Capital Pub

A pint and a portal: The Liffey is a calming Irish oasis in the middle of Hecticville
Bill Kelley
The Liffey
Holiday Inn St. Paul-Rivercentre
175 W. 7th St., St. Paul

This week's review is a journey of the imagination, my darlings, so settle back, pacify your unquiet minds, and gently close your eyes.

Well, I mean figuratively. Use some intuition here, darlings, or we're all going to end up plowing headlong into the sumac patch by the side of the road, aren't we? Because recent surveys reveal that you're likely reading this while driving, refinancing your house by phone and fax, dipping fondue, and furiously working Suzanne Sommers's Thigh-master. And if you close your eyes in all that, surely you will come to grief.

Obviously enough then, when everyone who reads the column ends up in the sumac patch, the only people available to come and tow us free will be the people who don't read this column, and they won't know where to eat, now, will they? Be sensible, darlings, above all. Or we'll all end up at faux Irish spots like Bennigan's, eating trademarked O'Yummy Desserts whilst plucking sumac boughs from our hair.

So we'll start from the top. Quiet your mind, and well, maybe squint your eyes a bit, and conjure up someone who irritates you, but whom you are still forced to be nice to, perhaps Suzanne Sommers, with her grinning lies, or I don't know whom. But in any event, now, now, imagine if that person came equipped with a lovely, flower-etched glass screen mounted on a pivot in front of her face, and whenever you needed to deal with Suzanne, you turned the screen to reveal her face, and whenever you didn't want to hear it anymore, you simply covered her up with a bit of art glass. Ingenious!

Of course, the Irish thought of this a hundred-odd years ago: "They were called 'snob screens', or 'vanity screens'," explains Kieran Folliard, longtime resident of Dublin, native of Ballyhaunis, a small town in western Ireland, owner of St. Paul's newest Irish pub, the Liffey, and founder of such classic Minneapolis pubs as the Local and Kieran's. "Typically, the snob screens were up on the bar itself, and what people would do is open them to get their drink, and then, when they got their drink, they'd close them. They were called snob screens for men, if you didn't want to be seen fraternizing with the barmen, and vanity screens for women, who wouldn't want the male bartenders looking at them." You'll find them at the Liffey on drink-stands scattered through the bar, not on the main, teak bar, and they're just odd and interesting unless you know the long history to which they tip their hats, so to speak.

"The idea behind the Liffey," explains Folliard, "is that if you close your eyes, and think of an Irish pub, when you open your eyes, there it is: all the twists and turns and detail of your mind." To that end, he had all the woodworking done in Ireland, and, when constructing the place, went to levels of painstaking detail that you can't even begin to imagine. The wallpaper, for instance, which looks like tooled leather that's been on the walls in Ireland for 100 years, this wallpaper required seven layers of various finishes to get it to look that way.

There are too many instances of real Irish detail to count, from the burnished teak everything, to the cast-iron Georgian fire-surround, to the little rooms called "snugs" partitioned off to the sides, to the perfect, perfect nitrogen-pumped Guinness, which comes from one of four separate kegs, and is as creamy and coffee-scented as the Guinness of your dreams. Which is to say, if you go into the Liffey, and pacify your unquiet mind, and close your eyes--for real this time--when you open them you won't even believe you live in a world where the driver of the next car over is fairly likely to be rewiring a chandelier while they listen to porn on the satellite radio. And eat peanut butter from a squeeze tube.

Where is this calming oasis? In the middle of Hecticville, kitty-corner from the Xcel Energy Center, on Seventh Street, inches from interstates 94 and 35 East, in the formerly artless hotel ground-floor space that housed Mississippi Mud. (Dear restaurateurs: With the recent demise of restaurants Mud Pie and Mississippi Mud, it seems ever clearer that today's diner frowns on the idea of eating mud. Instead, brainstorm from related concepts, such as swamp, dank, muck, and sick.) You might have noticed the new exterior of the Liffey lately--it looks like an 18th-century railroad car that the Holiday Inn fell on top of.

And now here's a bit of trivia for architecture buffs: The whole thing is actually a tribute to a no-longer-extant, famous bar in Dublin, the Bailey. A good bar is hard to kill: Wreck it in Ireland, and it will pop up on the shores of the Mississippi. More trivia: The Liffey is named for the river that runs through Dublin. So now Minnesota's river-cut capital has a bar named for Ireland's capital's river. Say that 12 times fast and somebody somewhere is sure to buy you a pint, especially from the hallowed hours of 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., when all pints are only $3.50. More than a happy hour, less than a happy fortnight.  

