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The Pub

The Pub serves up Irish experience

By DENNIS R. GETTO

It was that first spoonful of clam chowder at The Pub in Oconomowoc that told me I'd like the place.

It was a Friday night, when The Pub - like hundreds of other places across southeastern Wisconsin - offers a fish fry and clam chowder. But this chowder wasn't like the flour-thickened, overly thymed stuff that is often so thick you could stand a spoon in it.

This was a silky, sweet soup made with real cream, lots of clams, potatoes, carrots and celery and laced with bits of bacon. As I chased the last few drops of it around the bottom of my tilted bowl, I secretly wished that every cook and chef who makes mediocre clam chowder could taste this soup just once and learn from it.

That chowder - and the fresh soft Irish soda bread served beside it - were only two of several delights I discovered at The Pub, a small island of Irish culture sided by storefronts on Oconomowoc's Main St.

Opened in October 2001 by the husband-and-wife team of Aelred and Bernadette Gannon, The Pub charms its customers from the moment they set foot inside. The restaurant (formerly called Seasons) has been redecorated with prominent emphasis on green, white and orange - the three colors of the Irish flag. Along the upper-level north wall is an almost-life-size re-creation of an Irish street, complete with a view of the front room of Gerry Foley's Funeral Home (Foley is Bernadette's maiden same) and Gannon's Fish Market.

Beneath those small storefronts are four small semi-private dining areas: Three have tables for four; the fourth has a table for two.

A friend and I tried that spot for two at one dinner but found it a little cramped. It was a weeknight and we'd arrived early, so our waitress had no objection to our moving to a larger table in the main dining area.

Authentic touches

The Pub's menu offers everything from pizzas to stew, with sandwiches and appetizers thrown in. That list is augmented by a separate sheet of nightly specials. Just as elaborate is its drink menu, which lists a surprisingly large assortment of whiskeys, rums, tequilas, martinis and even poteen - the Irish legal equivalent of our own American moonshine.

It's that touch, along with some other subtleties, that make the food at The Pub so quintessentially Irish. Irish dairy products - notably cream and cheese - show up in a number of dishes. The house grilled New York Strip Steak ($16.50) offers a good example. The flavorful cut of beef had been nicely grilled and covered with sauteed mushrooms, then topped with a delicate sauce made of fresh cream and Irish whiskey. The counterpoint of flavors worked well; I only wished that the steak's edges had been trimmed of their fat.

Irish cheese plates are available from $5.50 for a single cheese to $17.50 for a sampling of more than half a dozen cheeses. My dining companion and I skipped the plate in favor of Irish smoked salmon ($6.50), which delivered four slices of homemade Irish soda bread topped with cream cheese and thinly sliced salmon that had been smoked over oak wood. Four long sticks of creamy, aged Irish cheddar added extra delight.

Two other dishes were as authentic as any on either side of the Atlantic. Irish stew ($9.50) was a hearty dish of lamb chunks first browned and then simmered in Guinness Stout with potatoes, carrots and onions. Served in a shallow casserole, the stew had freshly mashed potatoes piped around it and was served with more of The Pub's hearty soda bread. That bread came in handy when it came time to sop up the last traces of tasty brown sauce.

The second dish, colcannon ($4), was listed as a nightly special and struck me as Irish comfort food. It was a simple mix of mashed potatoes with plenty of butter, cream and sauteed onions, covered with a steamed kale leaf. While mashed potatoes appear on many menus around town, few can match this rendition for richness and flavor.

A friend who formerly lived in Oconomowoc, and who first told me about The Pub, recommended its fish fry. The standard dinner ($8.75) delivers three generous pieces of fried cod that are dipped in a thin, light batter and done to a light gold color so that the interior maintains its moistness. Extra pieces of fish are available for $2 each; for $13, diners can make the meal an all-you-can eat indulgence.

The french fries that came with the fish had the simple appeal that an extra minute in the deep-fryer delivers: They were crisp on the outside and creamy in the inside without a trace of greasiness. What intrigued me most was The Pub's coleslaw, dressed with Aelred Gannon's own secret dressing, which falls somewhere between American creamy and German sweet-sour. Shredded carrots gave the slaw extra crunch.

The final entree we tried came from the daily special list: A fresh filet of Arctic char ($15) had been perfectly broiled and lightly spiced. Each flake of the flavorful fish peeled away from its skin perfectly and was delightful by itself. The only weakness of the dish was the remoulade sauce served beside it. The sauce needed more mustard and capers to give it the appropriate kick.

Another impressive feature at The Pub was the quality of vegetables served as side dishes. Instead of the standard saute of carrots, zucchini and gold squash that seems to be served just about everywhere, the char and the steak came with carefully chosen thin spears of fresh asparagus. It was yet another detail that endeared me to this delightful casual dining spot.

The last were its desserts ($5 each). If I had to choose, I think my favorite would be the Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake, built on a homemade walnut crust and swirled with rich chocolate. But in its absence, I'd settle for the Amaretto trifle, a layer of liqueur-soaked sponge cake topped with freshly whipped cream.

And then it would be time for Irish coffee ($5) - Irish whiskey carefully stirred into a cup of fresh, slightly sweetened coffee and topped with whipped cream.