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By Bill Wisser
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Michael Collins is the warrior who in 1919 led the Irish Volunteers in their revolt against the British Empire. He has inspired a movie (Neil Jordan's eponymous biopic) and the Michael Collins Grill on Lincoln Road. Actually one of the owners of the grill is also named Michael Collins, which confuses things a bit, but I'm pretty sure the large black-and-white portrait of a somber-looking man that dominates a wall in one of the main dining rooms is that of the revolutionary, not the restaurateur.
In either case, the Michael Collins theme is weakly executed, and only half of the eatery even vaguely resembles an Irish tavern. That would be the east half, which takes up the space once occupied by Caffe Sambuca; the west fills the former home of Parilla del Pollo. A walkway with dining tables connects the halves indoors, while a line of umbrella-shaded tables bridges the two distinct entrances outside. Both hemispheres are handsomely cloaked in mahogany and forest green walls -- the east, as I've said, exudes more of an old-timey Irish pub ambiance, with copper-toned tin ceilings, a mirrored back bar bracketed by bottles of booze, and, the true sign of an authentic Gaelic meeting place, a plasma television screen. The west has bricked walls, a longer bar, and four plasma TVs. Judging by the décor and type of crowd it draws, you might say Michael Collins is more Bennigan's than Irish grill. To be fair, the food here was much better than that chain's; to be honest, the service was worse.
The menu mostly focuses on classic continental fare: appetizers such as crabcakes, shrimp cocktail, and oysters Rockefeller are recognizable as steak-house throwbacks from the early Sixties. Still a few modern sensibilities do get splashed about. Mango barbecue sauce, for instance, is lacquered onto a rack of exceptionally tender baby lamb spareribs; sweet balsamic syrup is drizzled over a grilled vegetable short stack; and the contemporary American concoction called duck quesadilla finds small morsels of dry duck meat, bits of red and yellow peppers, and melted Monterey jack cheese folded into a white flour tortilla and baked without fat. I don't deny that this is a healthier method than pan-frying, but the resultant crackly, bland tortilla shell makes matzo seem exciting by comparison. A dazzling garnish of purple kale and ruby-red strawberry couldn't distract from the gummy supermarket salsa that filled a little ramekin dish on the side.
Hearty beef soup would be a better means of kick-starting your meal. The soup stars pearl barley, small cubes of carrot, and rectangular ribbons of soft beef suspended in a big bowl of velvety, beefy soup base. Chilled oysters are also shelled out, the briny flavor of this shellfish traditionally enjoyed with a pint of Guinness in pubs throughout Dublin. Naturally they eat Irish oysters there, which are very small and particularly saline; the Michael Collins oysters come from the coast of Alabama -- medium-size and succulent. You can order a Guinness, though, one of a half-dozen beers on tap.
Beer also goes pretty well with shepherd's pie and fish and chips, about the only representatives of Irish cooking here. The latter featured Atlantic whitefish, very similar to cod, the slippery, wet flakes emitting puffs of steam as my fork shattered the cornflake-colored, crystalline-crisp, beer-battered crust -- nicely done. Chips were thick wedges of fried potatoes with the skin still on, and white plastic ramekins alongside were filled with, respectively, ketchup, cider vinegar, and terrible, watery house tartar sauce. Kudos for serving a fresh, attentively seasoned vegetable -- thin threads of carrot, zucchini, and yellow squash sautéed with shallots and bright haricots verts.
Michael Collins opened less than three months ago, so it's natural that the menu is still being revised. On my first visit I had been contemplating a pan-seared breast of chicken with fresh lemon, artichokes, asparagus, and orzo, the most summery entrée available. I put it off for my return, but, alas, this dish was one of the casualties of the revision. Continental-styled entrées that survived the cut include lamb shanks, Long Island duckling, filet mignon au poivre, and brook trout, which was panko-breaded, cleanly fried, and served deboned and open like a book -- fresh and flawless. Chef Steve Labina is the former proprietor of the fabulous Hobo's Fish Joint in Coral Springs, and the grill's seafood selections were consistently on the mark.
Vegetables, on the other hand, were cold -- both those accompanying the trout, as well as a side of spinach three ways, which turned out to mean choice of creamed, steamed, or pan-seared. I chose the last, but somehow ended up with a decidedly unsteamy steamed version. At least we were luckier than the diners seated at a table next to ours, who, after an interminable wait, were served everything cold.
The kitchen clearly gets overwhelmed on weekends, when the Lincoln Road crowds descend en masse (the restaurant seats 300). The waitstaff is pretty much ineffective all the time. That's the fault of management, who have not accomplished much in the way of properly training their workers.