O'Connell's is a better place to drink than to eat
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Sep. 17, 2006
* 1/2 (out of four)
The owners of Daniel O'Connell's call their whopping, 8,200-square-foot establishment that opened in March "a modern Irish restaurant in an ancient Irish setting." Named for a 19th-century Irish patriot and located at the foot of Old Town, it's not a sticky-floored, beer guzzler's dive by any means. A more fitting description might be: an expensive, Irish-influenced mega-pub that promises diners on its menu cover page an opportunity to "experience the culinary arts of Ireland as they are today!"
Built of old woodwork from Dublin watering holes, O'Connell's features four bars on two levels and more nooks and crannies than a Thomas' English Muffin. It's a fun spot for friends to gather in comfortable surroundings. The friendly and accommodating staff can steer singles to plenty of noise and action or offer a couple a table for two away from the din. In fine weather, the small second-floor balcony dining area is particularly attractive for intimacy. And at the rear of that floor is the cutest bar for four in the region.
Certainly, there are suds, with 11 beers on draft, including the flavorful, smooth Smithwick's red ale. If it's wine you want, the thoughtful, novice-friendly list offers moderately priced bottles that hail from four continents, arranged according to light-, medium- and full-bodied categories.
The kitchen is under the leadership of executive chef Arra Lawson, a native of Perry, Ga., who, I'm told, has never been to Eire. His last gig was cooking at the Pentagon for the dining room reserved for three-star generals and up. And I would wager he'd be thrown in the brig if he'd served the well-traveled brass the dry, poor-quality French bread that lands on my table at O'Connell's.
And then there are the overwrought entrees, presented on enormous square plates, which strive for elegance but scream for attention like a wail from songstress Sinead O'Connor. Dish after dish of inconsistently cooked meat or seafood is buried under an assortment of frilly garnishes and encircled by squirt-bottle sauces.
Take, for example, the arty entree called, simply, breast of duck. Overcooked gray slabs of the bird come with a swag of spicy chutney on one side and a sweet fruit sauce on the other. There's a tangle of micro-greens here and a slice of kiwi and some blackberries there. Let's not forget the several sprigs of curly frisee on top, nor the three whole chives tossed about for emphasis.
There are some good things on the menu. In the starter category, the best may be the two-bite, crispy crab croquettes of fresh lump meat served with a tarter-than-sweet honey mustard dressing. Still, at three little balls for $15, there is an ouch factor. I enjoy the four substantial Pacific prawns that dangled from the rim of a martini glass filled with a tangy cocktail sauce that keep me dipping. The idea of grilled black-and-white pudding pizza sounds intriguing. It turns out to be a nice pie with a paper-thin cracker crust, sprinkled with bits of goat cheese, caramelized onions and flavorful ground sausage.
Far less successful: a boring, unseasoned potato leek soup and a Caesar salad composed of limp greens soaked in what tastes like thinned mayonnaise and topped with mealy, sweet croutons. Boy, is it bad. A far better choice is the red romaine salad, with its lovely, crisp leaves, chunks of tart apple, a little bacon, summer tomato and a light, creamy blue cheese dressing. For some reason, my fried favorite, fish and chips, is listed with the appetizers. I'm no fan, though, when a full-size portion of good cod comes covered with soggy batter on top of droopy, room-temperature french fries.
When it's time for the main course, diver scallops are plump, perfectly cooked and have a briny essence that speaks of the sea. But on the same plate, here we go again with the silly sauces. Grilled salmon, a fine-size fillet, is moist and flaky and, thankfully, sauce-free. I'll pass on the lifeless, dry, striped bass that swims in a pool of sweetened citrus juice. And it's never again for the equally arid roast chicken, although I do like the ramekin filled with rich, chickpea cassoulet with a crunchy, bread crumb crust that came alongside.
The Irish love their lamb. Yet this Irishman isn't wowed by lamb chops that are heavily charred and too chewy. (But then, as my County Kerry-born mother would say, "that's why God gave us teeth.") The former rack arrives next to a, sort of, shepherd's pie tower, where the flavors are right but the mashed potatoes are stone cold. Oh, I should mention the chops are $35. I had better luck with a cooked-to-order, deeply seared and succulent rib-eye steak that nearly fills the big square plate. It's large enough to share with a pal.
Side dishes are ordered separately. Normally, I don't care for creamed spinach, but I liked this little portion of whole baby leaves in a broth and cream medley. An adult version of macaroni and cheese, seasoned with fresh basil, is salty but satisfying as well.
The desserts aren't worth the calories, aside from, perhaps, sorbet. There is a cheese plate from the old country with farmhouse selections. But then you might not have room if you ate your garnishes.