Location: 1616 Alberni St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Upscale Irish
Prices: Dinner appetizers, $7 to $20; mains, $18 to $32
Additional Info: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted
Rating System: Casual dining
Have you noticed that there are more and more Irish folk living in Vancouver? Seems everywhere I go, I hear the lilting brogue and see the Leinster rugby shirts – especially in the West End, where I live.
“You’re not imagining it,” says Adam, my gym mate at Anytime Fitness and a self-described “pinkish” person with red hair and freckles (which is apparently how all these Emerald Isle émigrés identify each other on the street). “What did Conor McGregor say? ‘We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over.’”
Adam was referring to the cocky UFC lightweight champion, but could easily have been talking about our morning boot-camp classes. Some days, it feels like the entire Denman Street gym has been invaded by “pinkish” people. And if you look up the “Irish and New in Vancouver” Facebook page (15,000 members strong and growing), it appears the rest of the recent arrivals are all hell-bent on moving to English Bay.
So what more fitting a neighbourhood in which to open an Irish eatery?
Forkhill House Irish Bistro is not a pub. It’s an upscale Irish restaurant. Co-owner Jaime Lenz was adamant about this when she sent an e-mail inviting me to come review the place, shortly after she and her husband, Jeffrey, opened their Alberni Street establishment a year ago.
“Our goal is to show that N.Ireland/Ireland is more than just shepherd’s pie and leprechauns,” she wrote.
Terrific. Sounds like a laudable ambition – and one about as insurmountable as convincing the world that Canadian cuisine is more than just poutine and seal meat clobbered outside an igloo. Beyond black pudding and soda bread, I haven’t a clue what Irish cuisine, let alone upscale Irish cuisine, is all about.
Curious, and with St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I invite Adam to join me for dinner. We make it a gym outing and bring along Pete, an English gastro-pub enthusiast, and Cara, who I would have sworn was Irish but is actually Indigenous-German. (The latter explains why I now do burpees at 6:30 a.m. instead of trying to write.)
Forkhill House may not be a pub, but it sure looks like one. Perhaps this is because the cozy restaurant is located in the same two-story Victorian that the Fat Badger, an English pub, used to call home. The walls have been brightened with white paint, and the chalkboards have been replaced with family portraits and empty, shabby-chic frames. But the upper-level warren of small rooms is still dominated by a long bar appointed with many beer taps and high-top communal tables.
They still serve Sunday roast dinners, just like the Fat Badger used to do. And glancing down the appetizer menu, I have trouble distinguishing between the old restaurant and the new.
There are the same soft-yolk Scotch eggs (now served with a fancy smear of beetroot purée and a dollop of cilantro-garlic sauce in place of plain old HP sauce) and similar miniature Yorkshire puddings (now a little more doughy, filled with corned beef instead of roast beef and served unappetizingly cold).
“No black pudding,” the guys lament.
Cara, who may not be Irish but does drink a lot of beer, says the Guinness doesn’t taste fresh. I concur. The draft lines could use a rinse.
Forkhill House does serve Irish seafood chowder, which tastes pretty much like any other creamy seafood chowder garnished with dill and celery. I don’t detect any bacon, but at least the prawns are tautly squeaky and the mussels aren’t overcooked.
(On another visit, without the gym mates, I try the Ploughman’s Plate. For $20, it comes with one small, densely greasy pork pie, one measly slice of Guinness cheese, a few matchsticks of cheddar, a minuscule smear of baked chèvre (spread over greens to make the portion look larger), six thin celery sticks, four apple slices, little bundles of pickled onions and baked pear, a handful of almonds, mustard, chutney and one brick-like wedge of soda bread. A second slice costs $2. It’s a good thing I didn’t order this platter to share among the group. We would have gone home starving.)
Other than Van Morrison playing in the background, I am having trouble recognizing Forkhill’s distinct Irish identity (the servers are French and Eastern European). And I am definitely not feeling its upscale ambitions.
The main courses are fairly basic versions of meat and potatoes. Turkey “cutlets” are plump and buttermilk-fried, served with champ potatoes (creamy mash blended with green onions), apple-fennel slaw and cranberry chutney. It’s an okay dish – for pub fare.
Bangers (very finely ground sausages) get fancied up in a flaky sleeve of puff pastry. They’re served with lumpy gravy, more coleslaw and the same champ potatoes as the turkey, but this time the mashed spuds are blended with cheese and egg, piped into hilly meringues and browned until they dry out and develop a crusty, salt-baked-like skin.
Lamb shank, again served with champ potatoes, is braised in red wine until it falls off the bone. It’s pretty hard to mess up lamb shank. Crispy Brussels sprouts have a spicy chili bite. But the carrots stewed in tomato ragu are tooth-achingly sweet.
Then comes the Irish lamb stew.
“That’s quite a stew.”
“Are you sure that’s not a baby goat?”
A huge hunk of lamb shoulder covered in gristle and fat stands to attention in a bowl of watery broth. Surrounded by soggy potatoes, parsnips and carrots, it looks like a swamp creature emerging from a murky lagoon.
“No, this is not typical of Irish food,” Adam says. “But it’s not bad. Anyone want to try?”
We all shrink in horror. The nicest thing I can say is that the meat is extremely moist.
Sticky toffee pudding? Not so much. The sponge cake comes in a round, hard-edged tube, looking like it probably shrivelled up in a Bundt pan. It’s burnt, chewy and as dry as an old dish sponge that’s been left on the counter overnight. No amount of toffee sauce can salvage it, not that there is much on the plate anyway.
Chocolate-Guinness cake has a tad more spring, but the ganache is mouth-strippingly bitter. I think someone forgot to add sugar and vanilla to the baker’s chocolate. These are the worst desserts ever.
So, what does the Irish lad think? Would he come back with his Gaelic football mates?
“Ah, for certain things I would.”
“Like, ah, the Guinness.”
It may be time for Forkhill House to bring out the leprechauns. The kitchen is trying too hard to be something it’s not – or perhaps doesn’t have the chops to execute elegantly. This is a missed opportunity, considering how many Irish people live in the neighbourhood. If they lowered their ambitions, and the prices, maybe they wouldn’t have to issue so many Groupons.