I got to know chef Matt Murphy when my friend, coincidentally also named Matt, lived in one half of the chef’s home post-Katrina. He’s a big, ebullient man whose enthusiasm for cooking is apparent to anyone who meets him. (By "he" I mean Murphy, not the other Matt, who bears a marked resemblance to Lex Luthor.) Not long before he left the Ritz-Carlton’s M Bistro, which was named for him in March of 2010, Murphy took me on a tour of the kitchen, talking excitedly about his developing relationships with local farmers. He was working on a “greening” of the Ritz’s kitchens, recycling everything from plastic strawberry containers to the vegetable peelings and scraps the kitchen produced.
I didn’t hear from Murphy for a few weeks after he left the Ritz. When I did, he was spending time with his family and consulting in a few local kitchens. He was making a good living and working fewer hours than he had at M Bistro, but it was pretty clear he was anxious to return to the kitchen full-time. He’s done that by opening The Irish House at 1432 St. Charles Ave., in the space that was formerly the Mexican restaurant Taqueros/Coyoacan.
In the last few years, a lot of hybrid bar-restaurants have opened in New Orleans. Places like Sylvain, Oak, The Delachaise and The Three Muses focus on wine, beer and cocktails while serving limited menus of upscale food. This is not a new phenomenon in the UK, where “gastropubs” have become popular over the last 20 years.
That’s part of what Murphy told me he was aiming for with the The Irish House, but that’s not all there is to it. Murphy said that Irish pubs originated as shops during the day and bars at night, and Murphy has plans to stock Irish bacon and sausages, teas, rugby jerseys and house-made jams, jellies and soda bread mix in a retail space on the first floor. More than once Murphy said that he intended to do things the way they’re done in his native country. There will be a Jameson whiskey tasting that’s just like the one at the distillery in Dublin. The Irish coffee served at the bar is made with brown sugar instead of simple syrup, the same as the drink you’d get if you stepped off a plane in Shannon. He’s instructed his bartenders on the proper way to pour a pint of Guinness, and the importance of letting it rest at the tap before serving it to the customer.
Murphy feels there is a strong connection between New Orleans and Ireland, and he’s doing his part to foster it. He plans on having Irish musicians perform from time to time, and he said that the large bar area upstairs will be perfect to host one of the five or six Irish folk dance (Ceili) groups in town. The upstairs has one of two large-screen projection televisions in the establishment (the other being downstairs in front of the faux-fireplace), where Murphy will screen Irish movies on Tuesday nights, and sporting events at other times.
The bar upstairs will have a cozier feel than the main dining room downstairs. “Irish people like to scream, shout, and trip about,” Murphy said, and while there will be food available upstairs, it won’t be the focus. Murphy’s plan is to allow customers to “get a little wilder” upstairs than in the more family-friendly downstairs.
It occurred to me when dining at the Irish House for the first time that there were some similarities between what Murphy is doing and what chef Guillermo Peters attempted with Taqueros/Coyoacan. In the United States, both Irish and Mexican cuisines are most often associated with casual, rustic fare. Peters’ attempt to expand on what New Orleans diners expected from a Mexican restaurant ultimately failed, and Murphy could face some of the same problems. But Murphy’s large and diverse menu is more likely to succeed, at least in part because he is serving both comfort food and more ambitious takes on Irish cuisine.
The breakfast menu is available all day, and the full Irish breakfast is likely to be a consistent hit. Two sunny-side-up eggs, Irish sausage, rashers of bacon, black and white puddings, baked beans, roasted mushrooms, a grilled tomato and potato hash make a substantial meal at any time. Irish steel-cut oatmeal is of course an option, and the grain most associated with Ireland shows up again in the Banana and pecan oatmeal pancakes with an Irish whiskey-caramel sauce.
Perhaps the item most emblematic of Murphy’s cooking appears as an appetizer on the lunch menu. Crispy boudin with colcannon and smoked tomato sauce combines iconic comfort foods of Louisiana and Ireland: A link of fried boudin is placed atop mashed potatoes and cabbage, with a slightly spicy tomato sauce that perfectly marries the two components. The presentation elevates the dish above the sum of its humble ingredients.
Weekly lunch specials include bangers and mash on Wednesday and fish and chips on Friday. The chips are particularly good; hand-cut and crispy, they can be ordered as a side with curry sauce, melted cheddar, onion gravy, or garlic mayonnaise. The beef stew, made with Guinness, was delicious; I didn’t even care that it was damn near 100 degrees outside when I ate it a few weeks ago.
The bar menu starts up at 3 p.m. and is mainly comprised of the casual parts of the lunch and dinner menus. You can order the fish and chips with house-made tartar sauce, a burger with cheddar, bacon and coleslaw, or bacon and cheese croquettes with onion marmalade and chive sour cream. A half-dozen oysters and a pint of Guinness is another option.
Dinner is more expansive. Appetizers incude slow-cooked lamb belly over a green onion-polenta cake with mint sauce, and seared scallops with grits cooked with chorizo and a lemon beurre blanc. Beer-battered venison sausage above a wild mushroom cake shows up on the entree portion of the menu, as do pork cheeks braised with hard cider with apple champ and a honey-clove jus. Not everything has an Irish twist; shrimp and artichoke risotto with wild mushrooms, Parmesan-fennel cream and a poached farm egg speaks of Italy, and the fig-and-brie-stuffed duck breast over celery root puree with caramelized zucchini and a cherry-brandy sauce is delicious even if its origin is not readily apparent.
Murphy told me that he’s been busy since the restaurant’s soft opening a few weeks ago. The grand opening is slated for September 17th, and as I write there is still some work to be done to get the retail space and upstairs bar finished. Given the progress Murphy and his crew have made in the last few months, I don’t doubt they’ll have the place humming by the end of next week. The Irish House is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, from 7 a.m. until midnight. Call 504-595-6755 for more information.