The Star & Shamrock: A Culinary Shonda

By Spencer Ackerman

In the wake of the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, acrimony and recrimination swirled throughout President Kennedy’s inner circle. The press assigned blame by agency, presuming that the inexperienced president couldn’t have sufficiently taken the reins of his national-security bureaucracy. (Perhaps the Washington press corps was protecting Kennedy.) Prominent legislators wanted to know how a counterrevolution sponsored by the U.S. could possibly have failed. But Kennedy put an end to that unfortunate postscript to his first presidential failure. “I’m the responsible officer of this government,” he told the White House press corps.

As the responsible officer of the IFA, I must take responsibility for the decision last night to venture to the Star & Shamrock, a newish H Street establishment that garnishes an Irish pub with diaspora-Jewish deli favorites. For those of us who grew up in a city north of D.C. that’s packed with Jews and abundant pastrami, celery sodas, crispy latkes and irresistible half-sour pickles, it was filled with promise: we get our culture’s comfort food back, enjoyed over a beer or a whiskey; and our friends who aren’t as familiar with the flavors of Hester Street’s interpretation of the Pale of Settlement get to learn what they’re missing. They even experiment, offering intriguingly untraditional appetizers like fried matzoh balls, something new in the world of pub grub. So I mooted the prospect with my friends. Dinner plans were made. Opportunity fused with new possibilities to shape the contours of the world we wish to inhabit. Irish pub, Jewish heart. What could go wrong?

Absolutely everything. This is a subject that I presume IFA officers Mandy Simon, Ben Miller and Matthew Yglesias will wish to address as well. I’ll offer an overview of the Star & Shamrock’s most egregious failures. Identity crisis. We all understand that multicultural relationships are fraught with complications, even among well-meaning friends like the Irish and the Jews, who have proven able to live together in major metropolitan areas for over a century. But the Star & Shamrock simply doesn’t know what it is. Its dining room is dominated by the extensive horseshoe-shaped bar, which takes up most of the floor space and pushes the two-top and four-top tables literally to the margins of the room. The most immediate effect is to crowd the space with bar-goers, constraining the ability of diners to relax and for servers to move around, leading to a manic eating experience. A more ephemeral but inescapable effect is to emphasize the pub and de-emphasize the food, even though the distinguishing features of the place — both in terms of its iconography and its publicity strategy — place the emphasis on the menu. (There may be regulatory reasons for this that Yglesias can explain.) Is it a pub that serves food or a restaurant with a well-stocked bar?

Inextricably related, the food is flavorless and presented with neither care nor integrity. It would be too harsh to say everything Star & Shamrock serves is terrible. It’s not. Just most things. We started with an order of fried matzoh balls for the table. We received them, 90 minutes later, almost at the same time as our entrees. Served in baskets lined with wax paper, the soggy, sad balls tasted of nothing but oil — probably fried at too low a temperature — and pepper. So much pepper, without any hint of salt, and as chewy as bubblegum. You don’t taste the fried matzoh balls as much as you feel them in your nostril hairs. They’re served with an undistinguished thin brown sauce that adds no flavor.

The entrees were no better. A word about their presentation: everything is served in those plastic baskets, with the same wax paper. We were told we could accompany our sandwiches with cole slaw or potato salad or macaroni salad. So far so good. But I have to say I presumed, during the interminable wait for our meal, that we would perhaps get the whole thing on, you know, plates. Instead, the sad sides come scooped in a small plastic takeout tub and carelessly dumped into the basket on one side of your sandwich. The cole slaw, which received the recommendation of the staff, has dill in it — a complete dealbreaker for all who care about cole slaw. Adam Ficke received the wrong side. Mandy didn’t even get her potato salad. A waitress told her all she could do was request the kitchen prepare a new batch, which is hard to square with the obvious pre-preparation of the sides.

I had what they called a Latke Madness, though I didn’t understand the dish. I thought it would be a pastrami and sauerkraut sandwich with swiss, schmeared with Thousand Island, and served with latkes and pickles. Instead, in a Jewish version of a KFC Double Down, the latkes played the role of the bread in the sandwich. As poorly conceived as the sandwich was, the execution was worse. The pastrami was clearly not smoked: pink and shimmering and rubbery, it was more like a flavor-deprived corned beef, chewy and disappointingly uniform in texture. The swiss cheese and sauerkraut were unceremonious and lazy mortar, unpleasantly oily thanks to the sopping latkes. (I didn’t get any dressing — and also: Thousand Island, and not Russian dressing?) And the latkes — oy. The top latke was the only one with any sort of crisp texture. All of them tasted far more of oil than potato and onion. The sandwich was so soggy it overwhelmed the wax paper. Before I noticed it, I had eaten a substantial amount of my basket liner.

