A friend of mine who'd just returned to the States from Dublin warned me that Murphy's Law Irish Pub & Restaurant is a pseudo-pub. An impostor.
I could see what he meant: The design of the place, located on McFarlane Road next door to Senor Frog's, is too polished. Granted, the spacious, two-room restaurant is only a few months old (those floorboards'll be nicely humidity-warped in no time), but the gleaming wood, high ceilings, fake fireplace, and sponge-painted walls lack the coziness one expects from a pub. Snooty bathroom attendants and a two-man band that was synthesizing up the joint on a recent visit further skew the effect away from Eire and nearer to the commercial clot that is Coconut Grove. All of which is a little ironic, given that the owners are Dubliners who run pubs in locales as diverse as Germany and Tampa.
More of a nod to than an exploration of hearty Irish cuisine, the menu features only four items under the heading "Irish Specialties." Influences do crop up in other categories -- corned beef and cabbage, for instance, is served on a hoagie roll -- but the bar, with its Harp beer and Murphy's Irish stout and Irish coffee, seems to have more Eire to offer than the fare.
We started with seven-onion soup, a crock of lightly creamed stock that was really more of a bisque than a broth, lacking the French augmentations of bread and cheese. Though the onions were soft and plentiful, the caramel-color soup was far too sweet to be enjoyed for long. In the end, its lukewarm temperature matched its appeal. Cheese fondue was a savory improvement, an enormous portion of melted Gruyäre-like cheeses, soupy in consistency, that filled a hollowed-out bread bowl. Pieces of the silky bread innards and a rainbow of steamed vegetables -- broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and red bell peppers -- were ideal for dipping in the mixture, which was nicely spiked with dark beer. Stuffed mushrooms were another favorite, despite the fact that their fillings had all fallen out. The small, juicy mushroom caps had been baked with shallot butter, a regrettably sparse amount of fresh chopped spinach, and Monterey Jack, cheddar, and Parmesan cheeses. Another hit, "The Knot," consisted of matchstick onions and potatoes that had been battered and dropped into the deep fryer, then served in a basket as one tangled portion. But four skewers of steak "kumari" -- chunks of center-cut filet mignon topped with (alarmingly mild) jalapeno peppers and pretty, ripe tomatoes and served with a ramekin of sour cream spiced with basil -- fell short. The grilled meat was flavorful thanks to a rub of hot pepper paste, but it was mushy rather than tender, which ruined the effect.
An unusually fresh house salad accompanies many of Murphy's main courses. Another salad alternative, the caesar, while too big to be an intermediate course unless it's shared, is perfect for a meal. A large bowl of crisp romaine boasted an "anchovy-free" salad dressing, which featured notes of Parmesan and garlic. But it needed precisely what it intentionally lacked -- a touch of the salty fish to provide bite.
A blackened chicken sandwich had plenty of bite -- the boneless breast was completely coated with red pepper -- but very little else. Red as a blush, the overly spiced white meat lay on a whole wheat kaiser roll that had been spread with a promising basil mayonnaise. Slices of cucumber, tomato, and red onion, along with leaves of buttery bibb lettuce, completed the sandwich but couldn't compensate for the challenging dryness of the chicken. Fortunately, skin-on steak fries were delightful accompaniments, all heat, crunch, and salt.
The arid chicken could have used a little of the excess moisture from a smoked turkey quesadilla, which was soggy. Cut into four sections, the flour tortillas contained a limited amount of spinach and a hardly more impressive amount of cheese. The turkey was the real disappointment, however. Sliced deli-style, the bird was represented in crumbled bits rather than in healthy hunks. Side dishes comprised basil sour cream, a tame tomato salsa, and a clearly ancient guacamole.
One of the more intriguing menu entries paired grilled pork medallions with melon salsa. If anything remotely Irish was at work here, it was leprechauns -- and they were fouling things up. Six medallions of pork had been grilled with cumin and tumbled over the salsa, a combination of honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, tomato, and jalape*o peppers. A side serving of rosemary-scented whole new potatoes provided welcome filler, as did a heap of the same vegetables that had accompanied the cheese fondue. But the main event was a failure: The penetrating piquancy of the melon salsa prevented any of the fruits' sweetness from shining through. More damaging was the texture of the pork, which at best brought back memories of the disintegrating steak kumari.
The so-called carving-board special -- in a rare salute to its culinary home, Murphy's Law features roast of the day, from which three slices are taken and served au jus with red-jacketed potatoes and vegetables -- was another loser: The roast beef was cold and tough, a real disappointment. Shepherd's pie, on the other hand, did its heritage proud. A flat bowl was filled with mildly spiced and gravied ground beef, which clung together like hamburger. Chopped carrots and onions and peas were mixed in with the beef; peaks of homestyle mashed potatoes provided cohesion and a crumbly top.
A dessert of honey-and-raisin bread pudding proved to be the meal's highlight. Dense and warm, with cinnamon whispering throughout, the homemade bread pudding, served in a crock, was two scoops of joy.
Doubtless it would be too much to expect a conventional Irish pub in Coconut Grove. And in theory that's fine -- no restaurant should be constrained by stereotypes. If Murphy's Law wants to bring valet bathroom service and techno-pop dance tunes -- not to mention fresh melon salsa -- to publand, that's its eclectic prerogative. But when such elements fail to meld into a coherent, inviting whole, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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I'm an easy sell. What tempted me to read Judith Rossner's Olivia was the plug on the back cover: "Between the risotto and the romance, Rossner treats family life with a wise and witty touch."
Olivia is a novel masquerading as the memoir of the central character, Caroline, who describes how she "was drawn to cooking as a small child, eventually became a professional chef, and after working for years in Italy, returned to the States to become known as the talky-impulsive host of the TV show Pot Luck." Along the way she meets and marries Sicilian Angelo Ferrante and bears a daughter. That would be Olivia, a difficult and moody girl who stays with her father after her parents divorce, then comes to America to live with her mother, whom she remembers only as the harried bitch who ran the kitchen of the family restaurant.
The novel contains a fair number of thematic elements that appeal to the casual cook; the kitchen being the heart of a house, the exploration of family ties is a given. Religion, especially as it relates to food, is also detailed, as is the idea that cooking can bring people closer together. It can also tear them apart: There's some real insight here into the life of the professional chef, whose interpersonal relationships could often use some work. The divorce rate is high in this line of work.
Olivia is by no means perfect. The narrator is unreliable at times and the scripted segments of her television show can be wordy. But the amount of cooking trivia gleaned from these pages makes the book a worthwhile read. I learned more about regional Italian cuisine from Rossner than I have from any of my cookbooks.