First Look: Mac McGee's

Irish pub offers inventive, well-executed versions of standard Celtic fare

"Are you having dinner?" our server asked. It was a reasonable question. Mac McGee's (111 Sycamore St., Decatur, 404-377-8050) is an Irish pub with a great whiskey collection, after all. But her voice was tentative enough that I replied, "Yes, is there a problem?"

"I just need to let you know that we're out of a lot of stuff," she said.

"Like what?" I asked. We'd already spent a few minutes scanning the menu.

She then rattled off so many of the menu's dishes that I interrupted, "In other words, most of the entrées and several of the starters."

"Yes," she said. "St. Patty's Day cleaned us out."

Maybe. St. Patrick's Day was four days earlier. A better explanation is the quality of the food at the pub, which opened in January. The chef is Ryan Stewart, who turned the Glenwood in East Atlanta Village into the city's best gastro pub about three years ago.

(I should note that Stewart is the husband of my editor, Besha Rodell. It's an awkward situation but, if I didn't report about the restaurant, you might miss sampling his cuisine and that would be a shame. I did wait until Christiane Lauterbach reviewed the pub in Knife & Fork, so I can't be accused of being the only critic who likes the place.)

In fact, in all honesty, Christiane liked it better than I did. I much preferred Stewart's more adventurous menu at the Glenwood. I'm not wild about Irish cooking and, while I've never been to Ireland, I've eaten lots of (bad) Irish food that probably spoiled my taste for the real thing.

The reason is that I was born June 16, which is Bloomsday in Dublin, when the city commemorates the life of writer James Joyce. During my 20s, when I drank enough to annoy the police quite a few times, friends thought it was cool to take me on Bloomsday pub crawls for my birthday. So my impression of Irish food was formed in the pit of my decadence, in pubs that almost certainly thawed frozen bangers and pasties. I long ago quit drinking, so until the advent of gastro pubs in our city, I regularly avoided anything claiming to be Irish.

Nonetheless, I did like most of what I ate at Mac McGee's. A few dishes, in fact, were revelations and have established cravings in my mind. First is the smoked fish plate – and Stewart does the smoking – that contained heaps of salmon, cod, (pickled) herring and scallops. The latter were new to me in smoked form and quite delicious – a bit like oversized smoked oysters but with better texture.

I also liked Stewart's take on "bubble and squeak," an Irish dish that typically mixes leftover roasted meat with potatoes and cabbage. He doesn't mix the ingredients, instead laying a big piece of pork belly over a plate filled with the cabbage, potatoes and – surprise! – pickled baby white beets. My immediate thought was, "Why hasn't anyone else done this?" The cabbage and potatoes are absolutely perfect for sopping the pork belly's fat while providing a crisp and smooth contrast. The beets added a sweet acidic note. Think "decadent corned beef and cabbage."

I didn't care as much for the third starter I sampled, a bowl of seafood chowder. It's a heady purée with occasional bites of oysters, clams, crab and smoked fish. The first few tastes were so salty my mouth burned. Yes, I know. The sea is salty. Salt is tasty. Its dangers are overstated. But a little goes a long way for me. The effect was tempered by two crumbly slices of Irish soda bread with butter.

I've sampled three entrées: a traditional lamb stew, bangers and mash, and the "full Irish breakfast." My favorite was the least complicated – the bangers with silky mashed potatoes studded with fresh peas and bits of cooked onion. Stewart makes the bangers on the premises. I promise that if you have any nostalgic attachment to homemade sausage, as I do, you'll fall into reverie immediately.

I can't resist lamb, which is a good thing because the lamb stew was one of only a couple of entrées available during my first visit. The cubed lamb was nicely cooked – not dry – and the dish held the best cooked carrot I think I have ever tasted. Stewart is all about good sourcing and it surely says something when a carrot can blow your socks off. The stew's gravy did need some work, being a bit thin and not very well seasoned.

Wayne's entrée during our first visit provided a good sampling of Stewart's handling of meats. The breakfast, besides two fried eggs, included black and white pudding. These are two sausage-shaped meat dishes with similar construction, although the black one includes pork blood. Don't be squeamish. It's a small portion and it's delicious. The breakfast also included rashers (Irish bacon), a banger and a roasted tomato.

I've tried one dessert, sticky toffee pudding with whiskey cream and a brown sugar tuile. It's like a refined bread pudding – I want more – but was served with its cream topping melting. I mean melting to nothing after a few spoonfuls. I don't think the taste was seriously affected, but it wasn't pretty.

What else? I overheard someone at a nearby table refer to her new boyfriend as an "older man." When her tablemates asked, "How old?" She said, "Early 30s." I would've gotten up to shake my finger at her but my back hurt too much. That's my way of suggesting you avoid eating at the high tables with backless stools. They really aren't comfortable. I was more comfortable at my second meal at the bar.

And that brings up my final point. I used to refer to Wayne as the nicest person alive. He lost that title after a few years with me (no connection, I'm sure). But I'm now awarding it to Pete the bartender at Mac McGee's. I'm not kidding. I've seldom encountered such a conscientious, friendly service person.

The place is great. Now, if someone would just proofread the menu.

Editor's note: Food & Drink Editor Besha Rodell, whose husband is chef at Mac McGee's, had no part in editing this column.

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