The Plough & The Stars

123 Chestnut Street
(Enter on Second)
Old City
(215) 733-0300

Frank McCourt's best-selling biography Angela's Ashes begins by setting a tone of self-deprecation worthy of Irish irony in full blasphemous blossom. He starts, "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

The first person you're bound to see in The Plough & The Stars is Marion Ryder, born in Dublin not too awfully long ago. She spent her youthful summer holidays working at an aunt's hotel and cooking school, mesmerized by mounds of tarts and breads, and marveling among Irish food and hospitality. She is frankly childlike in her pub-rendered humor, and in her eagerness to display the best of her breed's conviviality. She manages the floor of the restaurant as if it were a cultural event in progress.

Jerome Donovan likewise received his first diapering in Dublin. Bent toward an adulthood of banking and computer programming, he leaned toward Philadelphia. He became a computer consultant to law firms with just enough spare time to dream of a uniquely different premise for superb Irish cuisine in an authentic atmosphere. He desired an inspirational haven for Irish literary debate and banter. He is your General Manager at The Plough & The Stars, and the guarantor of a no-shenanigans pint of Guinness.

Dungannon (County Tyrone) produced the likes of Austin McGrath, whose father fancied him an M.D., and whose mother wished him the collar of a priest. Instead, young Austin involved himself in hellish dry cleaning, and later into unobstetrically delivering mushrooms. His acumen at mushroom farming was only surpassed by his love of traditional Irish music and theater. He performed often with the Bardic Theater Company in Ireland, whose scenes he left behind ten years ago, for the preciosity of Philadelphia. When he's not performing public relations at the restaurant's bar, he's skillfully administering to bones (cow's ribs) and bodhrans (goat-skin drums) atop it, reveling in the music of his obviously less than worthwhile childhood.

Austin, Jerome and Marion found their paths crossing in old City. Ah now. It must've been a feast day.

One steps into a square shaped room. Two-story ceilings are adorned with delightfully high dental molding. George Washington's mouth held the next highest dentifrices, over two hundred years ago, when these same premises were the Old Corn Exchange Building.

Notice first the bar's prominence, made more so when contrasted visually with the nearby arrangement of low furniture, milking stool height. Then smell the beer. Installed behind the tappy, by Guinness technicians, is a sophisticated system imported from Ireland which perfects the porters and beers on tap. The least you can do is to pause, and learn how to drink from the bloody thing.

Nevertheless, let me move spiritedly up to the mezzanine section where it's more quiet and considerate of diners. A huge painting of a long emerald blue canoe-of-a-bowl predominates. Lighting is avant-garde, colorful and high wired.

"Order, or you'll perish sitting there," says our waiter, who is an exact replica of Michael Flatley, but less blonde. "If you don't order the Warm Sea Scallop Salad ($7.75) it's a sacrilege," he blurts. "To deny yourself the Striped Bass is a mortal sin. And to be bereft of Baby Rack of Lamb ($19.75) is a sin so venial, there's no clergy can save you from damnation."

I'm astounded at his attempts to sanctify my eating habits by allusions to holy terror. I reply to his succinet Irish lilt, "If I don't have all three before me within twenty minutes, you're a disgrace to your mother and Ireland in general."

On a huge white round plate is served grilled sea scallops the size of the nipples on the statues ensconced in bas-relief upon the old Federal Courthouse. They're nestled between grapefruit slices, avocado, roasted red pepper, grilled red onions, and made to glisten in a warm spicey dressing. The mollusks' large adductor morsels are so tender, cutting each in half hurts. But what emerges is a puffy pearlized plump mouthful of silken succulence. The cool verdant avocado mollifies the grapefruit, all of which grows smokey in the aftertaste of scorched peppers and onions.

Striped Bass is panseared, with a potato crust in the shape of scales, served with a lobster sauce. The taste is simply humbling. You're in a state of grace. The rest of the world dodders as your mind reflects upon the last time anyone's lips were whetted by a fish so elegant. Your eyes water, entirely.

If I could describe the rack of seven baby lamb chops served ruby red and crusted, I would. They are spread over mashed potatoes herbed from heaven. God knows you have to keep your dignity, but you'll find yourself shamelessly shoveling the crushed spuds with the little sheep's bones (as utensils) between teeth, until cheeks are filled and languished with lustfulness. At the platter's left are shitake mushrooms, lightly stuffed with goat cheese. They are lovely.

"Wash it all down with Witness Tree Pinot Noir, if you don't mind," Marion Ryder announces proudly. "Moreover, a cup of Irish Coffee and a piece of Apple Tart'll send your belly sticking out a mile. It's a miserable adulthood to walk the world without."


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back