WITH SO much turnover in the restaurant business -- chefs, owners, styles, real estate -- it's rare to be able to watch an establishment mature in any, much less most, of its facets. The Irish Inn at Glen Echo, which emerged in its current and most agreeably restored form early last year and settled in under executive chef Ross Vandivera few months later (with former Old Angler's Inn chef Nathan Coons as general manager), is increasingly ingratiating, with food that is often surprisingly satisfying.
The renovation was far more than skin deep, resulting in improved access, much nicer restroom facilities and expanded outdoor seating. The menu is modern eclectic and moderately middle of the road but nicely tricked out and still with enough ethnic flourishes to live up to its Irish moniker -- Jameson whiskey in the steak sauce, Guinness stout in the barbecue sauce, Irish ham under melt and some good Irish cheeses on the board, in particular a port-veined cheddar I'd myself melt for.
The front pub area can still accommodate canal-side runners and bicyclists and babies without making the button-downs look stiff. (The pub even gets ladies in hats, and not only on St. Patrick's Day.) The dining rooms are formal in service but not stuffy -- more like parlors. The dinner menu is available only in the dining rooms, but the pub fare can be ordered throughout the inn. And the place has personality that goes beyond the (authentic) accents of much of the staff, an uncommon and welcome trait. Glen Echo was always a welcome detour, but now it's a favorite destination.
Over the past few months, and through a seasonal menu shift, I've had several first-rate meals, one slightly marred but good and one so-so, which makes for a pretty good record. Among the highest points were a perfectly seasoned skillet-roasted trout, whose skin was just crisped and whose flesh was delectable; a properly short-crusted goat cheese tart with caramelized onion that didn't even need its portobello topper; and "Galley Bay skewers," shrimp and scallops carefully grilled and served over black beans and red rice of such remarkable flavor that one South Beach dieter, who had refused the rice in favor of extra beans, wound up stealing half of her daughter's.
Among the next best dishes were a generous roasted red and gold beet salad with red oak leaf lettuce, goat cheese, walnut oil vinaigrette and spiced walnuts (once fine, once slightly cinnamon-heavy, which embittered the beets); semolina-dusted calamari, dry outside and tender within, that needed just a fleck of better salt and slightly less sweet ancho remoulade; a roasted slab of salmon that was, again, carefully cooked but whose sides -- herb gnocchi and "fall vegetable Nicoise" -- were heavy and dull; and butternut squash risotto with spicy, braised kale that came up a little salty. The molasses-glazed duck salad with potatoes, parsnips and artichokes would probably have been fine if it had not been left to sit a little too long, but the combination of roots with a spice of bacon was deft.
Some flaws were mechanical: A combination appetizer of scallops with a lobster "spring roll" started very well, with exactly seared scallops, but the roll, of phyllo rather than rice paper, had not been fried hot enough and had soaked up rather than fended off the oil. Some mistakes were a matter of frill: A dish that probably should have stayed simple, peasant-style potato-leek soup, was slicked with a drizzle of truffle oil too assertive and rather too musty for the medium-body puree, which otherwise earned credit for not being too starchy; and swordfish with both stout barbecue sauce and vanilla rum sauce was an unresolved battle of sweet and meat. (There's a reason that in traditional culinary training, would-be cooks started by apprenticing to the saucier; it's a more nuanced discipline than it sounds.) On different occasions, the crab cakes (with corn and mixed sauteed mushrooms) were alternately good and not quite so.
The inn has begun offering live music in the pub on Monday nights and may add more entertainment in the near future. It's not full recompense for the loss of Sunday evening jazz, but considering how few live music venues Montgomery County has left, it's a welcome addition.