We greeted Kinnee O'Reilly's Irish-themed pub in El Dorado Hills with enthusiasm when it opened in September 2011, featuring a menu of well-handled pub-grub classics and, of course, Guinness beer on tap. But the restaurant biz is brutal and diners' tastes are fickle, and Kinnee closed after only eight months.
Surviving, however, is the building's striking exterior – scarlet, black and gold woods, tall doors, Gaelic words etched into the glass windows. Inside was a beautifully decorated space with hardwood floors, a handcrafted wood bar, artwork and framed vintage advertising, wall sconces, tall bookcases crowded with antique Irish bric-a-brac, and dark-wood tables and chairs made in Ireland.
Furnishings-wise, little has changed since veteran restaurateur Richard Righton bought the place, renamed it 36 Handles and reopened it Dec. 1. Well, he did bring in a new menu, and electronic darts and shuffleboard games. Oh, and the pub now has nine prominently displayed TV screens for sports-viewing customers. It derives its name from the 32 beers and four wines on tap, with more beers in the bottle and 15 more wines by the glass.
The El Dorado Hills- Folsom area is known for its residents' enthusiasm for new restaurants. The joke there is that if you open an envelope – much less a restaurant – crowds will form.
"Business is superb, to be honest," said Righton, who managed pubs in England for 10 years. "The numbers have been fantastic and the bar has been crazy busy. We'll be adding another half-dozen menu items – salads, steak and ale pie, chicken piccata."
Righton also has the fine-dining Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom and the casual Relish Burger Bar, a short walk from 36 Handles.
The menu at 36 Handles offers a tasty lineup – "bar bites" (deviled eggs, kettle-cooked chips with chive aioli; $4 to $5), appetizers (Prince Edward Island mussels and fries, bourbon- barbecue hot wings with herb lemon aioli; $4 to $13); and entrees that include the usual pub-grub fare such as shepherd's pie, corned beef, and bangers 'n' mash ($9 to $15). Also: bacon-wrapped meatloaf.
The centerpiece is a unique take on fish 'n' chips. Choose from haddock, cod and, surprisingly, salmon, all served either battered and deep-fried or buttermilk-dipped, rolled in panko, pan-fried and splashed with stone-ground mustard beurre blanc (butter-wine sauce). The accompanying fries are crispy-creamy.
We ordered panko-coated haddock on two occasions. The first time, the two hefty and buttery fillets were crisp and succulent. The second time, the fish lacked enough panko for crunch, and was soggy from oversaucing.
The traditional version of deep-fried haddock was a tad dry and served with gloppy tartar sauce that needs reinvention.
We've also tried eat-it-while-it's-hot fried calamari, crisp-tender but salty tentacles and rings in a light coating, with chili sauce and puckery herb-lemon aioli; and lean, tender corned beef.
One of the best dishes is jalapeño-bacon mac 'n' cheese, a ramekin of tender macaroni gooey with melted cheese and semi-crunchy with bits of crisp bacon and garlic, topped with crispy Parmesan breadcrumbs. Pieces of green jalapeño delivered startling bursts of heat. "This is definitely an adult mac 'n' cheese," a lunch pal said.
One surprise on a pub-themed menu was scampi-style shrimp and angel hair pasta with sun-dried tomato, basil and bits of bacon in a lush sauce of champagne vinegar, lemon juice, shallots and too much butter. The shrimp were crisp and fresh, but the last third of the pasta swam in an oily pool too deep and too rich to enjoy.
"I've never had bacon in scampi, but it makes it really tasty," another lunch pal said.
Righton and executive chef Heather Zamarripa agree that the menu is still in development.
"We're going for a spin on traditional pub fare," said Zamarripa, a graduate of the San Diego Culinary Institute. "We (offer) some of the (Irish pub) classics, but we want to update them California-style. We want more salads, too."
And 36 Handles is certainly worth a stop, which should at least be occasion for a pint of smooth, dark Guinness beer.
"Pouring it properly from the tap is an art and a process," Righton noted.
True, and the 36 Handles bartenders have the right technique.
A word from Carmel
Next time you're strolling along Ocean Avenue in Carmel, pop into Kurtz Culinary Creations, near the corner of Ocean and San Carlos, (831) 625-5267.
You'll find hundreds of specialty foods, many available for tasting – jams and jellies, spreads and dipping sauces, marinades and dressings, curds and fruit butters.
"We have more items than I've ever counted," said owner Anne Just. "More than half are under the Kurtz brand from our family farm in Canada. The others are from premium companies from around the world. Surprisingly, we've introduced a lot of Californians to their own products."
The best-selling item on both sides of the border is the house-brand Asiago "bread topper," a brightly flavored mix of Asiago cheese, herbs and spices in grapeseed oil ($16.95), made in Ontario.
"It was originally intended to be used in lieu of butter or as a dipping oil, but our customers have told us what it's really for," Just said. "Add it to cooked pasta, spread it over salmon fillets before cooking, stuff mushroom caps with it, and use it as a topping on baked potatoes and pizza."
To see the company's lineup of merchandise and to order, go to www.kurtzorchards.com.
Where: In the Montano Center, 1010 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills
Hours: Food is served 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; bar hours (with small bites) are from 11 a.m. until closing.
Food: ★ ★ ★
Ambience: ★ ★ ★ ★
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 941-3606, www.36handles.com