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It's understandable, then, that when people think of the world's great culinary hot spots, Ireland isn't the first place that comes to mind. Like England (which might be even lower down the foodie food chain than Ireland), the Emerald Isle is a windswept and rocky place. It takes hearty souls and hearty stock to live there, and the edible raw material that went into creating the foodways of a country like France or Italy just aren't on the menu.
That said, there is Irish cuisine, and the few authentic samples of it we've found over the years have been surprisingly good. Case in point: Little Rock's new Irish tavern and restaurant, Hibernia. Located in a strip mall location but run by real Irishmen and featuring a menu full of Irish favorites, it's definitely a stop any foodie should make. It could very easily become a favorite.
Though the menu at Hibernia features more than enough American dishes like burgers, sandwiches, steaks and po'boys (as well as bar fare like hot wings, mozzarella sticks, cheese dip and spinach dip), we came for what we'd heard was the authentic and interesting slate of Irish favorites. We weren't disappointed.
Irish food is working-man's grub, stick-to-your-innards hearty. There is a sturdy loveliness to it that you're never going to get from food spawned in a country where it's easier to get by, and the Irish items at Hibernia reflect that. As an appetizer, we debated between the prawn cocktail ($6.49) or the thoroughly Irish curry chips ($3.89), but ended up going with the garlic mushrooms ($6.49).
While we didn't know what to expect, it turned out to be a deceptively simple but truly delicious little dish: diced wild 'shrooms, sauteed in a garlic-and-herb-infused stout reduction. Served with toasted ovals of cheese-sprinkled black bread, it was a really fine way to start the meal. We found ourselves wishing there'd been a few more pieces of that firm and lovely bread.
From the list of Irish entrees (look the menu over closely, as some of the traditional stuff is hiding among the more pedestrian fare), Companion went the easy route with the fish and chips ($8.29). The reviewer, meanwhile, went a little more adventurous and tried the colcannon (a steal at $6.49). We didn't go completely out on a limb, however, and try the Irish breakfast ($9.95) a feast of Irish sausages, bacon, fried eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and (the deal-breaker) black and white pudding. Think Jell-O meets blood and guts.
Companion's fish and chips turned out to be good: thick slabs of codfish, encased in a light and crispy batter and accompanied by well-seasoned fries and a side of homemade tartar sauce. It was the colcannon, however, that was a real eye opener. What arrived at the table wasn't much to look at — thick chunks of smoked ham, baked potatoes, carrots, fried cabbage and buttery mashed potatoes, all layered into a bowl. The result, however, was much more than the sum of its parts. While cabbage isn't everybody's bag, this was part of a sweet little tune, all the flavors married together almost perfectly. If we have learned nothing else from professional chef, chain smoker and globe-hopping curmudgeon Anthony Bourdain, it's that poor folks' food is usually best food — the result of people who can't afford better making delicious do with what they have. While it felt like we'd eaten the Blarney Stone by the time we threw in the napkin on the colcannon, the dish was the proof in the (thankfully blood-free) pudding.
While Hibernia might be one of the best places in Little Rock to stop in for a pint of Guinness (they've got it on tap ... duh), its big menu offers a little something for everybody — and a whole lot for foodies stalking Irish cuisine in the wild. Trying to eat two pounds of ham, cabbage and mashed potatoes before returning to work isn't the smartest thing this reviewer has ever done, but it was one of the tastiest.
Hibernia Irish Tavern
9700 Rodney Parham
One of the things we missed on our first go-round (but which will definitely be hitting in the future) is the Hibernia grilled cheese ($7.89), which the menu describes as artisan bread stuffed with Irish cheddar or pepper jack cheese, bacon, sliced tomato and roasted onion, all of which is then buttered, grilled and topped with herbed mayo. Definitely the road to a slightly earlier grave, but it sounds so good that we're willing to make that trade-off.
11 a.m. - 2 a.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
Full bar, all CC accepted and family friendly, with a solid kids' menu.