Among the fares of the world, few get as hearty as Irish cuisine on a good day. Especially on a good cold day.
A yearning for pub grub led a gang of lunch pals and me to Kinnee O'Reilly's, an Irish-themed restaurant-bar that opened at the end of September.
Just looking at the building's exterior scarlet, black and gold woods, tall doors, Gaelic words etched into the glass windows made us feel brogues coming on and thirsts working up for Guinness beer on tap.
Inside, we walked on hardwood floors and admired the handcrafted wood bar, a gallery's worth of artwork and vintage advertising, tall bookcases stuffed with antique Irish bric-a-brac, and dark-wood tables and chairs made in Ireland. The illusion of being in a real Irish pub was startling.
In the bar, choose from more than 40 whiskeys and nearly as many international beers. The restaurant features the fresh, from-scratch dishes ($4 to $25) one would expect to find in an Irish pub fish 'n' chips, corned beef, shepherd's pie, mulligan stew, bangers 'n' mash, boxty (a crepelike dish made from potato-based batter), lamb, roasted chicken with whiskey gravy and the like.
One of our favorites was an appetizer crisp, house-made potato chips covered in Irish cheeses and sprinkled with chopped corned beef and a confetti of scallions. Addictive.
But what are rosemary-skewered pancetta-wrapped prawns doing among the ploughman's lunch and the sloppy lad?
"We're trying to have something for everyone," said Betsy Wohler on the phone. She and husband Dave own the place.
Who developed the recipes? "Some are from me, some from our consultants and cooks. (Many) are from Dave's family. On his mother's side, his grandmother's maiden name was Kinnee. On his father's side, it was O'Reilly."
At lunch, we crowded the table with dishes and liked everything we tasted. The banger (sausage) was very mild, the mash (mashed potatoes and caramelized onion with dark gravy) fluffy and light.
"I'll come back just for this clam chowder," said one lunch pal, dipping well-textured Irish soda bread into the bowl. The broth was not overly thick, and for once we found a chowder with (almost) enough tender clams.
A classic Reuben sandwich was a handful, well-constructed of corned beef, mild sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese on toasted marbled rye.
The Harp beer-based batter encasing chunks of moist, fresh cod could have been crisper, but the flavor of the spicy tartar sauce made up for that. The sauce is bonded with chopped capers, lemon juice, black pepper, relish and other ingredients. Nice attention to detail.
"These 'mushy peas' are so good, and I don't like peas," said one lunch pal. They were sweet, with a background flavor of a "secret herb."
About that boxty (accompanied by expertly handled sautéed veggies) In many regions of Ireland, the traditional potato pancake is a home-kitchen staple. At Kinnee O'Reilly's, the huge pancake comes stuffed with a choice of eight fillings. Ours was juicy, tender pulled pork not exactly Irish, but so what? "Think of it as an Irish burrito," our server suggested.
We found the flavors of Grandma Kinnee's mulligan stew intriguing, but texture-wise it resembled a Cuban picadillo more than the Irish stew we had envisioned. Ground beef joined barley, pearl onions, diced carrot and green peas, but the broth was at a minimum. By design, not neglect.
"It's a wash-day recipe from Dave's great-great- grandmother," Betsy Wohler said. "The women would put the ingredients in a pot and go outside into the cold to do the wash. When they came back inside, they'd have hot stew waiting for them."
A quote from avant-garde playwright-novelist Samuel Beckett is painted on a wall. He reminds us that the laughter of the world "is a constant quality." Which was verified at the bar, where pints of expertly pulled Guinness kept the laughs coming.
KINNEE O'REILLY'S IRISH PUB & RESTAURANT
WHERE: 1000 White Rock Road (off Latrobe Road), in the Montano Shopping Center in El Dorado Hills
HOURS: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Wednesdays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Tuesdays. Happy hours: 4-7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays. Look for live Irish folk music on Sundays.
FOOD: 3 1/2 stars
AMBIENCE: 4 stars
HOW MUCH: $-$$
INFORMATION: (916) 933-2720, www.kinneeoreillys.com.