At last! Irish food gets a much-needed infusion of mangoes and red pepper
Dining Out by Stephen Heuser
1280 Mass Ave (Harvard Square), Cambridge
Open daily, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
AE, MC, Visa
You could look a long time before finding a better example of the way
neighborhoods change than 280 Mass Ave. Until a year and a half ago, it was the
address of One Potato Two Potato, a nondescript cafeteria that was apparently
the last vestige of some '80s vogue for potato restaurants, and which for the
last few years hung onto solvency with cheap beer and a late-night liquor
There's some irony in the fact that the total makeover of a potato café
produced an upscale Irish restaurant, especially one in which every dish comes
with your choice of two kinds of potato. But otherwise, Grafton Street (the
name comes from Dublin's main drag) is a world away from its neon-lit
antecedent. Everything here speaks of a more prosperous decade and a more
confident clientele, from the heavy velvet curtain hanging across the entryway,
confounding the unwary, to the oak-and-leather banquettes, to the fact that
there are actually human beings talking to each other at the bar.
To their further credit, the owners of Grafton Street have cleverly solved the
problem of how to run a restaurant based on the food of a country whose cooking
is the punchline to international jokes. The solution is this: you give the
dishes Irish names and then prepare them however you want. Hence "swordfish
McMullin" ($14.95), a swordfish steak the size of a paperback novel, is grilled
and topped with three prawns and a lump of butter into which mango and red
pepper have been diced. Tropical flouncery like mango and red pepper could
hardly be less faithful to the starch-and-boiled-meat spirit of Irish cooking,
but who cares? Not my waitress, who didn't even try to justify the "McMullin"
in the name. The result tasted fine, and the accompanying pile of mashed
potatoes -- very good mashed potatoes, stiff and unadorned -- brought us back
to the old sod. So did the slice of lotus root that served as a garnish. That
may not sound Irish, but the normally white root was dyed a vivid Saint.
Paddy's Day green.
Perhaps hypnotized by the lotus root, I ate an entire meal at Grafton Street
without picking up on the kitchen's main problem. Maybe I should have been
tipped off by the "pâté maison," a chicken-liver purée that
tasted pretty good (not as lush as duck pâté, maybe, but less
liverish than pâtés I've had at other Irish restaurants) but which
was served in huge dollops that overwhelmed the four slices of toasted bread
provided to spread it on.
Yes, the problem here is excess. Total excess, wild excess,
still-overcompensating-for-the-Potato Famine excess. I've been accused of
fussiness and even snobbery for complaining about oversupply of food at new
restaurants, but honestly . . . I ate at Grafton Street a second
time with four people and we actually laughed, spontaneously, when our
appetizers came out: a spinach salad stacked so high on a full-size dinner dish
that it formed a dome. A collection of mussels that would have done credit to a
tide pool. Not-insubstantial crab cakes buried in a hedge of greenery.
It's almost ungentlemanly to play critic with such a display of generosity --
almost -- but the crab cakes ($7.95) were kinda oily under all those
greens, with a red-pepper sauce that looked as if it was supposed to be rouille
but tasted more like mayonnaise with a bit of red-pepper purée for
color. The mussels ($6.95), on the other hand, were excellent -- tender and
still hot -- though the garlic-and-white-wine cream sauce underneath them was
just on the wrong side of heavy, at least to my taste. I like to scoop up broth
in mussel shells, and this was more like eating alfredo sauce with a spoon. But
the shellfish were terrific. So was the clam chowder ($1.95), which came in a
cup that was really just the size of a cup! The spinach salad ($4.95),
like all the greens, was impeccably fresh, and the spinach was of excellent
quality, though leaves that large are usually better when torn into pieces. All
the dressings, incidentally, come on the side; the dressing for the spinach was
a thick, totally unremarkable cream thing. Oil and a splash of vinegar would
have done the trick.
As for entrées, the swordfish was pretty much the belle of the ball, or
the colleen of the seissiún, or however you see things after a couple of
pints of Guinness. "Dublin-style fish and chips" ($9.95) were a crisp pile of
twice-fried fries with four pieces of battered whitefish on top. I've never
been to Dublin, but I do know what fish and chips are like in the rest of the
British Isles: a big pile of soft, greasy, square-cut fries with a single long
piece of whitefish in oily batter. Grafton Street's version was drier, firmer,
and probably more to American taste.
Something called Ballymaloe seafood stew ($13.95) was a fabulous throwback; if
you've ever eaten lobster Newburg, you'll have some idea of the cream-heavy
treatment here -- scallops and shrimp and chunks of salmon adrift in a
mushroomy sauce that would have kept the Titanic afloat for several more
hours. The thing tasted fantastic, perhaps because, if we are to believe the
menu, it was made with Bushmills whiskey.
There's something sweet-natured about all this profusion, of course, but focus
isn't such a bad thing either. A crazy dish called Edendorian chicken ($13.95)
was a half-chicken cooked with so much other stuff that we actually had a
debate about how it had been assembled. There was a kind of celery-and-herb
stuffing in there, and the whole thing was wrapped with Irish rasher bacon and
covered in gravy. The chicken seemed tender, but it was hard to figure out
where the poultry ended and the rest began; throw in the side dishes of
asparagus and fried mashed-potato cake and you're eating two people's
Finally, avoid the vegetable quesadilla.
Dessert seemed inconceivable after a full round of appetizers and
entrées, but duty called, and I wound up ordering an apple crisp I liked
so much that I finished most of it myself: thin slices of apple, served
tongue-searingly hot, with a cinnamony crumble crust and thick beaten cream
running into the crevices. The coffee was good, too, and our service was brisk
and cheery. There are two TVs over the bar that point toward the dining room
and which were showing, one night, a very distracting World's Strongest Man
contest in which a series of moonlighting power lifters almost exploded in the
effort to bend iron bars over their heads.
I'm sure they could have finished the chicken.
Stephen Heuser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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