Tir na nOg Bar & Grill
The Phoenix, 1600 Arch St.
Credit cards accepted
Reservations a good idea
Within the past few years, a number of old Center City office buildings or manufacturing centers have been completely gutted and turned into luxury apartments. Among these are the former Bell Atlantic Building at 19th and Arch, the Daroff Building at 23rd and Walnut and several buildings in Old City. Plans are under way to turn the After Six Building at 22nd and Market into apartments, with Trader Joe’s, the California-based gourmet grocery chain, slated to move into the ground floor.
The former Insurance Company of North America building, a dazzling brick structure at 16th and Arch, has been christened The Phoenix. It is a luxury apartment building. Small blue and white awnings dot the windows and the beautiful marble lobby is still in place. The Phoenix is also home to Tir na nOg, an Irish restaurant whose Celtic name means "Land of Eternal Youth." Its owners have enjoyed success with their Tir na nOg in New York City. They had no intention of opening another restaurant until they visited Philadelphia, liked what they saw and opened Tir na nOg about a month ago.
The rich wood bars were imported from Ireland. Many of the staff are from the Emerald Isle, and they take very good care of you. The restaurant has several dining rooms and two comfortable bars. The tables are crafted from highly polished wood and you even get a linen napkin at lunch. Edward and I enjoyed a delightful dinner and, a few days later, I arrived for lunch and found the place filled with happy customers.
The kitchen is under the careful direction of chef Scott Larson, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. A New York City native, Larson arrived in Philadelphia five years ago. The menu is carefully planned and each ingredient in a dish is there for a delicious reason.
A full glass of Italian Pinot Grigio was nicely priced at $7. We nibbled on fresh Irish soda bread with sweet butter and discussed the menu. "Try the shepherd’s pie," advised a smiling young server from County Tyrone. Before we tucked into a deliciously authentic shepherd’s pie, we delighted in foie gras and chicken liver pâté ($9.95) and an autumn salad made with Cashel blue cheese ($7.95).
Foie gras is a favorite and never disappoints. This version was a good-sized slice of pâté prepared with both goose and chicken livers. It was served cool, was nicely seasoned and came with homemade large triangles of toasted Irish soda bread and a side of very fresh, perfectly dressed baby greens.
Cashel blue cheese is handmade by Jane and Louis Grubb on their family farm at Beechmount, near Cashel, in the valley of the Suir River, County Tipperary. It is a most delicious raw cow’s milk blue cheese and is as fine as the finest Italian gorgonzola. The salad contained roasted cool pears, spiced walnuts, field greens and the famous Cashel blue tossed in a vinaigrette enhanced by the right touch of sherry.
Most shepherd’s pie served in American restaurants isn’t authentic or very good. It is usually made with soggy ground beef and — heaven forbid — tomato sauce under the mashed potatoes. Lamb is most often used when making this comfort dish in Ireland. Tir na nOg’s version ($12.95) was a large oval ramekin of tender braised lamb, sliced thin and beautifully seasoned. Natural pan juices formed a delicious gravy, but the lamb was not runny. The gravy was reduced so the lamb clung to it. Hot mashed potatoes, studded with garlic, were smoothed over the lamb before it went into the oven. If there is a finer Irish comfort food during autumn or winter, I don’t know it.
Herb-roasted free-range chicken ($17.95) was as comforting as the shepherd’s pie. It was served with seasoned corn bread stuffing made even tastier by the addition of grilled Irish sausage. I particularly liked the sauce, made with red wine, natural pan juices and a hint of fresh thyme. Tiny whole baby carrots, with their tops, came with dinner.
At lunch, I joined a group of patrons at the bar who were tucking into big burgers or fish and chips. It was a cold, damp day, so I began lunch with a bowl of potato leek soup ($4.95). This was the creamed purée version and was very tasty. Larson adds a bit of truffle essence to the soup, giving it a heady richness.
I didn’t notice the pub menu, which includes steak and kidney pie and sausage rolls with French fries, because I was too busy watching the news, reading a magazine or chatting with Rebecca, the delightful bartender who lives in South Philly. I had my stomach set on trying Larson’s burger because I watched four men enjoying burgers during our dinner. The cheeseburger ($8.95) consisted of 10 ounces of Black Angus sirloin, which was seared on the outside and medium inside. It was topped with rich Ballycashel Irish Cheddar cheese. I piled on the sliced tomato and sweet red onion.
"Want vinegar for the fries?" asked Rebecca. "Sure, when in Rome … " I thought. Vinegar is traditional with fish and chips and French fries in England, Ireland and Canada. It’s a malt vinegar and uncommonly good. The fries, by the way, were hot, crispy and slightly salty. Burgers at Tir na nOg are served on a sesame-seed brioche bun.
A nice hot cup of Irish breakfast tea was a prelude to dessert. I know the tea served at Tir na nOg comes from Ireland because the tea bag did not have a string with a tag attached to it.
Desserts ($5.50) such as poached pears with pear sorbet, chocolate mousse cake, homemade rice pudding and tiramisu, sounded tempting, but Rebecca advised a dessert special: pumpkin cheesecake. Individual cheesecakes are baked in ramekins. The pumpkin mixture contained an aromatic blend of autumn spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Whipped cream and a raspberry topped the sweet. Jackson Pollock squiggles of caramel and chocolate sauce were painted on the plate.
Fortunately for Edward and me, Tir na nOg is a 10-minute walk from our home in Logan Square. There are few good restaurants in the area. Tir na nOg has filled a delicious niche.
Three tips of the toque to Tir na nOg Bar & Grill.