Any restaurant can have an off night. New restaurants can be easily overwhelmed. But these mistakes are fundamental to the restaurant and it’s hard to see Star & Shamrock overcoming them. I’ll leave it to others to address the other questionable decisions, such as the troubadour who butchers “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” with a deafening croon. Instead, I can truthfully say that tomorrow morning I leave for a reporting trip to Guantanamo Bay, another Cuban-based mistake, where I confidently expect to have a more satisfying dining experience.

9 responses to “The Star & Shamrock: A Culinary Shonda

  1. Just so you know, a “two-top” is known in the trade as a “deuce.”

  2. My friends were also there last night and had a similarly poor experience. Such a shame, because I was so intrigued by the concept…

  3. Last night was my second time there; we were also there at the soft opening last friday night. We sat at the bar, and when we asked why our food was taking so long, the bartender informed us that two people had called in sick. That plus the general newness of the restaurant, plus the face that the place was packed, seems to have made for the lousy experience we all had. While the restaurant may never be a favorite of yours, I can safely say that the food and service were a lot better last week. Since I do live in the neighborhood, I’ll be checking back occasionally in the hope that it becomes more reliable when things have settled down a bit.

    Oh, and the singer did kind of suck. No excuse for that.

  4. Pingback: New Irish-Deli fusion place savaged in early reviews « Two Foodie Brothers

  5. I was there on Saturday. When I ordered the corned beef on rye, the waitress asked if I wanted it with lettuce and tomato. Shanda indeed.

  6. My Midwest Jewish mother always told me that if you have nothing nice to say, don’t way anything at all.

    I am no food critic and I have no association with this establishment. However, I felt compelled to defend a neighborhood establishment and small business owner. In short, this review is offensive and spiteful. What’s your problem man? Were you born without a soul? This review overflows with east-coast elitism and Jewish-mother complaint based ridicule. For Pete sake, I’m part of the tribe myself (so I know something about complaining and deli sandwiches) and you take it too far. If your review does anything to hurt the sales of a small business owner with a great idea trying to make it in a truly up and coming part of town, you should be ashamed.

    While I would concede that food at the Star and the Shamrock is not up to New York standards, it was pretty good. I thought the sandwiches were tasty and exactly what I was hoping for. The beer and whiskey selection was good and the prices were competitive. Did you really walk into newly opened, one week old restaurant and slam it for not being Katz Deli, a New York City tradition since 1888? That’s like going to a minor league baseball game and expecting major league talent. Moreover, you showed up for spring training game expecting the playoffs.

    What’s your beef about the bars identity? Is it an East Coast thing that every bar needs to have a mission statement in plain view for all patrons to see whereupon entry you can decide whether the identity of this particular establishment is up to your standards? Where I come from, a bar isn’t judged by ambiguous standards as identity but rather if it has beer that’s cheep and food that’s edible. Star and the Shamrock has both in spades. Additionally, isn’t that the whole point of this bar to highlight the identity crisis of two people from two completely different backgrounds coming together, cooking the food of their ancestors and throwing a few back? Not that you bothered to ask the owners what motivated them to start the bar. Since when did bars need to test Hume-ian philosophical theory and conform to comfortable stereotypes?

    As someone who knows the industry well, food critics never show up to a new establishment within the first month of operation for many of the reasons you mentioned. When they do show, they talk to the owners, the chef, and the staff to get a better sense of the place and what they’re trying to do with it. They talk to customers and might even comeback anther time to test things again. Just a few things to keep in mind next time you feel compelled to trash a place. I would also suggest managing expectations a bit better. It certainly sounds like service on Saturday was horrible and the food likely suffered as a result. In this case, you might even consider going back in a month or two and giving it another shot. This time ask to speak with management and get their side of the story.

    This isn’t a restaurant review but a disrespectful and borderline slanderous hatchet job. I’ve enjoyed more inspired food criticism from Homer Simpson (and Santa’s Little Helper). I think Star and the Shamrock deserve some credit for having a novel idea and a few weeks to get their act together. No questions they need some time to sort themselves out. If they are still operating similarly after a grace period, then such criticism is well justified. Otherwise, it’s simply schadenfreude.

  7. Dude. They are taking people’s money in exchange for food. They have a responsibility to turn out food that’s worth paying for. From Day 1.

  8. There is a brewpub in Ann Arbor that serves its steak sandwich between two latkes, and it’s fantastic. Not so much as a sandwich, admittedly (fork and knife were necessary), but as an assemblage of well-prepared, tasty food on a plate. The “well-prepared” thing is key, though.

  9. Agree and will share my own terrible story. Went with a few friends. One keeps kosher so ordered a tuna melt. A few bites in he realizes… uh oh… this is chicken salad. That is shande #1 – forcing someone to eat treif! Well, anyone can make that mistake. He sent it back for a real tuna melt. It comes… and it is ANOTHER chicken salad sandwich. The waiter is totally unapologetic and insists that it’s really tuna this time. No, dude, it’s not. Finally the third sandwich was actually tuna.

    YIKES.

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