Guinness introduced porter and stout beers to the world at the turn of the Nineteenth Century (the former named after porters from London's fish and vegetable markets who preferred a potent brew). In the current century, ten million glasses of Guinness are consumed worldwide every day. On a recent afternoon visit to JohnMartin's Restaurant & Irish Pub, I was seated at the bar next to a man who looked to be contributing his fair share to that daily quota, quaffing the stuff as if it were St. Patrick's Day; maybe this was his warmup.
I'd like to say we engaged in witty bar banter, like Beckett and Bono might if seated side by side in the same circumstance, but the only words spoken were his, when he asked me to pass the salt for his fish and chips. That was the first hint that maybe this quest of mine to find the best corned beef and cabbage in town was not going to be quite as scintillating an expedition as I had hoped.
I should have known better at the outset. After all, there are no Kilarney Roses in the Miami-Dade phone book, nor is there a single Blarney Stone. There used to be hundreds of these Irish bar/restaurants in New York City, and when I worked the night shift at the U.S. Post Office in mid-Manhattan, I'd often spend my 3:00 a.m. lunch hour at one or another of them, consuming what remain to this day the best brisket of beef sandwiches I've ever had. But I digress. The point is, I found just two Irish pubs in Miami-Dade County that serve corned beef and cabbage. One is the aforementioned JohnMartin's in Coral Gables; the Playwright Irish Pub & Restaurant in South Beach is the other. Not that the Irish partake of this dish very often; it's mostly consumed during Easter and St. Patrick's Day. Indeed Duffy's Tavern, Michael Collins Grill, and the various Flanigan's locations will be presenting it as a specialty come that latter holiday (which looms before us like a leering leprechaun), and whatever other Irish pubs exist will certainly be brewing up good times regardless of what grub they dish.
The restaurant portion of JohnMartin's, with flowery curtains and carpeting and warm wooden china cabinets, resembles the dining quarters of a lovely country inn. Yet even though we made it clear our visit was for dinner, we were not escorted to this charming room but led instead into the scrungier pub area. Not scrungy in a bad way, mind you, just in a pub way -- dark wood all over the place, along with wrought iron, wainscoting, purposefully yellowed walls adorned with an abundance of photos, and old, tiny-white-tiled floors. A cozy little enclave with just a few tables and chairs sits quietly off to one side, and there are other quaint nooks and crannies here and about. JohnMartin's entered the Gables in 1989, but feels like it's been around quite a bit longer than that. Its muted hues provide a calm backdrop to the festive environment that ensues when the space fills up -- which happens every day come lunchtime.
The Playwright, which opened on the corner of Washington Avenue and Fourteenth Street in June 2000, likewise exudes an aged and authentic tavern ambiance. An oversize mahogany bar and cherry mahogany tables and chairs were shipped straight from Dublin, while the walls feature framed photos of famous Irish playwrights. Books and other artifacts are scattered about to reinforce this somewhat flimsy literary theme. An oak pulpit from a country parish is now home to the DJ and sound booth, which booms on weekend evenings (probably not the best time to come for corned beef and cabbage). A trio of sister Playwrights likewise pour pints in Connecticut, the businesses owned by three brothers from County Kilkenny, and a fourth partner from Cork.
Both pubs are class acts, but if you're heading out with corned beef and cabbage in mind, JohnMartin's is probably the place to go, though this depends on personal taste in matters of food size. What I mean is that the components of JohnMartin's plate are heftier than those at the Playwright, starting with thick-hewn slices of juicy meat with horseradish cream sauce snaking on top like a shiny white river. Cabbage is cut into broad wedges, steamed to a fully cooked but still-firm consistency, and halved new potatoes come alongside as well: boiled, oven-dried, and served with skins on, which is exactly how it's done in a typical Irish household (skins are then peeled with knife and fork at the table, a habit which greatly annoys the Brits, who prefer their spuds cooked skinless). The Irish should know something about how to prepare potatoes: In the last century the average daily consumption per citizen was six and a half pounds.
The Playwright's corned beef is thinly sliced with a machine, like the type you get in a deli sandwich. A white sauce was puddled beneath the meat, watered down by the drippings of peeled, medium-diced boiled potatoes and chopped cabbage. The smaller, wetter nature of these two ingredients might be the legitimate preference of some, but whether corned beef tastes better when hand-sliced into thicker strips is not open to debate; it is simply the case.
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Then again, corned beef ain't what it used to be. For most of us it's better. No longer a fatty, grayish-pink meat with strongly saline attributes, the modern version is lean, bright pink, and only mildly salty. In Ireland they traditionally paired their cabbage with Irish bacon, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Irish-American immigrants substituted the cheaper corned beef and began serving the new combo as a St. Patrick's Day specialty.
Irish stew has likewise been transformed over time. This national dish, once described by Courtine as being witness "if not to the art of living, at least to the art of staying alive," was customarily prepared by arranging mutton in alternate layers with sliced potatoes and onions, then simmering with water over low heat for hours; the usual accompaniment was pickled red cabbage. When Irish housewives began including carrots, traditionalists abhorred what they considered an unnecessary adulteration, but nowadays all sorts of vegetables may appear. The Playwright tosses in celery and carrots with their potatoes, onions, and beef, all in a full-bodied brown sauce given a tangy lift from a shot of Guinness. JohnMartin's adds carrots, celery, and cabbage to their peppery, savory, brown lamb stew. Both versions are sure to satisfy the urge for hale and hearty fare.
Interestingly, or shall I say distressingly, while the Playwright evidently put aside enough Guinness for its stew, it was all tapped out at the bar. An Irish pub running out of Guinness is akin to an army running out of bullets. The cry goes up: Retreat! So much for my Black & Tan, though they were pouring pints of the tan part (Bass Ale), along with about a dozen other draught beers (no doubt their Guinness munitions will be fully loaded next Thursday). JohnMartin's had black and tan on tap, along with Harp, Smithwicks, Stella Artois, and for patriotic wimps, Miller Lite; they also offer an impressive array of single-malt scotches.
As with just about all holidays, St. Patrick's Day was once a religious occasion (in honor of the saint's death in the Fifth Century). In fact until the Seventies, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17. In 1995 Ireland's government began promoting the celebratory approach in the name of millions of tourist dollars drawn to Dublin for the festivities. Which means that if you make it over there, you'll be able to eat your corned beef and cabbage and drink your Guinness Stout. Just like we'll be doing in Miami.