Aside from left to right and up to down, when it comes to reading menus and deciding what you want to eat in a restaurant, you have two choices. You can set your mind before you even glance at the bill of fare, going on what type of cuisine the eatery supposedly serves, and then scan the list for what you've previously determined. Or you can keep an open mind, making no resolution until you see what the restaurant actually offers.
I'd recommend the latter course of action at Biddy Early's, a three-month-old pub shipped over piece by piece from Ireland and put together on North Andrews Avenue in Fort Lauderdale. Despite the Irish heritage of the place and two of its three owners -- Ken O'Donovan and Kieran Gleeson -- the menu is an eclectic conglomeration of almost every cuisine you can imagine: American, Italian, French, and even Mexican. Yes, we're talking overspiced chicken fajitas, served sizzling on a black skillet with onions, green and red bell peppers, and a variety of side dishes including sour guacamole that tasted as if it were made from minced frozen avocado purée.
In fact, if you weren't clued in by the décor, not to mention the Irish accents of the management and the Celtic flavor of the Saturday-night live bands, you might not even recognize at first that Biddy Early's is an Irish pub. For one thing the eatery's name, which honors a famous prophetess in County Clare, is still a bit foreign for Americans with no idea who she was or what the slogan "Taste the magic" means. For another the printing on the sign outside the restaurant is written in such a spiked, twisted font that, if it were listed on your computer, it might be called Olde Stonehenge. One of my guests commented that if the name of a restaurant is confusing, the sign should be really clear, and I'd have to say he's right.
Still, the interior is wonderfully inviting, with Gothic antiques from the 1800s and artifacts from churches scattered about. The floor, a mosaic of wood and tile, is as elaborate as a stained-glass window, and the L-shape restaurant has more pleasant nooks and crannies than an English muffin. Oops -- make that Irish soda bread. The last thing we want to do here is stir up ancient animosities, though these first-time South Florida proprietors, who have owned several pubs in Ireland, have obviously put such differences aside: The third partner, Robert Godfrey, is English.
The proprietors' ancestry would account for the presence of shepherd's pie on the dinner menu -- if it were on the menu, that is. Like fish and chips, Irish stew, and corned beef and cabbage, that particular staple isn't listed. Hence the importance of not making up your mind about what to eat before you arrive at Biddy Early's. One of my guests, who came in after the others, didn't even consult the menu before declaring that he would have fish and chips.
No you won't, we told him. It's not on the menu. He looked confused and disappointed, but in a few moments he brightened. OK then, I'll have shepherd's pie.
No you won't, we told him. Not on the menu.
Fortunately the waitress told us that fish and chips was a special that evening, so my guest was satisfied after all. More than satisfied -- he was delighted with the crisp beer batter encasing juicy hunks of cod and the crunchy fries that accompanied the fillets. As it turns out, management later told me, staples like fish and chips and shepherd's pie are actually available all the time, so if you don't see them on the menu, just ask.
But while other entrées -- like honey-roasted duck, which had a vaguely Asian cast and was just a little on the dry side -- might jump out at you, give the menu a more-than-cursory read. If you look closely, you'll find several straightforwardly Irish dishes. The colcannon, for example, a mixture of mashed potatoes, cabbage, and leeks, needed only a bit of salt to bring out the flavor that's in it, as you might say in Ireland. (Forgive me -- I just finished reading Angela's Ashes.)
Or you could order an Irish-influenced dish, such as the tagliatelle with smoked salmon in cream sauce. This main course was a bit mushy but aromatic, thanks to the addition of sautéed onions mixed in with the pasta. Same with a steak topped with mushrooms, onions, and whiskey sauce. The steak was way overcooked -- well-done when we'd ordered medium -- but that slightly alcoholic sauce is sure and a blessing from Saint Brigid herself, isn't it? 'Tis. I mean, hic.
Appetizers, too, teeter over ethnic lines, and American bar-food favorites like salty Buffalo wings or potato skins topped with cheese and crumbled bacon can be unimpressive. Invest instead in a smoked-fish pâté, served with toast points and mixed greens dressed with raspberry vinaigrette, or some interesting stuffed mushrooms. Rolled in crumbs, deep-fried, and looking more like Scotch eggs than 'shrooms, the mushrooms were filled with a dollop of country pâté. Very tasty, and just a touch different than the norm. Or check out a wonderfully fresh shrimp cocktail, featuring jumbo shrimp surrounding a sauce that tasted like Thousand Island dressing. Because of the description on the menu, we'd been expecting bay shrimp, but could hardly fault the local crustaceans that these seemed to be.
All main courses are preceded by a choice of soup or salad. Though the salad features fresh greens and a couple of slices of red onion and quartered tomatoes, all the dressings except the vinaigrette tasted bottled. Soups, on the other hand, were inarguably delicious. Potato-leek soup, a slightly greenish creamy purée, was subtly flavored; seafood soup was slightly less modest, with plenty of bay shrimp and cod floating in the cream-thickened broth. In addition main entrées, with the exception of pasta dishes, arrive partnered by your choice of colcannon, fries, or rich potatoes au gratin. Biddy Early's just might qualify as an Irish pub without serving a Guinness-based beef stew, but potatoes are a sine qua non.
No matter what course you're having, it'd almost be sacrilege not to wash everything down with a Murphy's Stout or a Guinness. Biddy Early's also pours some lighter brews, like Bodinger's, the same way it does Guinness; that is to say, it has put them on "beer mix." Beer mix is a dispensing method that allows less air into the brew as it pours down the side of a glass. As a result the beer is slightly flatter, with a creamier head, than the highly carbonated soft drink we call Bud, and beer connoisseurs are forever grateful to pubs that have any brew at all on beer mix.
If you indulge too much, of course, chances are you won't have room for dessert, but unless you love Irish bread pudding (I don't), that isn't a great loss. Chocolate fans will probably appreciate the Death by Chocolate pastry, a moist and dense confection. As for me, I'll just take my pint, along with an order of traditional fish and chips, the best item that's not on Biddy Early's menu.
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