Pub food is the most basic kind of comfort food, and the cooking is often pretty basic, too.
Then there is Mrs. O'Leary's Restaurant and Irish Pub in Gaithersburg. This neighborhood place, on the first floor of an office building at Quince Orchard and Clopper roads, sets a high standard for local pub food.
The menu, under the direction of chef Don Chauncey -- formerly with Wintergreen Resort in Virginia -- features traditional preparations of American and Irish favorites, with a notable attention to detail.
Mrs. O'Leary's, opened in 1998 by former District firefighter Pat Garvey, has built a local reputation for its libations, live music and sports team sponsorship. The space includes a bar area, a patio and a main dining room. Decorations are restrained, with the place of honor going to an old fire ladder hanging on one wall with an assortment of firefighters' helmets.
Stained-glass panels, bearing quotations from Irish heroes, fill the expanse of windows. The tables are bare, and the floors are wooden. There is a small bandstand where musicians perform Thursday through Saturday nights.
But Mrs. O'Leary's is more than a watering hole. It's a lunchtime gathering place for workers from the nearby National Institute of Standards and Technology, the spot where local sports teams gravitate after a game and a haven from the continuing onslaught of national chain restaurants in the area.
Mrs. O'Leary's menu combines the comfort food of a small-town cafe with Irish specialties and a few trendy dishes.
The backbone of the menu is the list of daily "green plate" specials that include roasted turkey with all the trimmings on Fridays and liver and onions on Tuesdays.
Appetizers include strong renditions of bar favorites such as crab dip and Buffalo wings. But try something more Irish, such as the smoked salmon, silken smooth and briny and more than enough for two, served with slices of freshly baked brown bread, capers, creme fraiche and lemon. The Guinness-marinated beef skewers are tender and flavorful, and the slightly sweet taste is nicely complemented by an accompanying horseradish mayonnaise.
There is a wide assortment of sandwiches, available at lunch and dinner, including a steak sandwich that could be the gold standard in preparation. The slices of meat are tender and juicy; the onions are sauteed golden brown. And the crowning glory is the side of pub chips, french fries that are more akin to the French pommes soufflees -- puffed, golden and crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
The leek and potato soup -- choose a cup and it's served in a coffee mug -- is rustically textured and tastes of the earth. The Irish onion soup is based on a rich broth and well-caramelized onion, topped with chewy bread and just the right amount of cheese.
Mrs. O'Leary's classic shepherd's pie is a finely chopped beef base cooked to sweetness with carrots and other root vegetables and topped with fluffy mashed potatoes before being browned. Even the wild-rice mixture accompanying the Irish chicken -- two juicy breasts topped with a subtle cream sauce -- displays complex flavors.
Other entrees include bangers (British pork sausages) served with mashed potatoes and several types of steak.
Desserts include a nicely tart Key lime pie, purchased from a regional bakery, and a luscious Baileys Irish Cream cheesecake made in-house.
Mrs. O'Leary's Restaurant and Irish Pub, 555 Quince Orchard Rd., Gaithersburg, 301-947-1993. www.mrsolearys.net. Lunch appetizers, $5.99-$8.95; lunch sandwiches, $6.99-$10.99; lunch entrees, $6.99-$8.99; dinner appetizers, $5.99-$8.95; and dinner entrees, $9.99-$14.99. Open 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday (dinner served until 10 p.m., bar menu until midnight); 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday; 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday (dinner served until 11 p.m., bar menu until 1 a.m.); and 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Sunday (dinner served until 10 p.m., bar menu until midnight). Accessible to handicapped patrons.
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