Twenty years ago, St. Paul's Grand Avenue was home to two major Irish pubs, O'Connell's (now Tavern on Grand) and McCafferty's (now Wild Onion). Dixie's on Grand was the halfway point.
"A lot of times people couldn't make it from one to the other," says John Wolf, co-owner of Dixie's. "So they landed here."
But a year ago, the people of Dixie's looked around and realized there were no more Irish pubs on Grand Avenue. So they took it upon themselves to make one. By doing so, they created what might be the most culinarily diverse corner in all the city.
If you haven't been to the corner of Grand Avenue and St. Albans Street for a while, now might be a good time to rediscover it. Dixie's has just gotten a menu refresh, compliments of chef Erin "Bayou" Lege, a south Louisiana native. Check it out for what is probably the best fried chicken in St. Paul, Louisiana-style gumbo, and a whole list of po' boys.
There's also Saji Ya, a sushi spot owned by the same independent restaurant group that owns Dixie's. It's better than it ever gets credit for.
And now there's Emmett's Public House, Grand Avenue's new Irish pub. This is no raucous, drink-your-weight-in-whiskey place. It's quiet, even a little tame, so much so that it's almost easy to overlook.
Inside, a woman shuffles a deck of cards and prepares to deal a hand to her companion between sips of Jameson. An Irish bartender charms a couple with his brogue. A guy sits down heavily after his shift at a nearby establishment and orders the macaroni and cheese with a Guinness. Emmett's Public House, though Irish on its surface, is at least in equal measure a Minnesota joint, an affable, something-for-everyone neighborhood bar.
While Irish cuisine is having a bit of a culinary moment in the Twin Cities — Dan Kelley's and Halftime Rec are successfully elevating this peasant's food to cuisine — Emmett's has a more relaxed interpretation of Irish tradition. The menu is a mid-point between lofty ambition and pub grub. It aims to please a common denominator, and usually, it succeeds at that pragmatic ambition.
Bumping up against Scotch eggs and fish and chips you'll find beer pretzel cheese curds and "Claddagh fries," a gut bomb poutine designed to support pro levels of imbibing. French fries loaded with ground beef, gravy, cheese curds, and Guinness reduction are about as traditional as Lucky Charms, yet are no less likable.
Fish and chips are appealing enough — not the best in town, but golden and crisp. The malted fries are the stars of the show, boasting an outer layer of tissue-thin crispness and golden potato heft within. Sadly, the accompanying bland pot of mushy peas were more gesture than anything, and we could have done without them.
The cooking works best when it rides sidecar to beverages, as an auxiliary item to drinking. This may seem obvious, since this is a pub, but in truth, the interior feels more like a cozy restaurant than a bar, with lots of dining room space and snug booths. The menu is a tightly condensed 12 items, which we usually respect, but it can leave the dinnertime diner feeling a bit limited.
Entrees like beef stout pot, and corned beef and colcannon, were reasonable renditions of these traditional dishes, if not commendable enough to lure us in regularly. The stout pot is a standard rustic stew, rich with earthy root vegetables, hiding beneath a raft of puff pastry. It's homey and basic, something to stave off the last gasps of winter. Corned beef was middle-of-the-road, offering comforting sustenance. It comes served next to mashers enriched with heavy cream and butter and striated with cabbage. If you're the type of person who must have an entree, then these will suit that need.
But we like the grub best when it's being just that: pub grub. An "Irish" mac and cheese is fatty, melty, swimming in good cheese sauce, and finished with bacon-fat bread crumbs. It might have "beer cheese" in it to tip it toward Irish, but we didn't care either way. It's just delicious.
The BLT wedge salad was also a hit, with both house-made French and blue cheese dressings, mouthwatering marinated tomatoes, and pork belly glazed in Two Gingers Whiskey. It's a salad for any day, no matter where you happen to be, Irish pub or no.
Curried beer and whiskey mussels next to a beer or glass of wine are a welcome bit of levity among all the heavy-duty stuff. Consider these instead of dessert.
Look to the cocktail menu for inspired takes on Irish drinking. A County Cork Old Fashioned is citrus and cherries muddled with Kilbeggan whiskey, bitters, and a splash of ginger ale. It's a reinvention of an Old Fashioned that's actually good. The Annie-O, with Tullamore Dew Whiskey, dry vermouth, and pineapple juice, is shaken 'til frothy, and served in a martini glass. It's so feminine and delicate, you'll have to look twice to remember where you are.
There's a bit of an obsessive tendency here to enliven dishes with some kind of libation. Almost every dish features whiskey or beer as an ingredient. It comes across as a bit of a crutch, to nudge things along into some vaguely "Irish" territory.
We'd like to see what Emmett's could do if it let itself bust out of the confines of Guinness glazes and bangers. It could embrace what it truly is: a comfy pub with above-average bar fare, which just happens to be Irish, but not to the nth degree.
If there's one thing this corner of Grand has proven, it's that it can accommodate concepts of all kinds.
Emmett's Public House
695 Grand Ave., St. Paul
menu items: $7-$18 emmettspublichouse.com