Doolins turns on the Irish charm the moment you walk in the door. Passing beneath an archway in a stone wall evocative of medieval castle ruins, youre greeted by a sign informing you, in Gaelic and English, that its only 9 km to the village of Rathangan in County Kildare.
Beyond, the dining room doesnt miss a trick in setting an Irish pub mood, from molded tin ceiling to ornate vintage bar to beveled glass partitions framed in Celtic knots. The walls except for the one with the obligatory bookshelves lined with leather-bound volumes are densely covered with travel posters, Irish witticisms and folksy bric-a-brac.
Its a convivial setting, certainly, but experience has taught me that such over-the-top show isnt always backed up by substance.
Which is why, the first time I stop in for a pint at Doolins and overhear a bartender with an Irish accent chatting with a patron about James Joyce, no less Im not just entertained but also encouraged. Im further reassured when I order a Guinness and observe that the bartender can, as they say in Ireland, pull a proper pint.
My hopes rise even higher when I take a look at the menu. Boxty (an Irish potato pancake) and house-cured corned beef with North Carolina cabbage are among the promising signs that Doolins isnt just paying lip service to Irish pub fare. Fish and chips, bangers and mash, grilled salmon, and chicken pot pie are, naturally, also present and accounted for.
On the few occasions when the kitchen ventures abroad, it doesnt hedge its bets with the usual American pub staples.
Instead, it serves up a spinach salad with local grilled apples, braised pork shank with porcini risotto, and bacon-wrapped beef sirloin filet with red potato hash and sweet pea succotash. The closest thing to chicken tenders or Buffalo wings is fried chicken drummies with sweet potato waffle, a playful riff on a currently fashionable soul food classic.
Unfortunately, as I am to learn over the course of three visits, execution doesnt always live up to the ambition. The kitchen shows flashes of promise, but suffers from inconsistency.
One night, an appetizer order of boxty wedges produces light, crispy triangles of potato pancake with a rich cheddar dipping sauce. Next time around, the boxty is dense and dark, and the sauce so thin it barely qualifies as soup.
Char-grilled lamb sliders with onion straws and whole grain mustard remoulade are among the best sliders Ive had anywhere, regardless of filling. Fish and chips (the fish is Pacific cod and the chips standard cut fries) are solid, too, if not memorable.
Same goes for the shepherds pie, whose filling of coarsely ground beef, vegetables and gravy is toothsome enough but whose mashed potato crust lacks any hint of browning.
The entree version has since been replaced by a flight of miniature shepherds pies on the starter list: traditional, Southern (North Carolina turkey with a mashed sweet potato crust) and chefs choice (recently, chicken and purple potatoes).
Braised pork shank comes close to the mark, the fist-sized hunk of meat moist and so tender under a dark, savory-sweet glaze that it pulls easily from the bone. The disappointment comes when I discover that the meat nearest the bone is cold, a telltale sign that the cooked shank has been refrigerated and insufficiently reheated.
Doolins is a joint venture of Robert Beebe, part-owner of the popular Irish pub Trali in Raleigh, and Eric Burchfield, whose resume includes catering director at the Washington Duke Inn and, most recently, territory manager for a food service distributor.
The partners opened Doolins in March (just in time for Saint Patricks Day) on the ground floor of the SouthCourt office building.
Working with chef Brian George (formerly sous chef at Trali), the partners recently revamped the menu, streamlining the offering and giving it a seasonal focus. The change enables the kitchen to focus on doing a few things very well, according to Eric Burchfield, while still allowing chef George some leeway for creativity.
Were still learning, says Burchfield, who adds that the partners have recently addressed inconsistencies in the level of service. Given their combined experience, its a good bet theyll iron out the wrinkles over time.
In the meantime, happily, the Irish bartender is still pulling pints.
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