Looking for a place to whoop it up St. Paddy's Day? Any restaurant or bar with even the shakiest connection to the Auld Sod will be mobbed on March 17, so you might as well opt for the best, bite the bullet and join the throngs at Claddagh Irish Pub in Lyndhurst's Legacy Village shopping center.
Manager Bob Cannan claims his establishment served a mind-boggling 10,000 people last St. Patrick's Day. He's gearing up to handle at least that many this year. If you can get in and fight your way to a table, you'll be treated to Claddagh's outstanding pub fare and be able to wet your whistle with any of the multitudinous brands of draft beer that Claddagh stocks (the restaurant will drain 100 kegs that day, Cannan says) or choose from a staggering assortment of domestic and imported bottled beers or take a wee drop from the state's biggest selection of Irish whiskey.
To help sustain your mood, there'll be continuous live music from no less than five Irish groups as well as strolling bagpipers. Tents and heaters will bet set up on the restaurant's patios to ward off the March chill.
Sophisticated cuisine is hardly one of Ireland's most famous achievements: Irish food tends to be simple and hearty rather than subtle and nuanced. Still, as a cookbook popular a few years ago reminded us, if you can cook like a peasant, you'll eat like a king. At Claddagh, you'll eat like a penny-wise king.
"Many of our entrees are priced under $10," Cannan points out. "Where else in town can you get a top-quality meal for less than $10, enjoy it in such elegant surroundings and wipe your lips on a genuine linen napkin?"
Surroundings are indeed elegant with extraordinarily comfortable seating amid gothic arches, plenty of polished wood, stained glass, gas lamps and a stunning back bar imported from Ireland. Claddagh's bar features refrigerated drink receptacles — sort of a grown-up version of The Cold Stone Creamery — guaranteed to keep your drink frosty even if you like to nurse your beverage for a bit. The wait staff is outstanding: pleasant, obliging, thoroughly familiar with the menu and able to explain every dish listed.
Claddagh's menu is a clever blend of such authentic Irish food as bangers (sausage), fish and chips, Irish stew and shepherd's pie, augmented by a generous serving of Gaelicized American standards like "Shamrock wings," "Celtic Caesar salad," "The Irish Monte Cristo" and the "Monaghan Melt." (Somebody's been kissing the Blarney stone!)
While some complain that this makes the Claddagh chain little more than T.G.I.Friday's with a brogue, the food is well worth a try. That goes for both the Irish and the Americanized selections. Even if you're not familiar with or particularly fond of Irish cuisine, you're likely to find something to satisfy. That may be especially comforting to readers of "Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's great memoir of growing up in Ireland. Unlike the McCourt family, Claddagh serves no boiled lamb's head.
From the starters, you won't go wrong with the Irish smoked salmon ($8.95). Slices of luscious salmon — pink, velvety and perfectly smoked — are served appropriately with brown bread, cream cheese and the usual garnishes of chopped onion, chopped hard-cooked egg and capers.
An unusual appetizer — one I believe would serve just as well at the end of the meal — is Claddagh's baked Brie ($7.95). A whole wheel of excellent Brie is baked until soft and creamy, then doused with a luscious warm sauce of mixed blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. A side of crunchy and satisfying Irish soda bread is provided just in case you're still feeling carb deprived.
Steamed mussels ($7.95) — fresh from Molly Malone's wheelbarrow, no doubt — and jumbo wings in green sauce ($8.95) round out the appetizer selections.
Fish and chips ($17.95) are Claddagh's best-selling entree — and no wonder. They're delicious, and there's enough in a typical serving to feed a small Irish fishing village. Jumbo cod fillets are coated with just enough beer batter made with Bass ale, then deep-fried to crunchy perfection. Those with smaller appetites, or just normal appetites, might want to order the half portion ($9.95).
Meat eaters should try Claddagh's shepherd's pie ($11.95). The filling of ground beef, carrots and peas is simmered in gravy and topped with a generous mound of creamy and delicious garlic-flavored mashed potatoes. Corned beef and cabbage ($12.95), another of the Irish-style offerings, is acceptable but unremarkable.
Lamb chops in a rosemary-infused demi-glaze ($22.95) and a 10-ounce filet mignon ($24.95) — tender and perfectly cooked as ordered — are on hand for red-meat fans.
Pub sandwiches are available all day, as are entree salads. Sandwich standouts include turkey ($7.95), a BLT on sourdough ($7.95) and a fillet of cod dipped in Bass ale batter, deep-fried and served on a baguette ($9.95). Claddagh also offers a Cobb salad — without avocado, alas, but still very good ($8.95).
Desserts at Claddagh are outstanding, though I suspect that if you pour on enough Bailey's Irish Cream or good Irish whiskey you could even make a Brillo pad taste good. Favorites are the Bailey's crepes ($5.50) and bread pudding swimming in sauce infused with smooth Irish whiskey ($4.95). For unconverted chocoholics, there's also a flourless chocolate cake ($5.95).
Claddagh Irish Pub, 25389 Cedar Road, Legacy Village, Lyndhurst, (216) 691-0534 (a second location is planned for Crocker Park in Westlake). Reservations are accepted only for parties of six or more. Hours: Mon-Sat: 10 a.m. - midnight, Sun 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Claddagh will open for breakfast at 9 a.m. on St. Patrick's Day. There is easy access to both the dining room and restrooms. All major credit cards are accepted.