One of my long-standing life questions is, What makes an Irish pub an Irish pub? Is it dark, moody shadows peopled by whispering conspirators nursing black pints amid the rhythmic phthwacking of darts hitting corkboard? Or is it any old joint that serves shepherd pie, taps Guinness and cranks out a Van Morrison number every half hour or so? Probably Irish pubness is like art: a whole lot easier to recognize than define.
12:30 p.m. We enter James Joyce after a 25-minute walk. The plan was to take the Charm City Circulator from Eutaw and Pratt to Pratt and Eastern. The point was to see if we could grab lunch a mile or so away from the office and avoid driving and parking, but construction along Pratt had traffic moving at Grateful Dead concert speed, so we hoofed it.
James Joyce's menu won't overwhelm you with choices, nor does it stray much from standard fare in the sandwich and Irish specialties columns. Its dining area, on the other hand, is a bit more dramatic: lots of sections, some small enough to give you a sense of intimacy that I associate with the Irish pub. According to its website, the space was "designed and built in Ireland and shipped over in the fall of 2002." OK, in a tenuously technical sense, that confers genuine Irish pubness on the place. The restaurant also offers a largish outdoor patio, where quite a few diners were celebrating cooler temperatures.
12:47 p.m. The mussels land. I can't state with authority that our server was right in saying they're the best in town, but neither will I argue with him. And for 10 bucks, you get a big bowl of them. At first, I followed the lead of my dining companion and excised the mussels from their shells with a cocktail fork. After three of four, I abandoned pretense and started sucking the little buggers out of their shells along with as much broth as the shells would hold. Diced veggies hid in the garlicky, buttery sauce. The wonderful sloppiness of it ruined my paper napkin. Just this starter is worth a stop at James Joyce, more so if you're at liberty to wash them down with a Blacksmith.
12:54 p.m. Our entrees arrive. I didn't order the Reuben, $9.95, for an authentic Irish dining experience. I ordered it for two reasons: 1. It's not that difficult to get right, but hardly any pub/tavern does. 2. So the sandwich has become one of my benchmarks of casual-fare kitchens — if it can get the Reuben right, I'll return and try something else. If it can't or won't, it stands a vastly reduced chance of making my must-revisit list. James Joyce met me about halfway.
The Reuben's best quality was the corned beef — actual carved brisket. Too many times, I've bitten into a Reuben and pulled away half the meat because the stuff's so tough and rubbery it would take teeth like pinking shears to make a clean cut. James Joyce wisely goes with brisket that's tender and rich. The marble rye, though, came off dry rather than grilled or toasted. The fries looked average, from the bag, recently thawed, but they were quite good, with an interior of baked potato consistency and taste.
My anonymous dining companion ordered the bangers and mash for $11.95. Over that, we swooned. The green beans were perfect — "the essence of green beans" is how my friend described them. Mashed potatoes, perfect, with a savory brown gravy that alone made me concede that I'd been out-ordered. And the bangers? They were nothing like the kielbasa-esque wieners some places fob off on Irish hopefuls. Their thick casings bulged with spice and a texture that reminded me of Thanksgiving stuffing rather than mere ground pork. They relegated me to shamefully out-ordered.
1:21 p.m. We finish and pay up. When we remarked on the wonders of the bangers and mash, our server told us that at any given time about 20 percent of James Joyce staff is straight from Ireland. He referred to them as "quality control."
Whether or not you're up on your Gaelic niceties, James Joyce is a solid choice for a good pub lunch. Fierce foodies are less likely to be bowled over by any category of food, service or setting than they are won over by understated charms in every category. One of those charms is that it's near a Circulator stop. If that's not an option, on a nice enough day, James Joyce is worth a hike.
Where: 616 S. President St.
Contact: 410-727-5107 or thejamesjoycepub.com
Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Lunch entrees: $9-$15
[Key: ✭✭✭✭ Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 51 minutes