Restaurant News & Reviews

Beyond shepherd's pie: Trali raises Irish pub bar

Trali has been open only since March, but the Irish pub already boasts impressive credentials. Many of its furnishings, from the stained glass to the handcrafted bar in the Victorian pub-inspired main room, were imported from Ireland. That bar, and another bar in an adjoining room, bristle with a combined 18 taps, a third of them dispensing Irish brews.

Owner/chef Tom Buckley hails from just outside Trali's namesake town in County Kerry and has worked in restaurants and hotels from Galway to Sydney to Boston. More recently, Buckley owned the estimable James Joyce for seven years before selling the Durham pub to open Trali with a handful of partners.

For all its Irish pedigree, though, Trali is not just a typical Irish pub. Virtually everything is made from scratch, for one thing, from salad dressings to soda bread. And, while the Emerald Isle is well-represented on the menu, the options are by no means limited to shepherd's pie, fish and chips and the like. Buckley's globe-trotting experience shows in a solidly executed menu of mostly traditional Irish pub fare, supplemented by a nightly changing list of dinner specials. Recent offerings have covered a broad spectrum from shrimp spring rolls to Cajun flounder to chicken Kiev to pizza. The ham and cabbage soup served recently as the soup du jour was primally satisfying.

The chef isn't afraid to combine elements of different cuisines in a single dish, either. Mussels poached in Guinness with garlic, leeks and white beans are a felicitous marriage of his Irish heritage and his classic French culinary training. Crisp, succulent chicken wings, fried naked and tossed in a mild European-style curry sauce, are a refreshing change of pace from ubiquitous Buffalo wings (which Trali also offers).

Ask Buckley about his Newfoundland cod and potato cakes, and he'll explain that the recipe comes from that Canadian province, where codfish and people of Irish descent are abundant. Regardless of which side of the Atlantic claims the dish, it's a keeper.

Cod turns up again on the entree list as beer-battered fish and chips. The "chips" are in fact not the traditional thick-cut, but standard French fry cut, and they're not always as crisp as they could be. Even so, fans of fish and chips might well consider the dish worth ordering for the generous fillets of moist, crunchy-crusted fish alone.

There's nothing to fault, on the other hand, with the grilled salmon. Served with creamed leeks and colcannon, a rib-sticking medley of cabbage, onions and lots of buttery mashed potatoes, the presentation is just the ticket for a cold winter night.

So is the shepherd's pie, a well-seasoned mélange of ground beef and vegetables under a mountain range of oven-browned mashed potato peaks. And so is the lamb shank stew. Starring a fist-sized shank, slow-cooked with root vegetables until the meat nearly falls from the bone and served in a rosemary-tinged gravy made from the braising liquid, this is Ireland's answer to osso buco.

Those blessed with a hollow leg might find themselves able to indulge in dessert. I understand that the homemade Bailey's cheesecake is popular, but you won't go wrong with the bread-and-butter chocolate pudding with whiskey cream sauce, either.

At lunchtime, a traditional Irish carvery features a daily selection of roasted meats (usually two, with possibilities including beef, lamb, ham and pork roast) carved to order. On weekends, Trali's brunch offering showcases another tradition, in the form of a full Irish breakfast: eggs, Irish bacon, black and white puddings, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and baked beans.

Trali is an Irish pub at heart, after all, though chef Buckley's menu does draw from a global pantry. In the same spirit, you're as welcome to watch American football as European soccer on one of the pub's four flat screen TVs. But when St. Patrick's Day rolls around next year, three days after Trali celebrates its anniversary, don't ask for green beer. There's a limit to how far a self-respecting Irish pub will go.