The Bad Luck of the Irish
Somewhere in Europe, there may be a stinky, smoky, dimly lit bar with a Rebel flag hanging in one corner, greasy burgers and jalapeño poppers on the menu, nothing but Bud and Coors on tap, and a jukebox that plays Hank Williams Jr. and Elvis tunes. A broken pinball machine sits silent next to the bar; the customers are a loud mix of angry Vietnam vets and underage gals wearing too much makeup. The owners of this joint proudly proclaim that they have the most authentic American bar in town, maybe on the continent.
Just as the true delights of American bars lose something in their translation overseas, culinary imports to this country are often nothing to write home about. There's more to a country's flavor than the actual ingredients in its cooking.
"We're the most authentic Celtic pub in Denver," Patrick Schaetzle says of the Celtic Tavern. "Not a Celtic cross or Claddagh ring in sight, no leprechauns or shamrocks like in the so-called Irish pubs around here. We looked around and saw that this market is completely unsaturated with quality bars, and that's what made us want to open in Denver."
The "us" who recognized LoDo's otherwise secret tavern shortage include not only Schaetzle, a former bartender and New Jersey native, but Noel Hickey, who was instrumental in opening 59 pubs in Germany through his work as a rep for JJ Murphy's, the second-best-known Irish stout in this country (and a stout that some people -- especially anyone from Cork, where the brewery was founded in 1856 -- claim is on par in Ireland with Guinness). The rest of the ownership group is rounded out by John Higgins, Pat Plunckett and Terry Brennen, who owns a manufacturing company in Wicklow, Ireland, and designs and builds pubs. "Everything in this place is handmade and brought over from Ireland," Schaetzle explains. "The stained glass behind the bar is over 150 years old and was pulled out of a Dublin hotel. The mahogany table in the Bobby Burns room came from the Irish Parliamentary Hall. But the important thing to note is that this is not an Irish pub. It's a Welsh-Irish-Scottish pub -- a Celtic pub all the way."
The Celtic Tavern occupies a prime corner at 18th and Blake streets; the large, dark space is divided into three sections that surround the very long bar. The Welsh snug is a little area off to one side that's good for groups doing cocktails; the Scottish Bobby Burns room features cigar lockers, cigars and a fireplace; and the main dining area is the Irish section, lined with bookcases filled with hundreds of antique Irish books (which are available for reading, Schaetzle notes). But despite the attractive old furniture and beautiful stained glass, the place feels brand-spanking new, and the cutesy directional signs pointing to such destinations as Cill Airne (that's Killarney to the rest of the world) and New York ("Why Bother?") don't help. All in all, the place feels about as much like a Celtic pub as Cafe Odyssey feels like Machu Picchu. And this tavern is lacking not only in age, but in another key element that's impossible to import to this country: charming drunks. Let's face it -- American drunks rarely are interesting or have cute accents, and there's nothing novel about hanging out with a bunch of sloshed thirty-something Broncos fans reliving Super Bowls past, unless maybe you're visiting here from Ireland and want drinking tales to take back home.
But the Celtic Tavern has an even bigger problem: Celtic cuisine isn't particularly popular in its countries of origin, much less in this one. Residents of Ireland and Scotland are always complaining about their food, and they find it hilarious that anyone would want to replicate these dull dishes elsewhere. To his credit, Jürgen Giljohn, who received his master-chef designation in Germany, does as well with pub classics as any cook I've found -- but that's not saying much. And according to Schaetzle, Giljohn is a consultant who's only here for the short term. "We haven't decided who's going to be doing the cooking when Jürgen leaves," Schaetzle says.
The owners might do better to focus on what that person's going to be cooking. Although these days, fish-based dishes make up a substantial part of the United Kingdom diet, the American version of pub food usually emphasizes meats and starches, and the Celtic's menu follows suit. True, we did get to start with a prawn cocktail that featured five nicely cooked jumbo specimens, and we sampled a strongly flavored, oily, caper-studded smoked salmon, delivered in grand style with orange and cucumber slices and a salad drenched in a sharp, creamy Scottish mustard sauce. But those appetizers were listed with a trio of stomach-stoppers: Welsh rarebit, Killarney toast and baby haggis.
Welsh rarebit is the most famous dish to emerge from Wales, and the origins of its name are as thick and murky as the cheese sauce that covers it. Some say the correct title is "rabbit," citing the tale of an unsuccessful Welsh hunter whose wife came up with cheese-smothered toast to feed the family; others suggest the word "rarebit" reflected the sorry fact that the dish was a "rare bit" of richness and flavor in an otherwise bland diet. There's no argument over rarebit's appeal, though, and the Celtic Tavern's take was especially tempting, pouring sharp Cheddar and the sweet, smooth taste of Murphy's stout over a thick slice of toasted homemade potato bread. The dish is better as breakfast than as bar food, but it's likely to be a bigger hit in LoDo than baby haggis.
Haggis is a Scottish dish, a sort of meat pudding made by stuffing liver or kidney and various other animal parts along with onions, suet (the heavy layer of white fat around an animal's kidney) and oatmeal into a sheep's stomach lining; the pouch is then simmered until its contents are all puffy and soft. Although the haggis I encountered in Scotland was always an unappetizing bloody color, Giljohn's looked and tasted like an upscale meatloaf, smooth and rich, with lamb and kidney at the forefront. Still, if you're not a fan of organ meat (if, for instance, the taste of liver makes you gag), haggis is not for you.
Fortunately, the Celtic Tavern cooks up traditional dishes that are less adventuresome, too. We slurped up every drop of a peppery, chunky-textured potato and leek soup. The fancy Jeremiah's steak and Murphy's pie brought melt-in-your-mouth tender pieces of tenderloin swimming in a beefy "brown sauce" and topped by a beautiful puff pastry that was golden on the outside and perfectly cooked all the way through (even if it was embellished with a pastry shamrock). The shepherd's pie was another hearty classic: a rich, long-simmered stew of ground lamb and beef enriched with onions and carrots, with mashed potatoes (we would have liked more) piped around the rim of the platter. And since the Celtic Tavern prides itself on being an authentic pub, of course we had to sample the fish-n-chips -- moist, slippery cod thickly coated in a crunchy beer batter with thick-cut fries -- as well as corned beef cabbage, with thinly sliced tasty corned beef sided by a thick wedge of buttery cabbage and three fingerling potatoes.
Although dessert in Ireland, Scotland and Wales often involves some kind of cakey, bready, pudding substance, the Celtic wisely avoids strict authenticity for that course. So instead we dug into an innovative crème brûlée cheesecake, oh-so-light but still rich and creamy, and a decadent chocolate cake that seemed to be made of nothing but chocolate.
All in all, our two meals at the Celtic Tavern were satisfying -- but not nearly as satisfying as simply sitting at the bar for a pint of Murphy's. The sad reality is that as good as the food may be here, it's still Celtic food -- and that's not necessarily a good thing. "We think Denver is in need of a true pub that does true Celtic cooking in a direct-from-Ireland type of setting," Schaetzle says. "This is just the kind of warm, welcoming place that Denver lacks."
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