Trial by Eire

I'll never forget my first Irish breakfast. I was sitting in a small Dublin pub whose bartender looked startlingly like a well-known painting of Jesus, reproductions of which hung in the dining rooms of my parents, my grandparents, my cousins and every other good Irish-Catholic family in Pittsburgh (usually with last year's palm, brown and dry with age, folded in half and stuck behind a corner of the frame).

As jolting as the bartender's appearance was, however, it wasn't until he set breakfast down before me that I truly had a religious experience. For a serious eater, the sight of an oversized plate crammed to the edges with three kinds of sausages, several slices of bacon, oven-roasted tomato halves, sunny-side-up eggs, brown bread, a few butter-slicked whole mushrooms, about six potatoes' worth of mash and a little pile of cooked-down cabbage merited spontaneous thanks to the heavens. I ate every bite, wiped the plate clean with the brown bread and, after the bartender informed me that it was a typical daily offering, smugly looked forward to two more weeks of the same.

By day six, of course, I was begging people on the street to find me some Froot Loops.

Still, after a reasonable recovery period--during which my arteries needed to be stripped with pipe cleaners--I looked back fondly on those generous meals, remembering their greasy shine and wonderful starchy overkill. And so I was delighted to find an impressive rendition of the all-day Irish breakfast here in Denver, at Fado Irish Pub, the latest addition to the Union Pacific Head House next to Coors Field, a historic building that already houses the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery.

But while the breakfast was delicious, well-cooked and substantial, the rest of the fare I sampled through two Fado meals left me longing for Froot Loops--or anything else competently produced and bearing recognizable flavor. Several components were noteworthy, but overall Fado's food was poorly conceived, haphazardly seasoned and aimlessly cooked.

There was that breakfast ($6.95), though, a smashingly good combination of eggs, rich black pudding (for you Yanks, that's blood sausage made from hog plasma, oatmeal, suet and breadcrumbs), white pudding (a good quality pork sausage), crisp, fatty, flavorful Irish bacon, warm tomato wedges and crusty-edged pan-fried potatoes. And there was the impressive space in which I ate that breakfast, which made me feel like I was back in Ireland. I could even pick what part of Ireland: Fado's carefully designed interior includes a mishmash of eating areas, each modeled after a different type of pub, which makes the place a mixture of country and city, old and contemporary--sort of Stonehenge meets the Blarney Stone. The restaurant was designed by the Irish Pub Company out of Dublin, and even if some of the trappings are a little hokey, most of the space is as comfortable, warm and inviting as the real thing. Certainly the group of lively, Guinness-swilling musicians playing "impromptu" Celtic music at the next table looked perfectly natural.

Unlike my husband and I, who finally wound up assigned to a booth with so much space between the seats and the table that it was impossible for us to sit opposite each other and still reach our plates, so we were forced to sit next to each other, looking like we were either a doddering, adorable old married couple or a couple of newlyweds who wanted to cop a feel between courses. Either way, we were just glad to be seated, because we had foolishly forgotten that there was a Rockies game that night, and since we weren't familiar with Fado's strange seating policy, we'd wandered around the place like a couple of losers before finally catching a party leaving its table. A sign at the door says "Please Seat Yourself," but here's how the server who quickly asked us to leave that table described Fado's policy: "The way we work it is that you have to tell a server that you need a table, and then we come find you at the bar whenever one opens up. And I'm really sorry, but someone else has this table next." So we quickly unseated ourselves.

There's very little that a well-poured pint of Guinness won't cure, though, and Fado did pour the perfect pint ($4.25). The owners, called a "group of Irish and American businessmen" in the restaurant's literature, know their stuff: They installed a mixed-gas system like the ones used in Ireland, and that makes all the difference. This pint was the closest I've had in this country to the many Guinnesses I drank in that country, and it was poured the proper way, with a good ten-minute interval between the first part of the draw and the second. Creamy head, bold flavor. Ahh, yes, they did it right.

The food was another matter. We picked at two starters: the Carraigin oysters ($7.95) and the imported Irish oak-smoked salmon ($6.95). The six oysters had been baked on the half-shell with spinach, Mornay sauce and Pernod; the spinach was fresh, but there was so much of it that the tiny oysters were nearly impossible to taste--or even find. And while I could taste the Mornay, it didn't suggest any of the cheeses normally used in this French sauce, such as Gruyere, Emmental or parmesan--in fact, it didn't seem like any cheese had been added to the white sauce. And forget the Pernod: Usually kitchens over-douse foods with the all-permeating licorice-flavored pastis, but at Fado, I couldn't detect a hint of anise in either flavor or fragrance. The salmon, on the other hand, was stunning, if stingy: two thin slices of clean-tasting, sweet-fleshed salmon accompanied by a teaspoonful of capers and a half-slice of brown bread, which was hardly enough to share.

At least the entrees were nicely portioned--even if there was at least one thing wrong with each of them. Besides corned beef and cabbage, of course, the idea of the quintessential Irish dish is Irish stew ($9.95) made from lamb and vegetables. But at Fado, the gnarled lamb chunks contained inedible fat and gristle, and the rutabagas weren't cooked enough, which made for some crunchy eating. Crunchiness also marred the shepherd's pie ($9.95), which was studded with big celery chunks that were nearly raw, a jarring note in an otherwise soft and fluffy mashed-potato-topped, ground-sirloin-bottomed dish. The roasted stuffed tenderloin of pork ($11.95) featured moist, well-seasoned brown-bread stuffing--but the ends of the pork were dry and chewy, and the honey-and-black-currant sauce promised on the menu was a bland goo. The sauce on the Gaelic steak ($14.95) had none of the sugary quality that Jameson whiskey can add to sauces, which means it had all cooked off, but the mushrooms and the steak itself were tasty and high-quality. And then there was that heavenly breakfast.

The sides were much better than most of the entrees. The breakfast, the steak and the pork tenderloin came with a sweet mash of carrots and turnips; the steak and pork plates also featured that ubiquitous Irish vegetable, the potato, here done in rich, creamy, scalloped style, with good browned edges and a yielding consistency.

Like the entrees, each dessert had a distracting flaw. The Irish-whiskey trifle ($3.95) was a plush custard mixed with liquor-spiked strawberry sauce and whipped cream, yet at the bottom, canned pineapple injected a cheap taste into an otherwise fine concoction. The cheesecake ($3.95) tasted nicely of Bailey's Irish Creme, but it was so soft that it fell over before the plate hit the table. The brown-bread ice cream ($3.95) was interesting, with hardened, chewy bits of the bread encased in a brown sugary ice cream; however, the promised brandy ginger-snap holder was an undercooked, doughy tuille with no ginger flavor--it tasted like a sugar cookie without the sugar. And the apple crumble ($3.95) would have been wonderful if the apples had been cooked.

On a return visit at lunch, we were wowed by the Ceili spuds ($3.95), true Tater Tots of the Gods. The deep-fried logs of potato mixed with bacon and scallions and seasoned with nutmeg were terribly addictive. The same cannot be said for the salmon, tomato and cream-cheese boxty ($7.95), despite an enthusiastic recommendation from our server. The boxty--a thin potato pancake--had been filled with Wolfgang Puck's idea of Irish food: fresh salmon smooshed together with cream cheese and a runny tomato concasse until it resembled a salmon Slurpee. And the fish and chips ($7.95) boasted really delicious cod, but the kitchen had obliterated the fish with a Guinness batter the thickness--and chewability--of shoe leather. Good carrot-and-turnip mash and chips, though.

I wonder how they'd go with Froot Loops?

Fado Irish Pub, 1735 19th Street, 297-0066. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.


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