Bar is in the back, but drinks are at the fore
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 23, 2012
The pale orange libation at T.N.T. Bar arrives in a small coupe, looking innocent as Tang. The cocktail, Naked & Famous, is one of more than a dozen drinks making their debut at Eamonn’s, A Dublin Chipper in Arlington.
A sip of the swirl reveals smoke, but not too much, from a boutique mezcal (Del Maguey Chichicapa), tequila’s kickier cousin. Some bitterness comes by way of Aperol, the Italian liqueur, but again, the sensation is more supporting than starring. Yellow chartreuse and fresh lime juice weigh in with their charms, too. Naked & Famous is a dynamite drink, and at $17, it is also priced for the black-tie set -- no thanks, I should note, to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which requires restaurants to purchase booze only from state stores and at retail prices.
Eamonn’s is an offshoot of the Old Town tavern of the same name from Irish native Cathal Armstrong, one of the region’s preeminent chefs. Both Eamonn’s dining rooms are small, both have counters for ordering and both are linked to a fancier bar: a speakeasy called PX tops the pub in Alexandria, while T.N.T. Bar is found in the back of the Arlington locale.
You know this is going to be unlike Armstrong’s other endeavors -- Restaurant Eve,
Virtue Feed & Grain,
Society Fair -- when his business partner and drinks master, Todd Thrasher, appears in a gray Kiss T-shirt. (“It glows in the dark!” he brags.) Typically attired in jacket and tie, Thrasher could pass for a slacker at the rock-themed Eamonn’s.
The dining area and T.N.T. Bar are (barely) separated by some church pews, which means the shriek of a wee one eating fish and chips in the former and the nonstop shake, shake, shake in the latter become the evening’s not-so-easy-listening music.
If you’re following the Paleo diet or avoiding food dipped in bubbling oil, you should focus on liquids rather than solids. As expected, fish and chips play a prominent role on the menu. Both come with multiple choices of fish and sauces, although a server might steer you to cod, which shows up in a dark golden sleeve of batter that crunches, loudly, with every bite and reveals steaming snowy fish. There are “chips,” too, long, soft french fries (try them drizzled with curry sauce).
The menu is an ode to stick-to-the-ribs bar snacks. Twice-fried chicken wings are so crunchy, to eat them is to hear boots marching on gravel. Try a juicy, cayenne-stoked pile with a dunk of the ketchup-sweetened, mayo-rich Marie Rose. "Hot Texas Chili" is pretty tame, but uber-beefy; true to its name, beans have no place in the bowl. Besides, Armstrong can't stand them.
Next hangover, I’ll know where to go to combat it -- Eamonn’s, for either a garlicky pork sausage bound in a skin of phyllo or the outrageous Eamonn’s Dream Burger stacked with two beef patties, shaved turkey, salami, bacon, ketchup and mayonnaise. The burger is more of a frat house joke than the work of a four-star chef; Armstrong’s 10-year-old son, Eamonn, came up with the construction, which requires the jaws of a T. rex
to pounce on. Better (sorry, junior) is the shepherd’s pie paved with tufts of browned mashed potatoes.
Side dishes run to “bachelor’s” baked beans and “mushy” peas, nods to Armstrong’s youth and two of the few items that aren’t made in-house.
The food is meant to be fun, but I can’t be the only customer wishing there were a few more things on the menu that weren’t ... fried. A salad maybe? Something green and, dare I say, raw? Probably the most healthful of the choices is coleslaw, which was dry on my last visit. And while I’m as content as the next grazer to eat informally, plastic utensils and foil containers are a jarring contrast to those sophisticated cocktails. Even flea market china would be an improvement.
Unlike the owners’ other establishments, the fledgling pub inhabits a new building. The spinoff looks more corporate than the original, although old tables and a red chandelier make the industrial space appear less sterile.
Back to those swanky drinks. They’re whipped up in what Thrasher calls a “bar-in-the-round,” because no matter where you sit at the marble counter, you can see the fun being made. The first part of the menu highlights Thrasher’s inventions; the last half are shout-outs to some of his fellow craftsmen around the country.
Both collections count plenty of oohs and ahhs. Thymes Like These, a Thrasher original, is among this gin drinker’s habits. Kaffir bitters, thyme and lime give the drink a nice lift. Pink Shadow Cat, borrowed from Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta, involves mezcal, ginger liqueur, lemon juice and a crack of black pepper. Zing went the strings of my heart.
Whatever your poison, T.N.T.’s handcrafted wares -- which average $13 and are the main attraction for anyone over 21 at Eamonn’s -- are best sipped rather than guzzled.
Dessert suggests an overindulgent day at the fair. Almost everything but the ice cream cone involves a candy bar and a deep-fryer, and chances are I’ve already had my month’s allotment of crisped food after just one stop at Eamonn’s. More often than not, I’ll return to the cocktail list -- you know, for research purposes -- to ferret a fresh favorite from the collection.
“Thanks be to cod” is the motto at Eamonn’s. But “thanks be to Todd” is more like it.