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14 Harvard Street, Brookline Village; 232-0188
by Robert Nadeau
Dog plays piano. Red Sox win World Series. Posthumous paper shows Nixon blamed self for political scandal. Irish pub has good food. Bigfoot . . .
Wait just a minute there. What was that item about the Irish pub?
Irish pub has good food?
You expect us to believe that?
It's the only true item on the list.
They have Italian cooks?
No, it appears to be an entirely Irish and Irish-American operation. The same Irish woman owns a good Italian restaurant, however, which is how I noticed Matt Murphy's. I have to confess that this column has not exactly been trolling the Irish pubs of greater Boston for gourmet fare.
Why do Irish pubs in Boston have such bad food?
They don't have bad food, but it can be rather plain. The best of them have hearty portions of meat and potatoes, such as the Harp & Bard, in Dorchester, or the Galway House, in Jamaica Plain. And now there's Matt Murphy's, which has all kinds of good food. They have fish and chips, and it comes to the table in a twist of newspaper, and it tastes good.
Do they use Irish newspapers?
No, but they have some Irish books to read. And a stack of Irish brands of tea, oatmeal, and some Weetabix. And they have a large display above the bar of pull-on galoshes . . .
Yes, Wellies. I don't know why. Maybe some kind of rain-nostalgia thing.
So why don't they have Wellies in those Seattle-style coffee shops?
I don't know, but I did ask at Matt Murphy's why they call Guinness diluted with lager beer a "black-and-tan," even though the black-and-tans were the hated auxiliary British soldiers in the Irish rebellion.
And they said they'd never heard of it before they got to Boston. People in Ireland drink that, but they don't call it a "black-and-tan." It's very strange.
But not as strange as good food along with your black-and-tan.
Or Guinness, or Murphy's, or Anchor Steam beer, or Samuel Adams. It's an entirely respectable pub, in terms of the taps. It's a stand-up bar, mostly, with some low wooden tables and chairs. The same menu at lunch and dinner.
Good food, you say?
Sometimes very good. There is, for example, a platter of smoked salmon and smoked trout, sliced thick, interspersed with whole-grain bread ($8.95) that would be a glorious example of a pub lunch or snack if it didn't also have a kind of loose salad of herring and marinated onions and raisins like a kind of chutney, which lifts it into the heavenly postmodern bistro category.
And leek-and-potato soup ($3.95) in this enormous flat bowl -- Biba would use this bowl. And Biba would make a soup this intensely flavored, and decorate it this way, with zigzags of cream and a dusting of finely ground pepper -- if Biba ever served something as mundane as leek-and-potato soup.
Is this perhaps the Irish yuppie pub?
Not at all. There are things like the salt-pork sandwich ($5.95), which is just this enormous white-bread sandwich of gray slices of pork, some a little fatty, with lettuce and mayonnaise and gherkins, and these really glorious, oddly yellow french fries, another hod-carrier's portion. You get a pot of the homemade ketchup, which adds some cumin to the usual qualities.
Or, another day, I had shepherd's pie ($11.95), made with real potatoes and lamb chunks in a winey sauce with . . . vegetables! Carrots and cubes of celery root. And a delectable salad of arugula.
The Italian influence.
Perhaps so, but there was everything Irish and nothing Italian about the rabbit pie ($11.95). It had a soda-biscuit crust and a flavorful gravy -- perhaps malt vinegar and a lot of black pepper involved -- with mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, celery, and a couple of parsnip slices with the meat.
And then there was a dinner of codfish cakes and beans ($10.95). This was not only Irish but Boston Irish-American, though the codfish cakes -- two the size of the hamburgers you make at home -- were enriched with cheese as well as potato, I believe. The beans had some hot pepper and barbecue sauce to them.
Everyone not digging harbor tunnels all day by hand should consider splitting up these plates. And pity upon you if you fall for too much of the delicious whole-wheat bread and butter, both served in double-size slabs that make you tend to forget the singular capacity of your own stomach. Add stout -- as I am always tempted to do on cold days, or on warm days -- and you will have no room for dessert. And the dessert I had, rice pudding with fresh strawberries and a bit of sauce, was likewise both tempting and filling.
The crowd, then?
I would say that Matt Murphy's is still finding its regulars. On three visits I found day business uncrowded, and the night well populated with a variety of people friendlier than most in Boston, but not up to the extroversion of Greater Boston's many Irish pubs. Yet.
There is barely room for live music, though I've heard rumors. The canned music runs to a little Sinéad O'Connor and U2, and quite a lot of the Pretenders.
So there isn't the sustaining chain reaction of a well-tended pub crowd yet, but there is the ingathering feeling in this long winter. We come into Murphy's to take refuge, and are greeting with kindness, good food, and fine ales. If it is winter and not rain that sends us indoors, so be it.
While we are on the subjects of food and British imperialism, we come to the celebrated food issue of the literary quarterly Granta -- the first bad issue of Granta in a long time, certainly the first since editor Bill Buford left for the New Yorker. One might blame Buford's departure, but I blame the fact that the magazine comes from England. It's all well and good for a British magazine to specialize in American realistic fiction, as Granta has, or to revive the tradition of literate travel writing. It's quite another matter for a British magazine to contemplate food, which has been anathema to British culture since the entire subject was conceded to the French centuries ago. So we have a Granta nominally about food, but somehow missing any joy in the thing. For the latest on mass starvation, bulimia, the dietary restrictions of widows in India -- can't beat it. For anything you'd want to read about food, put your money elsewhere.