"So what do you think of the peace process in Northern Ireland?" I asked Mark Rohleder, co-owner of Waxy O'Connor's, the five-month-old Irish pub located on Seventeenth Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale. It seemed a reasonable question to ask. The news about a possible end to "the troubles" had just broken -- good news, I thought, optimistic news. While the issue may be too complex for casual conversation, I figured Rohleder would offer an interesting take on the subject. After all, even though he and his partner, Malachai O'Connor, have been in the United States for the past six years, they're both natives of Ireland, a fact reinforced by Rohleder's thick brogue.
But he responded this way: "You're not going to write about that, are you? Politics and religion -- we leave them out of the pubs."
His statement was probably more cautious than true. I'm sure that the latest step in the peace process -- a proposal to put together a new legislature in Northern Ireland made up of both Protestant and Catholic members -- is a topic of conversation in pubs; it just isn't readily discussed with outsiders, whose sympathies are unknown. But Rohleder had another point to make. For him there's always been peace in Ireland -- found inside of a pub, where you can enjoy a pint of stout or lager, a plate of tender corned beef, and stimulating conversation.
In fact, to Rohleder's way of thinking, a true Irish pub doesn't even have a TV for watching sporting events. "If you're not talking to your bartender, you're talking to someone else in the room," he explains. And apparently that room, like the rest of the pub, isn't truly Irish unless it was originally built on the Emerald Isle, as was Waxy O'Connor's. The 100-seat pub-restaurant was constructed overseas, then broken down and shipped piece by piece. Everything, from the stone floor to the cottagelike walls, at least looks genuine. And the attention to detail -- framed soccer jerseys, hardwood stools upholstered in needlepoint, homey dishware displayed in breakfronts -- makes it easy to forget that the French restaurant Chameleon once stood on the same spot.
Only the exterior, facing the causeway, belies Waxy O'Connor's charm. Sit on the patio and order a bottle of Rolling Rock, and you could be anywhere in Fort Lauderdale. On the other hand, the servers reinforce the pub's authentic appeal because of their knowledge of the beverages and cuisine. Not all of them, however, hail from Ireland. Putting together a full Irish staff would be impossible, Rohleder says. He'll hire "whoever's best at the job, whether they're American girls, British girls, or Irish girls." (He might want to amend that statement to include "boys," just in case anyone from the EEOC is reading this.)
Judging by their accents, we were served by British and Irish staff members, who were both professional and friendly, willing not just to serve the brews we ordered, but to sit down and debate the merits of Guinness and Murphy's Irish Stout. "This is the first place I've actually wanted the server to pull up a chair," one of my guests commented. In fact, we would have liked them to sit a little longer. Our food was delivered so speedily that the appetizers and entrees overlapped, allowing us to down three courses in just under an hour -- a sure recipe for indigestion.
Like the staff the menu is a mixture of Irish, British, and American cuisine; pub food has become quite a trend in Fort Lauderdale, and Waxy O'Connor's covers a range of countries that serve it. In some cases, though, the simple fare could stand some improvement. Appetizers include sports-bar fare such as potato skins, chicken tenders, and fried calamari. Buffalo wings were breaded first, then deep-fried and tossed with a zingy red-pepper sauce. The crisp coating got a little soggy after the moisture was introduced, but the chicken wings -- solid, meaty monsters -- were bigger than most I've encountered. Celery and carrot sticks, plus a mixed green salad and creamy blue-cheese dip, garnished the plate.
Chicken vol-au-vents made for a more elegant poultry starter. Hunks of white- and dark-meat chicken were sauteed with onions and mushrooms, then bathed in a light cream sauce. The concoction was poured over two flaky puff-pastry shells, which would have provided good contrast had they not been excessively oven-browned.
Of all the appetizers, Irish smoked salmon was the most genuine. History books have led us to associate meat-and-potato dishes with Ireland, but the country is an island after all, surrounded by fish-filled waters. Imported from Ireland, the lacy fillets of salmon, smoked over oak, were served with homemade brown bread. The mild fish was complemented by capers, fresh lemon, and a lovely mixed salad of field greens, cabbage, cucumber, and rings of red onion. The salmon dish could easily suffice as an entree, and, as with the Buffalo wings, the side salad eliminates the need to order a tossed green or caesar salad with the meal. The Irish farmhouse salad -- a combo of field greens topped with pickled beets, potatoes, and mushrooms -- may be difficult to resist, however, and may be easily shared as a starter.
Irish smoked salmon is also available as a pasta entree, napped with a whiskey cream sauce and served over angel-hair pasta. Other main courses offer more traditionally familiar offerings, some British in origin -- bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes), for instance, or chicken potpie. Beef stew, an Irish dish, was particularly good. Generous hunks of gristle-free meat, carrots, tender white potatoes, and aromatic onions had been simmered in a Guinness-rich gravy, which was eagerly sopped up with toasted brown bread. Like many traditional Irish dishes, the stew wasn't fancy but was hearty and filling, exuding hearth and home.
A variation on the same theme, shepherd's pie, offered ground beef that was sauteed in onion gravy, then baked in a casserole dish with a lid of fluffy mashed potatoes. The base of the dish, however, was drenched in oil, and the fat bubbled up through the crust.
Grease proved to be the major downfall of Irish-style fish and chips. The cod fillets, dipped in batter and deep-fried, were fresh and sweet. But the coating was gooey and undercooked, and the gray color of the fish suggested that the cooking oil was far too old and needed to be changed. The chips, long and wide French fries, suffered the same fate.
Improving our spirits, literally, was a whiskey-soaked dessert. Bread-and-butter pudding, served steaming hot, was studded with raisins and aromatic with a homemade whiskey sauce -- the kind of sweet meant to be consumed in front of a peat fire on a lonely moor somewhere. While finding a moor, or a peat fire, may be difficult in Fort Lauderdale, Waxy O'Connor's provides plenty of its own kind of warmth.
Waxy O'Connor's. 1095 SE 17th Street Cswy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-9299. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 3 a.m.
Irish smoked salmon
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Fish and chips