The praise is not only for the food, but the leisurely way a meal unfolds, and the complete lack of affectation. The O'Conor Don in Marylebone Lane, central London, is in spirit light years away (though as the crow flies but a mile) from Mezzo, Sir Terence Conran's vision of the future, a mega- restaurant in Soho which can pack in 700 diners at a time in successive shifts. The O'Conor Don dining-room could seat, at a pinch, up to 60, but they've decided to settle for a roomy 45.
If Mezzo is almost aboard the 21st century, The O'Conor Don is resolutely refusing to budge from the 19th. Its pub sign, in fact, bears the heraldic device of the oldest line of royal blood in Europe. So it's a very, very, very old pub then? Not at all, it is very new, barely 18 months old. It's an Irish theme pub, and there's truly nothing newer than an Irish theme pub. Irish theme pubs are now so successful every brewer wants a piece of the action. Here's one Irish Piece Process that's racing ahead.
Having finally crossed the Irish Sea, they are mushrooming world-wide. In 1992 400 opened in Germany. There are 300 in Britain. Perhaps more surprisingly, 200 in Italy. Riga in Latvia has about six and there's a handful in St Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev.
The most northerly is The Dubliner in Reykjavik in Iceland, the most easterly are three in Hong Kong. In the southern hemisphere they are springing up in South Africa (most popular pub names are McGinty's and O'Hagan's), Australia (the Rosie O'Grady's) and New Zealand (one in Auckland is disrespectfully named Dogs Bollix).
Guinness, it comes as no surprise, has been behind this global initiative, although it owns no pubs of its own. But it provides the backing for The Concept, as it calls it. There should be 1,000 Irish pubs in place world- wide by the time the year is out, it claims.
Other brewers have watched the outstanding profits to be made. Bass Charrington, Scottish Courage, and Allied Domecq are all busily ripping the guts out of English themed pubs, to reopen them as Scruffy Murphys, Filthy McNastys and Waxy O'Connors, not to mention the James Joyces and Yeats, the Finnegan's Wakes, Molly Malones and, of course, Shamrocks.
Fifty years of Anglo-Irish pubs in Kilburn (Irish customers, English owners) gave no clue to the delights we had been missing. But in Dublin, looking to advance the sales of its new Kilkenny bitter alongside Guinness and Harp lager, Guinness decided it could capitalise on the increasing admiration for Irish culture such as traditional and popular music (how many times have they won the Eurovision Song Contest?) not to mention their unique, stomping Riverdance routines. If you could add to that the mood of Irish chat, the craic, as they put it in Gaelic, and the famous booze and wholesome food, maybe you would have a Concept.
The food. Well, of the 1,100 uniquely new Irish theme pubs, quite frankly, only the O'Conor Don so far stands out from the crowd. This is for the very good reason that the pub's managers, brothers Diarmaid and Brendan O'Callaghan, sought the advice of the top Irish chefs in Britain, before appointing one of the best of their number, Conor Fitzpatrick.
Diarmaid is an evangelistic 36-year-old whose father, he says, knew a thing or two about pubs. "He was Europe's biggest builder. When he started building an estate he'd build the pub first, so he'd know where to find his men."
It was the O'Callaghans who actually managed the first Irish theme pub, creating Mulligans in London's Cork Street, behind the Royal Academy. With its dun, darkened interior it has the air of a place that's been there for 100 years, more like a club than a pub, though it's little different from some of the more august Dublin bars and pubs.
The Concept turns its back on the modern notion that you go to a pub to be strobed by a psychedelia of flashing coin machines and deafened by pounding juke-boxes, while utilising services which are as user-friendly as a service-station. In both Mulligan's and The O'Conor Don the bar is the focal point, with the aspect of a well-lit high church altar. "The bar is the stage," says Diarmaid O'Callaghan. "The customers are the characters in the play."
Emphasis is on floor service from friendly, efficient barmen. "In Ireland we don't regard bar-work as inferior, it is a profession. You are four to seven years qualifying."
Proud of having created a trend, he's also alarmed at the pace they are multiplying. "They are flogging the horse to death," says Diarmaid. "Putting out a plasticised idea of the Irish." (At the Guinness counting house, counting out the barrels of Guinness, they can sometimes be heard referring slightingly to Plastic Paddy Pubs which put up a few plastic shamrocks and harps, and sit back to wait for the customers).
