1432 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating: ***/*****
Irish food does not necessarily conjure the most refined images - fish and chips, beef stew maybe, and lots and lots of potatoes. You can find that at Irish House to be sure, but this Uptown pub and restaurant offers a great deal more. Chef Matt Murphy, a native of Dublin with a long track record in New Orleans fine dining, is featuring both the traditions of his homeland and the flavors and freshness of his adopted home with exciting and genuinely satisfying results.
Irish House took over a huge, two-story restaurant space. Most of the service happens on the first floor, with many special events and gatherings going on upstairs. The room has a partially partitioned bar area with more of a pub feel, while the rest of the space is comfortable and attractively decked out in dark woods, big windows and lots of Celtic-themed memorabilia. This is a big operation: there's a gift shop in the back and sometimes the restaurant hosts live Irish music.
Though generally good, the floor service and the kitchen do sometimes get bogged down when things get really busy. If the pace of the room is normal enough, they will take the time to explain unfamiliar items on the large and varied menus. One problem: there are so many different menus here for times of day and even areas (a separate bar menu, for instance) that it's not always clear what is available. As noted above, this is a particularly good place for families and young children at the table won't throw the staff for a loop.
The appetizers are my least favorite part of the dinner service here, and there seem to be better options for first courses on the bar menu or the lunch menu. But there are still a few good recommendations. The soups are reliably very good, especially the tomato and basil with smoked mussels. Then there's a savory tart with gouda, wild mushrooms and truffled chicken salad and the pan-fried cheese with grilled romaine and a warm bacon dressing. I also like the meatloaf, but beware this is a much more dainty serving than you might expect from meatloaf. At lunch, I like to start with the fried link of boudin over colcannon, which is a classic Irish mix of cabbage and potatoes, and the flatbread with duck sausage and Asiago cheese, which is like a small pizza and really could stand in for an entrée all on its own.
Irish House does feature such sturdy pub grub standards as Irish stew, shepherd's pie and fish and chips, which are on the lunch menu and the bar menu. But Murphy's kitchen is largely centered on more sophisticated fare, much of it prepared with locally sourced staples.
The heartier dishes deliver the most payoff. See the fig and brie-stuffed Muscovy duck with caramelized zucchini relish and sour cherry brandy sauce or the braised lamb shanks in apple brandy broth. Pork cheeks are encased in a shell of crust, which yields to deep red, very succulent, flaky pieces of meat to dredge around in a clove-scented, honey-touched jus. Meanwhile, the herb-crusted redfish tastes very Louisiana with a contemporary twist from leek shallot cream, while the shrimp and artichoke risotto gets a lot of flavor from wild mushrooms, aged parmesan fennel cream and a poached egg.
Lunch focuses more on traditional pub food - shepherd's pie, corned beef, bangers and mash, fish and chips and sandwiches. The standout is the Murphinator po-boy with roast beef, French fries and onion rings topped with Boursin aioli and served with gravy on the side.
The breakfast menu here deserves its own shout-out. It covers a lot of ground but the major highlights are the traditional Irish breakfasts, which arrive as huge plates groaning with two eggs cooked sunny side up, rashers, Irish sausage, black and white puddings, baked beans, roasted mushrooms, grilled tomato, potato hash, and toast.
In true Irish style, the best desserts tend to get a little help from the bar. That's the case with the deep dark Guinness chocolate trifle (a sort of cake) with whiskey ganache and icing made from Bailey's Irish Cream. Cheesecake calls for Bailey's too and the caramel bread pudding has a Cointreau cream. I also like the toffee pudding, a soft dense lump, in a caramel colored sauce the consistency of soup and just as tempting to slurp up by the spoon.
Here is a restaurant where the beer list goes on almost as long as the wine list. The draft selection is good - I'm partial to the Guinness and the hard cider. They'll make a good hot toddy, which is nice to keep in mind provided the weather finally turns sometime this year.
Dinner here can be more expensive than the pub setting might make you think. Most of the entrees on the dinner menu are over $20, but then they are on par with the food you'd get for that price in more formal dining rooms. The other menus however - breakfast, lunch, bar food - are a good deal less.
Irish House serves many different roles - family restaurant, neighborhood pub, special events hall. What it does best, though, is offer interesting, often-original food in a very welcoming, attractive atmosphere. It's become one of the great breakfast spots in town thanks to those hearty Irish morning feasts and whether you want some fish and chips and a pint or more ambitious fare it's a great place to find a seat and dig in.