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Mattie & Eddie’s channels the Irish spirit of a veteran chef’s grandparents


Unrated during the pandemic

Friends laughed when Cathal Armstrong told them he would be making his own french fries at Mattie & Eddie’s, the successor to the sprawling Siné in Arlington.

Every other Irish pub uses frozen potatoes, they told the veteran Washington chef, a Dublin native.

“It’s not very Irish,” says Armstrong. Besides, “the potato is such an important part of Irish tradition not to be treated with respect.”

Two weeks before Mattie & Eddie’s opened in March, the restaurateur bought 20 cases of potatoes. They needed to “age properly,” at least a week or so, to convert sugar to starch and slow browning, says the chef. Potatoes destined to become fries are peeled, cut, washed, soaked overnight at room temperature and drained and rinsed again before they get cooked first at a low temperature and placed in a cooler. Just before serving, the potatoes are cooked again at a higher temperature.

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The labor of love makes for the finest fish and chips around. Fans of Armstrong’s shuttered Eamonn’s, A Dublin Chipper in Alexandria will cheer the return of haddock sheathed in a golden batter that makes itself heard at neighboring tables and seven “secret” sauces for dipping. Part of the fun is dunking and declaring favorites. All have their merits and make short work of the catch. The mildest sauce is ketchup mixed with mayonnaise; the wildest dip slaps the tongue around with cayenne and serrano. The zesty curry sauce is my punctuation of choice for the fried fare, the restaurant’s top-selling dish.

Mattie & Eddie’s is a love letter to Armstrong’s paternal grandparents, drape makers whose wee home was the place for family to gather for Sunday meals. I suspect it’s the cooking rather than the setting that best channels his personal long-ago and faraway, because the restaurant seats 200 people inside and an additional 100 outside, in a courtyard at Westpost (formerly Pentagon Row). The physical transformation from Siné to Mattie & Eddie’s mostly involved cleaning, new lightbulbs and the removal of hockey paraphernalia from a corner of the space. (No offense to the sport, he says, but hockey doesn’t exactly register Ireland.) If I’m not sitting outside the green behemoth, on the patio, I’m in the bar, on a capacious raised banquette facing the scene outside.

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An appetizer of sardines is nothing like what you might expect: whole fish. Instead, diners receive a jar of braised sardines mashed with tomatoes and onions, spiked with cayenne and lemon juice and served alongside fingers of toasted bread. One of six children, Armstrong calls the spread “a vivid memory of the rare times I was with my father,” just the two of them watching rugby at home when the chef-to-be was a teenager. His father would make snacks from tinned sardines, which he spritzed with lemon juice and hot sauce and dispatched with nips of sherry. Knowing that little story makes me appreciate what I already like even more.

“Make your own” has been Armstrong’s motto at every restaurant he’s run, including the late Restaurant Eve in Old Town. He continues the trend here, where the signature brown bread, as synonymous with Irish fare as potatoes, is baked on-site, along with the fragrant batch loaf, so named because multiple loaves are baked together in one pan.

What the restaurant doesn’t make, it buys with quality in mind. The butter is Kerrygold, from the milk of grass-fed cows in Ireland, the vegetables from Path Valley Farms in Pennsylvania, an Amish co-op tapped by some of Washington’s top restaurants.

Cue the meatless Irish stew, an enlightened bowl gathering whatever vegetables look good in the market in a broth lush with marjoram, rosemary and thyme. A side of piccalilli — turmeric-yellow cauliflower, onions and radishes, stinging with vinegar — is a relish to remember, similar to Indian pickles.

See, too, the lobster pot pie with its dome of puff pastry and a filling of root vegetables and sweet seafood bound with lobster stock thickened with roux. The mystery flavor is African blue basil, which imparts a minty freshness to the bowl. Shepherd’s pie is every bit as good; ripples of mashed potatoes enriched with egg yolks hide a hearty filling of braised lamb.

Armstrong hired Casey Bauer, 26, as head chef. She comes from a stint at the Brixton on U Street, where she ran a pop-up featuring the flavors of her mother’s native Lebanon. Bauer’s earlier credits include ABC Pony and Kaliwa, Armstrong’s pan-Asian restaurant at the Wharf. Consistency is one of her trademarks; your first bowl of dilly smoked haddock soup will taste like the next, as will the fish and chips — signs of a sure kitchen.

One of Armstrong’s after-school snacks was cheese on toast, a memory he shares on the menu. The combination of toasted pullman bread and melted Irish cheddar is simple and satisfying, if not an exact copy of what his mother whipped up. (Her son sprinkles the molten surface with chili powder. Bauer says sliced tomatoes will be added come summer.) I’d order the pork belly just for the chance at colcannon, some of the dreamiest mashed potatoes of any country’s repertoire. The dollop here is green with chopped kale and rich with heavy cream. Come Halloween, per Irish custom, the restaurant will slip wrapped coins into its colcannon.

Mattie & Eddie’s serves breakfast all day, in the form of eggs any which way, fried potatoes, sweet baked beans, a couple slices of country ham, two sweetly spiced pork sausages, blood sausage, mushrooms and more — believe it or not — arranged on a single platter. The eye-opener appears to be designed with a longshoreman or heavy drinker in mind. Did I mention it shows up with two thick slices of house-baked brown bread? Two could feast on the spread, although they might not care to share.

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Corned beef gets lavished with the same attention as fries. “It takes 17 days of prep,” says Bauer, who describes a 10-day soak in pickling spices followed by a spice rub that occupies the brisket for six days. The meat is then braised with spices and served with parsley-freckled potatoes and cabbage that tastes as much of sweet butter, onions and fresh thyme as cabbage.

Speaking of attention, service improves with every visit. Whereas an earlier server had to re-ask an entire party what it wanted, my most recent attendant watched over us like an Irish Maria Von Trapp. I haven’t heard “sweetheart” bandied about as much since I went card shopping on Valentine’s Day.

Specials signal the season. Steamed mussels swell with the flavor of warm asparagus cream and random bites of sauteed ramps. And my favorite dessert was a slice of orange-brightened poundcake carpeted with sliced rhubarb and served with a cool custard sauce, the definition of goodness and light.

Sunday afternoons are sweetened with the esteemed fiddler, Brendan Mulvihill, who is sometimes accompanied by flute, guitar or other instruments.

Bit by bit, Armstrong is personalizing the expansive dining room, newly dressed with his family’s coat of arms and a map of what he proudly refers to as “a tiny island surrounded by seafood.” Some of Mattie and Eddie’s handiwork — ruby velvet curtains — have yet to be hung. Already, though, the guiding lights are being honored in the best way possible, by warm welcomes at the door and memorable Irish food on the table.

Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the name of the violin player at Mattie & Eddie's. It is Brendan Mulvihill, not Mulvehill.

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Mattie & Eddie’s  1301 S. Joyce St., Arlington. 571-312-2665. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $3 to $15, sandwiches and main courses $16 to $32. Delivery via Door Dash. Accessibility: Broad front doors, passage ways and ADA-compliant restrooms welcome wheelchair users.