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Diarmaid reflects. Others have copied their menus, their uniforms, their decor. Mulligan's set the style, evoking Ireland's misty past in sepia photographs of the late 1900s. Posters and playbills remember JM Synge and WB Yeats at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Diarmaid points to the solid dressers, cabinets, tables, chairs, heavy pieces of furniture. "They could have come out of your parents' house," I suggested.
"They did. That table with the antelope legs, they brought back from Africa."
Guinness owns no pubs but, in Dublin, chief executive Stephen Lombard entertains some 2,000 inquiries a year from people who want to open an Irish theme pub. He can find backers (two owners, in Germany, are as young as 18 and 19). It has one agency, The Irish Pub Company, which builds a pub in 30 months and ships it, complete, across the oceans (they can supply five styles: Irish Country Cottage, Traditional Irish Pub Shop, Victorian Dublin Pub, the Gaelic Pub and The Brewery Pub). Another agency is on hand to provide advice on music and live performers.
And yet another agency can produce an Irish cooking kit, advice on kitchen layout, utensils, and some 50 recipes. It was inspired initially by Myrtle Allen, the septuagenarian pioneer of revived Irish cooking, but was finalised by a Dublin catering college. The take-up on this facility is low at the moment, since they don't take food with their beer in Germany and Italy. But in Asia and the Pacific nations, Irish food is becoming part of the story.
Conor Fitzpatrick didn't need a cookery kit, being one of the top half- dozen Irish chefs in Britain. The (enviable) dilemma facing Diarmaid O'Callaghan is not to discourage his creative gifts, while majoring on a core of Irish- smiling dishes including braised beef in Guinness, smoked and fresh salmon, Irish stew, liver and bacon, cabbage, potatoes in the form of feather- light champ.
How well the embryonic Irish pub cuisine will go depends on whether there are more chefs with the skill to copy this master. Here are two of his most popular recipes.
This classic of the Irish table doesn't have to be made with old mutton, and Conor Fitzpatrick uses four steaks cut across a gigot (the leg) of lamb. Meat and vegetables are cooked apart in the first stage, or else you end up with a mush.
4 lamb steaks cut from leg 200g/7ozs each
450g/1lb carrots, peeled and chopped
2 large onions, peeled, chopped
55g/2ozs pearl barley (soaked overnight)
sprig of thyme or 12 teaspooon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 savoy cabbage, sliced into ribbons
4 spring onions, chopped
4 large floury potatoes, halved
Put steaks in a saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to the boil. Immediately pour away the scummy water and rinse in a colander under cold tap to refresh the meat.
Return steaks to pan, cover again with cold water, addding onion, carrots, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to boil then turn down to simmering point and cook for 90 minutes to two hours till meat is tender, skimming any fat which rises to the surface.
In a separate pan cook the potatoes, pearl barley, cabbage and spring onions, covered with water, till soft, 35-45 minutes.
Strain the vegetables, and add to the meat and heat through together. Season to taste.
HOT IRISH OYSTERS IN CRAB GLAZE
These oysters are grilled on a bed of samphire, the seasonal estuary vegetable, but chopped cooked spinach is an alternative. If you don't make your own crab bisque, as Conor Fitzpatrick does (the recipe is given below) you can use some from a jar or can from a good fishmonger.
24 oysters, shelled
bunch of samphire
150ml/14 pint crab bisque
150ml/14 pint double cream
2 egg yolks
Cook the samphire in boiling salted water for five minutes. When cool enough to handle, pull the flesh from the spiny stalks.
Lay them, like nests, at the base of indented oyster plates, six per person, and put the oysters on top. Grill under fierce heat for four minutes.
Beat crab bisque, cream, egg yolks and seasoning in a bowl and pour over the hot oysters. Return to grill and glaze until shiny brown.
Crab bisque: break up a crab shell (or lobster or crayfish) and sweat in a frying pan in olive oil, with a chopped onion, chopped carrot, a stick of celery, sliced, a crushed clove of garlic, parsley, and thyme. Then add about 150ml (14 pint) white wine, the same of water, a teaspoon of tomato paste, a splash of cooking brandy, salt and pepper. Simmer for half an hour.
Strain, adjust volume to 150ml (14 pint) boiling to reduce, or if necessary, adding a little water.
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