A brogue may not be a prerequisite for working at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo, but having a waiter with that engaging lilt pour your pint of Guinness adds a bit of authenticity to the scene. After months of renovations, this retooled pub and restaurant, formerly known as the Inn at Glen Echo, opened with a bang on New Year's Eve.
Owner Chris Hughes, who mills about most nights, is an expat with Ireland in his voice and his face. His other ventures, Ireland's Four Provinces in Cleveland Park and Falls Church, are popular watering holes/dining rooms known for booking solid Irish folk musicians and bands.
The Irish Inn is more intimate and refined than Hughes's Four Ps restaurants. A smallish pub room spills into a warren of intimate dining rooms on the first floor of this turn-of-the-century inn on the edge of woodsy Glen Echo Park. One flight up are more dining rooms and indoor dining porches. In the summer a small deck and patio will be added.
To get the look and feel of an inn that could actually be in Ireland, Hughes gathered a crew of artisans from here and abroad. Dark wooden moldings and chair rails, frosted windows, and muted colors–oxblood, rose, moss, and ochre–all conspire to give diners the impression that they might be in Dingle or Dublin. You won't find even a hint of Irish-American kitsch. No shamrocks.
The pub and restaurant have separate menus. In the pub, Irish classics get tweaked by executive chef Steve Jaeger. Shepherd's pie, that workhorse of a dish, goes elegant in a copper pot, with ground beef and just a bit of lamb in well-seasoned gravy and a blob of potato purée, and not a tinned pea to be found. Stews, like traditional lamb and Guinness-braised beef, are better than the usual murky affairs. Corned beef and cabbage is done here with lean cuts of meat, buttery but not overcooked cabbage, and fingerling potatoes. An Irish cheddar cheese plate is worth it just for the Branston pickles and brown oatmeal bread. And bangers and mash–sausage over mashed potatoes–is as much fun as it sounds. Smoked salmon is one of the culinary highs of Ireland, and the house-smoked whiskey-wood version served here is first-rate. On one occasion fish and chips were a tad soggy, as if they'd been rushed from the fryer or thrown in before the oil was too hot, but I chalk that up to opening jitters.
Both pub and restaurant menus change a bit according to the daily market. And such pub stars as shepherd's pie and smoked salmon show up on the restaurant roster as appetizers. Other pleasures in the dining rooms range from oysters on the half-shell and steamed clams with white wine to a pair of salads–roasted beet with candied walnuts and bleu cheese, and perfectly steamed haricots vert and pearl onions dressed with white-truffle vinaigrette.
The best main courses are meat: fork-tender braised lamb shank with earthy roasted root vegetables, and stellar pan-seared rib eye with Roquefort Butter and caramelized onions and mushrooms. Likewise, fish dishes with meaty notes have the most pizzazz: salt-crusted salmon with nifty cabbage rolls stuffed with corned beef, apple, and potato, and rockfish with ragout of duck confit and a robust wine sauce. Free-range chicken is okay–it could use a different partner. White beans bring nothing to the party. And mahi-mahi seems lost in its sauce of tomato jam, though its accompanying parsnips and cipollinis are beautifully turned out.
The wine list has about 40 choices, and the by-the-glass choices are not as interesting as they might be. Reds have been served too warm and whites a mite too chilled. Guinness and Harp on tap make up for some of these shortfalls–Smithwicks, a popular Irish-brewed beer not readily available in the US, is on its way. The Irish whiskey roster has a well-rounded lineup of Bushmill, Jameson, and Powers, with Killbeggan thrown in as the wild card.
Though not especially Irish, the chocolate dome, a mound of Nutella mousse with crunchy almond praline, is the attention-getting dessert. Crème brûlée has its fans, too. Most innovative, though, is snowy white-chocolate mousse layered with coconut dacquoise accompanied by a scoop of heavenly house-made honey-chamomile-lavender ice cream, the essence of an Irish meadow on a plate.
ATMOSPHERE: The pub room will make you feel as if you're in Ireland; dining rooms are elegant and reminiscent of an Irish country restaurant. Happily, there isn't a shamrock to be seen.
SERVICE: Gracious and usually knowledgeable.
PRICE: Pub main courses $8 to $13; restaurant main courses $18 to $25. Dinner for two at pub around $50; dinner for two in restaurant, around $85.
VALUE: Interesting, well-executed food for the price in the pub; restaurant more in line with DC prices.
BOTTOM LINE: A great addition to the Maryland dining scene and an appealing close-in "country" destination for those a bit farther afield.