Deep-fried mashed potato balls with horseradish sauce — it's exactly the kind of thing I expected to see on Irish 31's menu. This new pub/restaurant in Tampa's Hyde Park, right next to CineBistro, had all the hallmarks of a gimmicky spot. Although Irish 31 has been open for just over a month, the website is already touting franchising opportunities and aiming for the stars — "In time, Irish 31 will become the most recognizable Irish Pub brand in America," they claim. The word "brand" appears with alarming frequency.
But let me give Irish 31 the credit it's due: the space is pleasant, the menu is well-priced and the food is quite good. Whether or not the brand will eventually conquer the U.S. Irish pub market, I won't comment. But this first outlet is certainly starting off right.
That's not to say that the menu will surprise, or even excite, anyone. Much of it is familiar territory, with Irish/English pub standards like shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, or chicken pot pie combined with the usual wings, burgers and sandwiches that form the core of any casual American restaurant. It's what Irish 31 does with those standards that sets them apart.
Take the nachos, for instance. They're built on well-browned potato chips made fresh, with a rich, mild cheese sauce; tender, well-seasoned beef; and enough jalapeno and scallion to provide a brief breath of freshness. The chips — sturdy enough to hold up to the sauce and juicy meat — make this dish, and are a welcome accompaniment as a side with many of the menu items.
A higher-end appetizer of potato-crusted fried shrimp is surprisingly good, the thinly sliced spuds offering a crisp texture and enough protection to let the shrimp remain juicy and flavorful inside.
Those deep-fried potato balls come encased in a brown crust of breading, crispy but free of extra oily weight. Inside is just creamy mash, and the horseradish sauce adds flavor without really meshing well as a package. Still, it's one of the best deep-fried mashed potato balls I've ever had, for whatever that's worth.
Irish 31's skill with the fryer continues with its fish sandwich. The white filet o' fish is encased in salty and crisp beer batter, ably straddling that fine line between people who crave fried dough and people who want tasty fish. The cod beneath still shines through, moist and distinct, and the ciabatta bun, lettuce, onion and tomato all coordinate into a hell of a sandwich.
Burgers are standard bar fare here, although the toppings — especially the sharp white cheddar, sauteed mushrooms and onions, or that pub cheese sauce — are a slight step above the norm. And that ciabatta bun is just as good with the beef as it is with the fish.
The restaurant's more traditional dishes are homey and comforting, if a little uninspired. The version of shepherd's pie is overloaded with about twice as much mashed potato as beef and veg, and the blanket of melted cheese on top is a tad distracting. Chicken pot pie is better arranged, but the gravy is too rich and dense — especially when combined with a massive roof of buttery puff pastry — and a splash of something tart meant to lighten the flavors is distracting at best.
I'm not sure that tangerine-, peachy- or raspberry-tinis fit the Irish pub vibe, but this is Hyde Park, after all, and on an average night you'll see plenty of 'tini glasses sharing space with pints. The draught beer selection is big enough to provide a nice selection of standards like Guinness and Woodchuck, a few low-brow macro-brews, and some finer choices like Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA.
Trying to please everyone does intrude a little on the otherwise charming space, thanks to a bevy of distracting wide-screen TVs. Besides the cozy and pubby interior, there's an outdoor area with a permanent wooden stage perfect for low-key bands. Irish 31 still needs to work on its service, though — the place is seat yourself, and the staff isn't organized well enough to always catch the newcomers.
Let's face it, Irish 31 isn't the kind of pub you head to if you're looking for serious Emerald Isle tradition. But what you get in return is tasty food, a big beer selection, fruity-tinis and a whole bunch of extras that will likely appeal to a much wider group of people. Sometimes, that's a little more comforting than an accent and a pint of Guinness.