Fish, Fries and Fancy Grog
In Alexandria, a taste of Ireland comes with its own speakeasy
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006
Chef Cathal Armstrong and his wife, Meshelle, already have one restaurant with two dining options to keep them busy -- the stylish Restaurant Eve, containing a bistro and a tasting room, in Alexandria. Why bother with opening yet another place to eat, along with an upstairs speakeasy?
"Two words," explains the Irish-born chef. "Sibling rivalry."
Eve, after all, took its name from the Armstrongs' daughter, now 7. So it was only fair, when the couple decided to launch a fish and chips joint in Old Town, that Eve's 4-year-old brother get in on the action. Thus was born over the summer Eamonn's / A Dublin Chipper.
Inspired by the joints in Dublin that Armstrong says he hung out in as a pup, Eamonn's unfolds in a corner storefront of dark wood and exposed brick, with a high ceiling of pressed tin and wooden benches or stools for a mere 20 diners (takeout is available). There are no waiters. Customers place their orders and leave their names at a small counter flanked with Irish candy and snacks. The only menu is written on a chalkboard, and the selections are few: a couple kinds of battered fried fish, typically cod or ray; a fish of the day, such as sardines or soft-shell crabs; battered fried sausage; battered fried burger, sans bread ("shun the bun," the menu implores); even a few deep-fried desserts. Rounding out the possibilities are sides of baked beans, coleslaw and peas, and the best chaser to them all -- a glass of smoky Guinness, dispensed from a tap.
Just scanning the choices elevates my cholesterol but also makes me chuckle: According to the chalkboard, the "mushy peas" are "imported." Diners are flagged that the ray comes with cartilage: "Big Jim is the only man I ever knew to eat the bones!" is how Armstrong pays homage to a long-ago neighbor in Dublin. Eamonn's is extremely likable.
Armstrong guards his recipe for the chipper's batter as if he were the colonel keeping the masses from cooking their own Kentucky fried chicken; he allows only that the coating on the fish and meat combines different flours with malt vinegar and salt. The mix provides a crisp golden sheath for whatever it decorates, my typical order being fish, always hot, moist and delicious.
Coming in second: a tube of Irish breakfast sausage that resembles a bratwurst with a little less personality. I'll save my hankering for hamburgers for someplace else, though: The patty at Eamonn's is juicy but thin and not particularly interesting. French fries are a must, no matter your order; carved from Idaho spuds, they're twice-fried in shortening, and they're scrumptious.
Forget catsup. To add zip and cool things down (all the fried food is served piping hot), Eamonn's offers a pastel rainbow of dips, mostly mayonnaise-based, running from the pink, serrano-fueled "hot chili" to the pale yellow Dijonnaise. Like most of the food here, the condiments are made in the more spacious kitchen at Restaurant Eve.
True to its roots, Eamonn's serves its meals in bags instead of on plates, and if the baked beans taste straight out of the can, that's because they are. I had my doubts about whether a real Irish chipper would fry Snickers and Mars bars, as is done at Eamonn's. "That was Meshelle's idea," her husband volunteers. "Don't blame me!"