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It was Andrew who ordered the crisps. He remembered having tried some nice Irish ones at this Irish pub and he asked the waitress for some brand names. Tayto rang a bell. Who was I to argue? The Irish know a thing or two about potatoes.
But then it all turned bad. "Have you not tried the prawn cocktail flavour?" she asked and because she was very pretty he said no, and added that he'd like to. I said, "Ready Salted," because it is my considered opinion that any sort of flavouring on potato crisps is gilding the lily.
He soon had cause to regret the error of his ways. "Look here," I said, showing him the back of the packet, next to where it said they come from Tandragee, Co. Armagh. "Mine contain potatoes, vegetable oil and salt." Here I took a deep breath: "Yours have sodium diacetate, sugar, MSG, sodium 5 ribonucleotide, hydrolised soya protein, flavourings and saccharin. They also taste like ... they taste awful. I don't know why I bother taking you out to dinner."
The fact that I was at the Clare Inn at all was a triumph of insistent blarney over experience. My Irish colleague, Don Kavanagh, had told me this was the best Irish pub in town and that the food had much improved since chef Campbell Sprague took the reins.
I was cheered to hear it, since I was underwhelmed five St Paddy's Days ago when I took an Irish mate. (He told me he had not dared show his face around the place for a year after my review appeared.)
The westering sun was creating a distinctly un-Irish atmosphere when we arrived and settled in over a couple of pints of Kilkenny. It was just drawing to the end of that great day last Thursday week when Hamish Rutherford and Peter Fulton had completed New Zealand's first century opening partnership in 23 innings at the University Oval in Dunedin. But my enjoyment of the last few overs was hampered by the large "mute" symbol on the television screen.
"If you unmute it and then turn the volume right down," I said to the barman, "you'll get the same result without that ugly symbol."
"What if there's an emergency," he deadpanned, "and I have to turn the sound on instantly?"
"Ah, just shut one eye," said one of the small semicircle of cheerful drinkers at the bar. "You'll never know the difference." I could not place his county, but his accent sure had a twinkle in its eye.
Moving from the bar to the dining area proved no great hardship and I kept myself amused watching the expression on Andrew's face as he forced down the prawn cocktail crisps. These were soon replaced by two entrees: beef-and-Guinness spring rolls (an idea that takes fusion cuisine to a whole new level) and the less adventurous salt and chilli squid (Andrew's idea; I sense a theme emerging here).
The squid was pretty fine actually, agreeably piquant on the tongue, and not at all rubbery. It also seemed to have been prepared from whole squid - there were long tentacles to be found - rather than pulled from a packet, which was impressive for a pub. Those spring rolls, meanwhile, were something else: sliced on the angle and presented standing to attention, they were chocker with meaty pie-style filling and the accompanying smoky barbecue sauce hit the spot just fine.
If there was a fault in what followed it was that the filling in the beef and stout Wellington was identical, and not the fillet of beef that the name evokes. The pastry differed, but more attentive bar staff might have recommended another main dish. My duck however, slow-roasted so it fell from the bone, was as good as I've had anywhere. It was a little wintry for the time of year, with its confit carrot and onion, but the heaviness was leavened with fresh thyme and the whole thing was a cracker.
We had no room for desserts - the choices were apple pie or semifreddo with rhubarb - but I have no doubt they were excellent. It's certainly lifted its game in the kitchen, this place, and as my mate the crisp connoisseur says, it's a great party pub. If you're not already a regular, today may be just the day to make its acquaintance.
Verdict: Sure and you'll love it.By Peter Calder Email Peter