The final transformation of this little bit of St. Paul from artless to ageless will be complete next spring, when a planned two-story parking garage goes in behind the Holiday Inn, allowing the construction of a rooftop deck that will face Seventh Street. "It'll be 2,000 square feet with planters and its own little bar," explains Folliard. "You'll be able to look up at the Cathedral, or up at the capitol, depending on where you get your inspiration."

As is usual at Kieran Folliard properties, the menu at the Liffey is a ridiculously lengthy, 60-plus item mix of traditional Irish comfort foods (shepherd's pies, curry chips, corned beef), traditional American sports bar (wings, calamari, chicken Caesar salads), and traditional Minnesota Hey, We're Eating Out! (spinach and artichoke dip, mandarin chicken salad, walleye). I, for one, have given up on trying to critique the breadth and length of these Liffey/Local menus. If you like the food at Kieran's or the Local, you'll like the food at the Liffey.

If you've never been to either, I'll assume you were born after this date in 1982, and so settle in, youngsters, and I'll learn you a little something about your hometown. Whenever you see a lot of perfectly poured Guinness in a lot of tulip-shaped traditional glasses, stick to the homiest, simplest Irish dishes and you'll be okay all the night.

In that vein, one of the best things at the Liffey is that humblest of Dublin street foods, the curry chip ($4.99), a groaning platter of cute, tender little fries made from boiling potatoes arranged around a dipping bowl of creamy curry. Anyone who's been broke in the green isles west of the Continent should have a soft spot in their hearts for this dish. Pair it with a pint and you've got the quintessential tool for surviving, say, a bad economy, a bad breakup, and bad air quality for oh, a decade or two.

The appetizer potato pancakes ($8.99) are interesting. Order them and you get three fried mashed-potato pancakes about the size of a CD and an inch high, topped with a bunch of sour cream, crumbled good-quality smoked salmon, and applesauce. It's pretty good, but more importantly, if you can eat a couple pounds of fried mashed potatoes, and then move into an entrée, my advice is to quit your day job and go into the lucrative field of competitive eating, because you have gifts, darling, God-given gifts.

A God-given gift to the Father's Day brunch quandary is surely the Liffey's Sunday brunch. From 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. you can get a remarkably enormous breakfast of, say, two eggs, a thick frizzled slice of Irish bacon, bangers (which are little mild sausages), slices of both black and white pudding (which are slices of pan-fried sausage made with barley), a bowl of beans, toast, a pile of creamy hash browns, and grilled tomatoes ($9.99). Smaller breakfasts start at $4.49. Skip the floury biscuits and gravy.

If all that meat is not enough to impress Dad, Sunday brunches also host a sessiún, a Gaelic music session, where traditional musicians can show up and play. "We've had as many as 22 musicians at once, when we do it at Kieran's," says Folliard. The tradition works such that no one is amplified, no one is told what to do, and everyone sets up wherever they can and plays what they like. And if you want you can even dance a jig. Make your Father's Day reservations now, I say. And while I'm saying, I'll say that if I had one wish for the Liffey it would be that they culled some of the bar food from their menu (who goes to an Irish pub for a teriyaki chicken burger?) and put the Irish breakfast on all day.

Some of the other Liffey-given gifts worth checking out include fish and chips ($9.99) as crisp as the wind off Donegal, in vast portions; and a corned-beef and cabbage plate ($11.99) on which tender, house-made corned beef offers the rich scent of cloves and spice, and glows dark crimson. If I've had better corned beef in Minnesota, I don't remember it. The pork and sausage shepherd's pie ($9.99) goes into the hall of fame too. Here you get a whole casserole dish of pork stew in an herbal, tomato-touched gravy, which soaks up into the crown of butter-crumbed mashed potatoes that tops it, and is great, in the simplest, rainy winter way.  

And if the goodness of a simple rainy winter dish seems an odd thing to contemplate as we barrel into a Midwestern summer, consider Kieran Folliard's words: "The true essence of an Irish pub is, you can have a little sense of what's going on in the greater world, but have a little peace in it by going off to a little nook or cranny off to the side to have a chat with someone or read a newspaper. Whenever I go home to Dublin, the first thing I do is go to the Stag's Head, get my first pint in Dublin, order whatever the special of the day is, get the Irish Times and read it cover to cover. At that moment, I'm the happiest guy in Dublin."

And that, my darlings, is the magic of the Liffey, where you can enjoy all the slow-life glory of hand-carved wood and slow-settling beer, and the only people who come equipped with glass screens are the last people who should.

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The Liffey

175 W. 7th St.
St. Paul, MN 55102


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