In my ongoing attempt to resurrect the food of my ancestors in the Pale of Settlement, I’m naturally sympathetic to any effort that gets people to eat a latke. But then there are unforgivable trespasses. Like my dinner last night. Read on.
In the wake of the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, acrimony and recrimination swirled throughout President Kennedy’s inner circle. The press assigned blame by agency, presuming that the inexperienced president couldn’t have sufficiently taken the reins of his national-security bureaucracy. (Perhaps the Washington press corps was protecting Kennedy.) Prominent legislators wanted to know how a counterrevolution sponsored by the U.S. could possibly have failed. But Kennedy put an end to that unfortunate postscript to his first presidential failure. “I’m the responsible officer of this government,” he told the White House press corps.
As the responsible officer of the Internet Food Association, I must take responsibility for the decision last night to venture to the Star & Shamrock, a newish H Street establishment that garnishes an Irish pub with diaspora-Jewish deli favorites. For those of us who grew up in a city north of D.C. that’s packed with Jews and abundant pastrami, celery sodas, crispy latkes and irresistible half-sour pickles, it was filled with promise: we get our culture’s comfort food back, enjoyed over a beer or a whiskey; and our friends who aren’t as familiar with the flavors of Hester Street’s interpretation of the Pale of Settlement get to learn what they’re missing. They even experiment, offering intriguingly untraditional appetizers like fried matzoh balls, something new in the world of pub grub. So I mooted the prospect with my friends. Dinner plans were made. Opportunity fused with new possibilities to shape the contours of the world we wish to inhabit. Irish pub, Jewish heart. What could go wrong?
Absolutely everything. This is a subject that I presume IFA officers Mandy Simon, Ben Miller and Matthew Yglesias will wish to address as well. After the jump, I’ll offer an overview of the Star & Shamrock’s most egregious failures.
Identity crisis. We all understand that multicultural relationships are fraught with complications, even among well-meaning friends like the Irish and the Jews, who have proven able to live together in major metropolitan areas for over a century. But the Star & Shamrock simply doesn’t know what it is. Its dining room is dominated by the extensive horseshoe-shaped bar, which takes up most of the floor space and pushes the two-top and four-top tables literally to the margins of the room. The most immediate effect is to crowd the space with bar-goers, constraining the ability of diners to relax and for servers to move around, leading to a manic eating experience. A more ephemeral but inescapable effect is to emphasize the pub and de-emphasize the food, even though the distinguishing features of the place — both in terms of its iconography and its publicity strategy — place the emphasis on the menu. (There may be regulatory reasons for this that Yglesias can explain.) Is it a pub that serves food or a restaurant with a well-stocked bar?
Inextricably related, the food is flavorless and presented with neither care nor integrity. It would be too harsh to say everything Star & Shamrock serves is terrible. It’s not. Just most things. We started with an order of fried matzoh balls for the table. We received them, 90 minutes later, almost at the same time as our entrees. Served in baskets lined with wax paper, the soggy, sad balls tasted of nothing but oil — probably fried at too low a temperature — and pepper. So much pepper, without any hint of salt, and as chewy as bubblegum. You don’t taste the fried matzoh balls as much as you feel them in your nostril hairs. They’re served with an undistinguished thin brown sauce that adds no flavor.
The entrees were no better. A word about their presentation: everything is served in those plastic baskets, with the same wax paper. We were told we could accompany our sandwiches with cole slaw or potato salad or macaroni salad. So far so good. But I have to say I presumed, during the interminable wait for our meal, that we would perhaps get the whole thing on, you know, plates. Instead, the sad sides come scooped in a small plastic takeout tub and carelessly dumped into the basket on one side of your sandwich. The cole slaw, which received the recommendation of the staff, has dill in it — a complete dealbreaker for all who care about cole slaw. Adam Ficke received the wrong side. Mandy didn’t even get her potato salad. A waitress told her all she could do was request the kitchen prepare a new batch, which is hard to square with the obvious pre-preparation of the sides.
I had what they called a Latke Madness, though I didn’t understand the dish. I thought it would be a pastrami and sauerkraut sandwich with swiss, schmeared with Thousand Island, and served with latkes and pickles. Instead, in a Jewish version of a KFC Double Down, the latkes played the role of the bread in the sandwich. As poorly conceived as the sandwich was, the execution was worse. The pastrami was clearly not smoked: pink and shimmering and rubbery, it was more like a flavor-deprived corned beef, chewy and disappointingly uniform in texture. The swiss cheese and sauerkraut were unceremonious and lazy mortar, unpleasantly oily thanks to the sopping latkes. (I didn’t get any dressing — and also: Thousand Island, and not Russian dressing?) And the latkes — oy. The top latke was the only one with any sort of crisp texture. All of them tasted far more of oil than potato and onion. The sandwich was so soggy it overwhelmed the wax paper. Before I noticed it, I had eaten a substantial amount of my basket liner.
Any restaurant can have an off night. New restaurants can be easily overwhelmed. But these mistakes are fundamental to the restaurant and it’s hard to see Star & Shamrock overcoming them. I’ll leave it to others to address the other questionable decisions, such as the troubadour who butchers “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” with a deafening croon. Instead, I can truthfully say that tomorrow morning I leave for a reporting trip to Guantanamo Bay, another Cuban-based mistake, where I confidently expect to have a more satisfying dining experience.
Crossposted to the Internet Food Association.