Dining Review

Irish pub meets tasty Middle Eastern fare

CorrespondentJanuary 17, 2013 

  • More information Saints & Scholars 909 Spring Forest Road, Raleigh 919-878-8828 saintsandscholarspub.com Cuisine: Irish, Middle Eastern, American Rating: *** Prices: $$-$$$ Atmosphere: Irish pub Noise level: moderate to high Service: friendly and attentive Recommended: Moroccan salad, hummus with beef, shepherd’s pie, lamb shank Open: lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: accepted Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Guy walks into a bar – stop me if you’ve heard this one. But I bet you haven’t.

Anyway, the guy looks around, takes in the surroundings: pressed tin ceiling tiles, leaded glass partitions, walls plastered with Guinness, Harp’s and Smithwick’s beer posters. He peeks around a corner to another room furnished with antique Victorian chairs, floor lamps and a wall of shelves lined with books and bric-a-brac.

“Hmm,” the guy thinks, “this must be an Irish pub.” (He’s as astute as he is observant.) He pulls up a stool at the massive, ornate mahogany bar (“imported from Ireland, I’ll bet”) and orders a Guinness.

“Would you like to see a menu?” the bartender asks when he brings the pint.

“Do you have fish and chips?”

“Sure do. But we’ve got a lot more than that. Sure you don’t want to see a menu?”

“Why, something wrong with the fish and chips?” The guy was starting to wonder if he should just finish his pint and move on.

“No, not at all. Fish and chips are good, very popular in fact. Just thought you might like to see the menu.” Was that a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he said it?

“Thanks, but I think I’ll try the fish and chips” – which soon arrive, and prove to be quite respectable.

“Cod, am I right?” The bartender nods. “Decent beer batter, too, a little greasy but that’s authentic.” (The guy fancies himself a connoisseur.) Bartender nods again (It’s a slow night).

“But what’s with the crinkle cut fries?”

“Just one of the little things that set us apart,” says the bartender. This time the mischievous twinkle is unmistakable.

His curiosity piqued, the guy finally asks to take a look at the menu. He isn’t surprised to see a healthy dose of American favorites – wings, burgers, oyster po’ boy, meatball parmesan penne – among the Irish pub fare. That’s pretty much a given in an Irish pub in America.

But then he notices a surprising number of Middle Eastern specialties scattered throughout the list. As many, in fact, as there are Irish dishes. He’s hooked now, has to get to the bottom of this mystery.

“Why are there so many Middle Eastern things on the menu?” he asks the bartender. “I mean, hummus, shawarma, gyro, kebabs...”

Bartender cuts him off (business is picking up now): “New chef, bought the place last summer. Owned Solomon’s.”

“Ah, that explains it.” But the bartender is already gone, pulling pints and mixing cocktails.

The guy happens to have been a fan of Solomon’s, was sorry when owner/chef Victor Khoury closed it back in the summer of 2011 after more than a decade.

“Guess he decided to try something new,” the guy says to himself. “Good to see he hasn’t completely abandoned the Mediterranean cuisine that made his reputation. Think I’ll come back with a few friends and check it out.”

The guy does just that, two more times. He likes the rich, rosemary-scented ground beef filling of the shepherd’s pie, as well as its well-browned mashed potato crust. He’s especially impressed by the accompanying medley of sautéed fresh vegetables, an exceptionally generous and varied assortment that he now recalls as a Khoury trademark.

Chicken curry – the creamy, raisin-studded kind favored in English and Irish pubs – is true to form. The guy especially likes the fact that it’s served over barley.

In a twist on the classic Irish boxty, the potato pancake is folded around nuggets of seasoned cod. It’s tasty enough, though the mound of pico de gallo on top takes some getting used to. One of those “little things that set us apart,” that the bartender was talking about, he guesses.

Bangers and mash, on the other hand, color a little too far outside the lines for his taste by substituting kielbasa for the traditional bangers. It’s a satisfying dish, certainly, especially on a cold night. And he’d be OK with it if they just wouldn’t call it bangers and mash. Whatever they call it, the waitress says it’s popular.

Even so – and not surprisingly, really, given the chef’s background – the guy decides he prefers the Middle Eastern fare. He’s especially taken with the Moroccan salad, a kaleidoscope of mixed greens, figs, apricots, almonds, raisins and carrots tossed in a balanced honey-balsamic dressing and topped with crispy ribbons of fried pita. And he can’t get enough of the hummus topped with an ample pile of diced grilled beef, a classic combination he rarely sees hereabouts.

He’s surprised to find the kefta kebab a bit dry. But succulent chicken and lamb kebabs make amends on a subsequent visit.

Best of all, though, is the braised lamb shank, fork-tender atop a mound of Israeli couscous punctuated with chickpeas and caramelized onions. He discovers that he especially likes it with a pint of Guinness. It’s an odd combination, admittedly, but one that seems fitting in an Irish pub with a Jordanian native chef. And that’s no joke.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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