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November 27, 2012

Alice Eats: McGillicuddy's Irish Ale House

IMG_495728 Walnut Street, Williston, 857-5909

It happens sometimes in my line of work: I go to a place with every expectation that I'm going to hate it. The greatest reward is when I'm wrong.

Such was the case with McGillicuddy's Irish Ale House. A pair of damning 7 Nights comments warned me of cold, out-of-the-freezer food. But this was far from what I found last night.

And, honestly, the place could be forgiven for less-than-stellar fare. In some ways, it's trying to be something closer to a miniature, slightly higher-end Buffalo Wild Wings than a fine-dining establishment.

There are flat-screen TVs at nearly every table, and even more mounted above, showing whatever game is playing on the night's sports packages. If nothing else, the spotless space seems like a nice departure for locals from the area's chains — and a place to get one of the 28 beers on tap, including everything from Newport-based Kingdom Brewing’s Skinny Bitch to New Hampshire’s little-seen Woodstock Inn Brewery Red Rack Ale to Pabst Blue Ribbon and Bud Light.

IMG_4958But I was there for the food. I was tempted by wings in flavors such as Thai BBQ, Maple Dijon and Spicy Orange, but I decided one of the two stews would best represent the hearty, Irish-inflected fare.

Far from the out-of-a-can chunky soup I had been expecting, Mother O'Malley's Chicken Pot Pie tasted like it had just come out of the Irish mom's crock pot.

Sturdy but tender chicken shared space with peas and carrots in a creamy sauce. A triangle of puff pastry was just enough to complete the pie. It wasn't gourmet, but the comforting stew was impossible not to finish.

IMG_4960With the exception of a pork-patty-based take on the Cubano, McGillicuddy's burgers all cost $9.99 or less. For  $2 extra, I chose to upgrade from conventional ground beef to grassfed meat from Vermont Highland Cattle Company in Orleans.

When it comes to lean grassfed burgers, I often fear dryness. But my McGillicuddy's Burger, cooked to a juicy medium, ably avoided this. The secret is marination. If you loved the Shed Burger, which was marinated in Shed Mountain Ale, the Guinness-marinated patty at McGillicuddy's will be right up your alley. The flavor is similar, though richer and more intense. Whereas the Shed burger relied only on the beer to flavor it, the one at McGillicuddy's also includes herbs and spices, including a pleasing smack of sage.

All burgers come with one side: either fries, Ale House slaw, a side salad or chips. I chose the latter and was extremely pleased with the hot-out-of-the-fryer crisps. I would return to McGillicuddy's just for some more of those warm, crunchy and perfectly salted chips.

IMG_4961But I tried a side that impressed me even more as part of the Bangers & Sweet Mash. The famous French chef Joël Robuchon's notorious mashed potatoes have a 2:1 ratio of potato to butter. The sweet potato mash at McGillicuddy's tasted like its ratio must be about the same. I'm not usually a fan of sweet potatoes, but these were so rich and creamy, I couldn't stop eating them.

I enjoyed the peppery, nutmeg-scented British bangers, too, but the sweet potatoes were the inarguable star of the dish. The Guinness gravy, filled with caramelized onions, was also something special. A dark, boozy slathering of the deep brown sauce mitigated some of the potato's sweetness, but also intensified the flavors of the fatty sausage.

So, I learned my lesson: Don't be swayed by early reviews. The 7 Nights critiques that made me nervous were posted within two weeks of the restaurant's opening. A month later, it seems many of those problems are a thing of the past. And I'm looking forward to returning to a fine new local pub.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].

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