IT'S NOT QUITE clear what the owners of Hagan's Four Courts had in mind to make of their much ballyhooed Rockville Metro Center restaurant: an Irish white-linen haven like the Powerscourt; a soft-collar pub like Flanagan's; or (what might have had the quirkiest appeal) a sort of old-fashioned lawyers' mews, a pettifoggers' pub catering to the yupward Rumpoles of Rockville. Admittedly, that would have in itself required some compromise, as the attorney population around Courthouse Square is more heavily into GQ/Jockey underwear than silk stockings. Still, it would have lent a welcome richness and sense of tradition to that unfortunate architectural complex, which inevitably evokes the penitentiary aspect of the legal system rather than its judicious welcome. When it doesn't suggest a large inverted flour sifter, that is.
The reason all this is not quite clear, in any case, is that Hagan's, being immured in that great concrete bulwark, surrounded by municipal offices and judges' chambers and accounting firms and developers and computer banks filled with restless employees and conferring solicitors and thirsty jury jockeys and bored boutique workers, not to mention the actual residents of north Rockville . . . that is to say, faced with so many so disparate potential patrons, Hagan's is trying a little too hard to be all things to all people. And you can only feel some of the purpose some of the time.
As decor goes, Hagan's falls pleasantly between country estate and haute saloon: lace half-curtains all round the windows, deep green oilcloth over white linen spreads, warm-vanished paneling and simple arches into the dining rooms. There is blessed space between tables and overhead; the bar is small and discreet, about eight stools around and with an elbow bar that doubles as a plant wall against the eating area.
As the bar goes, it's neat and classic. (Perhaps too classic at times: A patron who was surprised to receive an "up" manhattan at room temperature was informed that "you'd never get it chilled in Ireland unless you asked." While that may be true, manhattans in Rockville and the rest of the United States have come shaken over ice for at least 50 years, since about the same time they evolved from rye to bourbon.) There's no frozen margarita machine -- in fact, I haven't stumbled on the screech of blender at all yet -- and a righteous supply of Irish whisky. Yes, Black.
The tap choices are mostly classic, Bass and Guinness and the unfortunate necessity of Bud Light; but to Hagan's great credit, the Guinness -- available in a pint or a glass -- comes up only slightly chilled, with minimal carbonation and a head more like whipped cream than the suds Yanks are used to. (Since there's little on the menu to nibble with a beer, it's nice that there are snacks on the bar; but taco chips and salsa seems short on blarney.)
As Irish pubs go, Hagan's is into weekend reeling of the old-easy variety; O'Malley's March last week, Michael Kelley this weekend. It caters to a somewhat older golf-shirt crowd than the softball bars, perhaps, but they can be just as participatory: The "waving" to "Drunken Sailor" is better than most in Memorial Stadium. The stage is nicely out of the way while being in plain view, and the sound system is mercifully restrained.
But as the menu goes, Hagan's is still in discovery. The food tends to be either well-conceived but clumsily executed or floridly conceived. The shrimp appetizer is four truly admirable prawns, almost rock lobster-sized and tender, but bland and with a heavy remoulade sort of sauce. Potatoes come hot with Old Bay, but cold through; the beef stew is pasty enough to remind you that Dinty Moore is an Irish name. Chicken Taos is splendidly marinated with coriander and cumin, but dry.
Most of this is easily solved. The Irma Salad is a bare $3.95, and the asparagus is perfectly cooked; but the admirably tiny green beans (from the farmer's market?) need blanching to develop flavor, and so does the cauliflower. And hot food will come more easily with a bigger staff; as manager Seamus Costello cheerfully admits, they've been shorthanded. On the other hand, it's not clear how you solve a New York strip sauced with Bailey's Irish Cream and green peppercorns.
Hagan's Four Courts (738-7172) is still shaking down, but it's a step forward for that stark neighborhood. As for the name, while we salute the great kingdoms of Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht, we prefer to consider it a salute to State Attorney (and part-owner, and Costello in-law) Andrew Sonner's domain -- circuit, district, domestic and juvenile.
BREAKER, BREAKER: There are a couple of other reasons to go to Rockville Metro Center, of course: the movies, for instance; and Breakers, an impeccably billiards parlor that stays open until 2 during the week and until 4 on weekends -- which, if you've ever driven around Rockville at 4 in the morning, is an immense relief.
Breakers has about three dozen tables, a no-alcohol policy, a ventilation system that keeps the smoke well under control and a wandering pro, Thomas Wirth, for the occasional free tip. Swanks who can't squeeze their playing into the 4 a.m. slot, or who feel the need to upgrade their home entertainment area, will be glad to discover that green is no longer the only uniform in poolsville. Deco fans can get gray tables with burgundy felt, for instance.
And if you really get hooked, check out the magnificent custom cues from Joss Cues in Towson, the folks who made Paul Newman's weapons for "The Color of Money."