Venue Review: Hibernian Pub
After the Great Irish Pub Epidemic of '99, when Guinness taps sprouted like measles over the face of Triangle dining, I'd had my fill of corned beef and shepherd's pie. The outbreak had reached a fever pitch in the early months of last year, as Irish pubs opened at a furious pace to capture their share of the St. Patrick's Day business (which is to Irish pubs as Mother's Day is to florists). By the time the dust had settled, I'd consumed my weight in various slow-cooked combinations of beef and lamb and carrots and potatoes and cabbage, and I was deliriously dreaming in Gaelic.
When The Hibernian opened this spring on Glenwood South, I had largely recovered, but I still hadn't completely purged the gravy from my system. I didn't relish the thought of eating all that heavy food in the middle of a Carolina summer, so I figured I'd wait until cold weather to review the restaurant. Duty is duty, however, and the least I could do was stop in for a quick bite.
All the signs suggested I was in for more of the same, from the ornate Dublin-esque fa"ade of glossy black and gold to the instant-Old World look of the pub inside. With its two small book-lined rooms (one smoking, the other non-) flanking a central bar, the Hibernian is cozier than most other Irish pubs in the area and somehow comes closer to achieving that desirable well-worn look.
Still, with a pot-bellied coal stove burning a faux electric fire, and a too-studied placement of musical instruments and other bric-a-brac about the rooms, there's no mistaking this place for the real thing. What the heck, I thought, I'll order fish and chips and save the shepherd's pie for November.
That's when I discovered, to my surprise, that there is no shepherd's pie on the menu. The only dishes that qualify as standard Irish meat and potatoes fare are beef stew and Gaelic steak, described as "a pan-seared 12-ounce strip loin complemented by a gorgeous whiskey-peppercorn sauce, served with house vegetables and mash, fries or rice." The rest of the menu is a mix of Irish and popular American fare, ranging from crab cake, quesadilla and burger to poached salmon salad, curry and stout chicken - and fish and chips, which I ordered.
And which produced a trio of hefty cod fillets, their sparkling white flesh steamy under a beer-batter crust whose lightness and crispness bordered on tempura. Accompanying the fish were not only the usual chips (that's "fries" in stateside talk), but also steamed broccoli - a quirk that may not be authentic but certainly assuages the cholesterol guilt.
These were some of the best fish and chips I'd had in these parts, easily the equal of those served at the Fox & Hound in Cary (until now the unchallenged standard-setter). All right, I decided, maybe I won't wait so long for a return visit.
And so I found myself, in the middle of August, working my way through yet another Irish pub menu - albeit an unusual one. By and large, I don't regret my change of heart, though I discovered over the course of subsequent visits to The Hibernian that the number of dishes that succeed as swimmingly as the fish and chips are outnumbered by those that fail to wade out of average waters.
Irish smoked salmon, certainly, is one of the keepers, a textbook offering of thinly sliced, butter-soft fish served with brown bread and a whole-grain mustard cream sauce and garnished with capers, red onions and diced cucumber. Also rewarding are chicken and ham croquettes served with a garlicky sour cream dipping sauce - as long as you don't expect much chicken or ham in the mashed potato croquette mixture.
Curried chips are a snack staple all over Europe, but they're rarely seen on this side of the pond. The Hibernian's rendition - a heap of fries blanketed in a golden raisin-spiked curry sauce that's less creamy but more flavorful than commonly served in those European snack kiosks - is sure to cure your ketchup-dipping ways.
The same curry sauce is equally winning in its entr"e guise, served over rice and topped with strips of grilled chicken breast, shrimp or a medley of vegetables.
Order the stout chicken, which features pan-seared breast slices over bow tie pasta with walnuts and bacon in a Guinness sauce, and your server will likely warn you that some have found the dish too bitter, owing to the Guinness. In fact, I suspect it isn't the Guinness that people have found objectionable, but an occasional intensely bitter bite, perhaps the result of stray bits of inner shell membrane that weren't thoroughly removed from the walnuts.
The only unqualified disappointment I encountered was a dish of crab cakes, which were fishy-tasting and mushy. I gave them another chance on a subsequent evening, but they proved only marginally better.
I had put off trying the beef stew as long as I could. When I finally ordered it, I was rewarded with 1-inch chunks of lean beef, peas, carrots, corn, onions and celery in a brown gravy that overflowed the sides of the rustic round bread loaf in which it was served. It was classic, and it was good. I ate every bit of it that warm summer evening and could look forward to fall, when it would be even better.
Finally, I was cured.