wooden tables – some made from whiskey barrels – and nicely tempered antique decorations makes it perfect for a special night or just a few beers with the boys.
It also now has family dining in the back banquet room, and it is done right, too. There are changing tables in the restrooms and the kids menu includes items like bangers and mash and fish and chips, not the usual chicken nuggets and frozen pizzas. And its a beautiful room with its stone fireplace and high-pitched ceiling that gives it the feel of an old church.
The only problem was one night that beautiful back room was booked for a large party. We could have eaten on the back patio, I was told, but that back patio is just a handful of chairs set in the dreary alley – not the kind of place I wanted to sit with my kids.
There were a few hiccups with the food. I also got a few from all the beers I sampled. The two best were the Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale, which had a nice malt background that made the Little Kings from my youth seem even more insipid, and one of the draft blends, The Uber, made from Smithwicks Irish Ale and something from JKs Hop Handle, which features various hoppy brews.
The best dishes were the simplest – the corned beef and cabbage and the Irish Cheddar grilled cheese sandwich. The corned beef is brined in house and was served with a big chunk of nicely flavored cabbage that didnt need a speck of salt, fingerling potatoes and big chunks of soft, well-cooked carrots that were really sweet. I chose the half order, and it was plenty filling and fulfilling.
The grilled cheese was made with thick slices of butter-soaked potato bread that had plenty of sharp cheese oozing from it. It was topped with zesty red onion and sweet ripe tomatoes and was about the perfect thing to have with a cup of one of JK ODonnells soups.
The potato and leek soup, a menu staple, was a fine choice, but the nightly feature of honey-roasted parsnip and candied onion soup was better. This thick, blended soup had the color and consistency of applesauce and was rather sweet upon first taste, but the heartiness of the root vegetable persevered, resulting in a hearty, flavorful amalgam.
The appetizers were decent, but none was great. The cod cake is a nifty idea and had plenty of chunks of fish mixed with bell peppers, capers and fresh parsley, but, in the end, I would have rather it been a crab cake.
The scotch eggs were perfectly executed, but I found the sausage to be a bit too mild and the potato cake underneath (derby sage boxty, as they call it) to be unnecessary. They were also way overpriced at $7.79 for just two eggs.
The featured appetizer of breaded banana peppers stuffed with bacon (Irish rashers, as they call it), cream cheese and smoked gouda was just OK. The cheese was, indeed, smoky, but there was not enough of it, and they could have used a tasty dip like the Colmans mustard sauce that came with the eggs.
Speaking of Colmans, if you are in the mood for a salad, ask for the house-made, honey-mustard dressing. It is pungent and has some punch, but it will lift the rather average mix of field greens, red onions, cucumbers and tomato.
The most forgettable dish was one that an Irish pub should absolutely be able to do right – shepherds pie. JK ODonnells version was not a pie at all; it was a bowl of underwhelming stew containing very little ground beef (no lamb?), peas and finely diced carrot with a scoop of mashed potatoes plopped in the middle. Adding to its failure was that it was served boiling hot and the rest of my party was ready for dessert by the time I could even start digging in.
When I got to dessert, I was happy. JK ODonnells features one of the areas best – the banoffee. This little cup with a shortbread crust on the bottom topped with layers of sticky toffee pudding, bananas, whipped cream and a sprinkle of crushed nuts is just brilliant. The Murphys chocolate mousse was almost as good. The stout beer syrup was added in just the right amount to make the light, creamy mousse truly unique. The flavor of the light and dark chocolate used to make it was accentuated by a crumbled brownie on top.
Restaurant: JK ODonnells Irish Ale House
Address: 121 W. Wayne St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Soup ($5), cod cake ($11), stuffed peppers ($5), corned beef and cabbage (half order $9; $17 whole), shepherds pie ($12), desserts ($5)
Food: * 1/2
atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).