There are several approaches to the idea of an Irish pub and restaurant. The most radical, pioneered by Matt Murphy’s, is to have homemade, superior versions of actual Irish food. More often, we’re seeing a kind of pan-European bistro menu that’s probably about what youth-oriented pub restaurants are serving in Dublin these days. Then there’s all-American bar food like pizza, burgers, and fried snacks, with Guinness on draft and a Celtic-music night.
The Asgard, which is the largest and most ornate of a small chain including the Kinsale, in Boston, and Desmond O’Malley’s, in Framingham, has another answer. Its menu includes almost all of the above, plus Irish names slapped onto random dishes, the funnier the better: "Gaelic four onion soup," "Emerald Isle nachos," "Celtic quesadilla," "Galway wings," "Irish rancher’s salad" (Mexican stuff with ranch dressing), "Fenian chicken pasta," "Doolan’s apple cobbler," and of course, who could resist the "warm Moulton chocolate cake" topped with — you will excuse the expression — "crème anglaise"? Certainly not I, but before we review desserts, let’s get the name out of the way.
I tried out the slogan "The Asgard — the Bar Where They Watch Your Back" on my daughter, but she didn’t think it was funny. Asgard was also the heaven for Norse gods and warriors, like the Vikings who founded Dublin, lost it to Irish and Norman contenders, laid siege to it again, and so on. You wouldn’t think this sort of thing would inspire the name of an Irish bar, but evidently the Irish-Viking rivalry has settled down over the last thousand years or so. The other Asgard was a specific ship built in Boston for IRA sympathizers and used to run German guns for the Easter Rebellion. Of course, later on the owner was lured back to the Irish Free State and tried and executed in a factional dispute. Again, few American bars are named for Aaron Burr, and not so many English pubs are named for Mary Queen of Scots, but if you were a friend of Michael Collins, they may eventually name a bar after your boat.
What you see is more like a Viking mead hall than a Gloucester clipper, and that is rather cool. Given a modern and cavernous space that used to be a Southwestern-themed restaurant, the owners have used big wood timbers, flagstone floors, some token stonework walls, and medieval-looking furniture to imply old Ireland effectively, and even the remaining adobe-looking wall is set with stained glass featuring some runic letters. Texas cattle horns now serve as Viking-helmet horns.
Food begins with soft rolls and butter. One of the best appetizers is the bluefin-crab cakes ($8.49), neatly done and meaty, with a mustardy rémoulade sauce for a dip, and some New England corn relish on the side. "O’Malley’s pots o’ gold" ($6.99) are six stuffed potato skins topped with chopped corned beef and cheese, with sour cream at the center. All this really lacks is a crisp element, such as deep-fried potato skins, or bacon to replace the corned beef. The bowl of chili ($4.99) is surprisingly good, not very spicy but not too much tomato in the sauce, meaty, with black beans, and sliced jalapeños and cheese on top.
The "Emerald Isle nachos" ($7.99) also benefit from some of that chili, and perhaps from the omission of refried beans. They are otherwise the usual vast heap of tortilla chips with scoops of guacamole, fresh tomato salsa (alas, made from fresh June tomatoes), sliced jalapeños, sour cream, and a bowl of dipping salsa, unfortunately lacking cilantro. Bombay spring rolls ($6.99) seem like a good idea, and you can dip them in mango chutney instead of duck sauce, but the curry filling was greasy and undefined.
All this goes well with beer or cider, for which the Asgard has 20 taps. My samplings of Magic Hat #9 ($4.50/20 ounces) and Magners Cider ($4.75) suggest that the taps are kept clean and draughts will be the way to go. On the wine side, the house merlot ($5) is a soft and simple red, while the Hogue cabernet-merlot ($7.50/glass; $28/bottle), served in an oversize glass, is well worth the difference in price. It has definition, spicy aromas, and a longer flavor. Coffees are good and well-served.
With main courses, the Asgard shifts toward actual Irish food, with good if not great results. Beer-battered fish and chips ($10.49) are quite good, especially the "Kinsale fries," and it is rare to get fried fish and fried potatoes that are both excellent. The dish comes in a cone of wax paper specially printed with an old London Times, a clever nod to the traditional presentation in newspapers. "Bangers ’n mash" ($9.99) departs tradition by using more meat and less stodge in the sausages. I can live with that, although the mushroom gravy tasted of uncooked wine, and a colcannon was mashed potatoes with only a little cabbage and many scallions; most Irish cooks would call this "champ" rather than colcannon.
Kerryman shepherd’s pie ($9.49) is somewhat upside down, as the ground beef, peas, and carrots are in a casserole topped with mashed potatoes (again the menu calls them colcannon) and a lot of cheese. Beef-and-Guinness stew ($11.99) is a vast portion with a little tang of the stout, and the usual carrots and onions and mashed potatoes. If you’ve missed an opening salad and feel short of vegetables, you can get a side of sautéed vegetables ($2.99).
An eight-ounce filet mignon ($18.99) from the steak menu was good meat, cooked to order, with plenty of char flavor (which can overwhelm the mild filet), great skin-on mashed potatoes, and fashionably undercooked green beans and carrots. A special on soft-shell crabs ($16.99) was somewhat over-fried, but served on a fine salad of green beans.
Desserts (all $4.99) were not a high point. The best is probably Desmond’s mud pie, an ice-cream cake with lots of chocolate and some chocolate sauce. The Moulton chocolate cake was more like half-cooked brownie dough, with just a wisp of pastry cream. A special strawberry shortcake had stiff shortcakes but fairly good strawberries. Doolan’s apple cobbler tasted mostly of walnuts and raisins, and we ate more of the vanilla ice cream than we did of the cobbler. Crème brûlée was plain custard (without the menu-promised lemon zest) with plenty of burnt-sugar topping; some fans will prefer it this way.
Service at the Asgard was reasonably good, though one must often ask for water refills, and sometimes for flatware replacements. The Asgard has fewer entertainment plans than its sister taverns, and more sports and games. On two weeknights around graduation time, I couldn’t get much sense of who the regular crowd might be. A Tuesday-night running club is a wonderful idea; I hope it catches on.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.