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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Irish with Surprises

Downtown Milwaukee's Blackthorn Pub

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It's hard to believe that County Clare and its Irish pub fare were once a bit of a novelty here. Now Irish restaurants with names like Mo's, Mulligan's and Brocach seem to be everywhere in Milwaukee. More continue to open. One of the more recent is the Blackthorn Pub & Grill, just a block off of Cathedral Square. For an Irish pub the interior is spare, with booths along the window afforded a bit of Irish privacy thanks to the clever use of mirrors. There is not a single shamrock, leprechaun or even a framed print of the Cliffs of Moher. The only adornment is the leaded glass hanging light fixtures—in other words the Restoration Hardware look.

The menu has the expected Irish pub fare plus some surprises. There is stew, shepherd's pie and steamed mussels, but also a chicken quesadilla tweaked with Guinness, a spinach with artichoke dip, and even garlic bread with Greek tzatziki. Corned beef makes a brief appearance in a few sandwiches. The mussels Provencal ($7) are unique for Milwaukee, six green-lip mussels on the half shell and meatier than the blue variety. They are in a cream sauce with a bit of white wine, saffron and chopped fresh tomato. There is so much saffron that its fragrance dominates. Normally I find the blue mussels to be superior in flavor but these turn out quite good.

Follow the Irish route with one of the stews. Fisherman's stew ($14) is subject to daily change. On my visit it was abundant with cod, a little crab and a pair of shell-on mussels in a tomato-based broth with onion and carrot topped with a bit of garlic aioli. There was a simple side salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The flavors seem more Mediterranean than Irish but they are pleasing. The Irish stew is straightforward with tender chunks of beef in a rich dark broth with carrot, potatoes and peas. The hearty, if smallish entrée is also accompanied with a side salad, this time with citrus vinaigrette.

Corned beef is served in a Reuben and another sandwich titled the Blackthorn ($10). This is a kitchen-sink approach, combining the corned beef with pastrami, Swiss cheese, lettuce, garlic dill pickle, mustard and horseradish sauce. The corned beef is in shreds, curiously cut along the grain making it tougher than necessary. The pastrami is also unimpressive but the overall combination of flavors still makes the Blackthorn a success. A side of seasoned fries or the better house-made potato chips is included. Augment the entrées with a house salad ($5) or the soup of the day ($3-$5). The salad is simple with leaf lettuce, roma tomato, cucumber and red onion. The dressings are made in house.

The kitchen seems busier at lunch than at dinner, when the servers seem more focused on the bar. This pub is located in an area with abundant competition, but the Blackthorn manages to hold its own with a competent kitchen. A few more Irish entrées, though, would make the setting complete.

Blackthorn Pub & Grill, 750 N. Jefferson St.

(414) 837-5511

$-$$

Credit cards: all major

Handicapped Access: yes

blackthorn-pub.com

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