Have you been to Tom Bergin's Tavern lately? No — not Molly Malone's, the pub with the bands; the other one on Fairfax, a few blocks south, with the Irish coffee and the old Bing Crosby vibe. Bergin's has been a fascinating place since Brandon Boudet took it over last summer, partly because you're unsure whether you have fallen prey to an elaborate put-on or whether you really have stepped back into Raymond Chandler's L.A., whether the names of the paper shamrocks still stapled to the ceiling are of authentic provenance and whether the dinginess of the barroom is real.
Boudet's other restaurants, Dominick's and Little Dom's, were renovated to recall eras much older than the restaurants themselves, so at Bergin's it is tempting to imagine the designers leafing through boxes of horse pictures and old menus in an effort to conjure the magic of 1936, the year it opened. Linger over a well-drawn glass of Guinness on a Tuesday afternoon and you may run into a location scout bantering with the manager. Wander in early for a Saturday Irish stew and you are likely to run across what looks like half the USC law class of 1963, nicely dressed in sweaters and ties, having dinner with the grandchildren.
At his other restaurants, Boudet took the unloveliest aspects of Italian American food and elevated them into something close to cuisine. Other guys may have debated the authenticity of chicken parm or spaghetti and meatballs. Boudet just made good ones, not quite your grandmother's, but close enough.
Other restaurateurs served either awful shipper's wines or made you guess if Salice Salentino was really what you wanted when you were in the mood for Chianti. Boudet arranged for a perfectly sound everyday table wine, slapped a "Dago Red" label on it and sold it for 10 bucks for a family dinner. It was offensive, probably, but few customers seemed to mind. At Little Dom's, he even got away with slipping a few Creole-Italian dishes — oyster po' boys, crawfish on grilled fish, and fried shrimp with artichokes — from his native New Orleans onto the menu, and mostly nobody noticed.
Tom Bergin's is one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles, but although I had probably stopped in for a late drink at the bar two or three dozen times over the years, I'm not sure I even knew it served food. Did I dine here as a child, or am I confusing it with the old Blarney Stone over on Western?
For Boudet, a guy who made meatball subs worth eating again, rethinking Irish American bar food must have seemed like an interesting challenge. How do you even begin to rehabilitate a cuisine that for most people begins and ends with fish 'n' chips, soggy pies and St. Patrick's Day corned beef and cabbage?
On the plus side, what you're competing against consists mostly of faded memories of bad steam-table food. So colcannon, which in Ireland is a Monday-night meal of potatoes mashed with the cabbage or kale left over from Sunday dinner, is reinvented here as a supple kale salad tossed with a little crème fraîche and arranged over a base of sliced potatoes, a little crisp at the edges and vaguely smoky from the grill. Boudet's colcannon has absolutely no sensations in common with the familiar dish, which is usually served as a creamy mash, but it is something you want to eat. If you long for the old-fashioned colcannon, try the gratin of creamed kale, which is potatoless but has all kinds of colcannon flavor. Spoon it over your baked potato with sour cream and chives, and you're set.
Smoke some salmon, serve it with oatcakes, soda bread and a thick dill vinaigrette — it could be Irish, right? Melt some Irish brie in a crock. Make a "cottage pie" with beef stew and mashed potatoes. Serve hot pretzels with mustard. Lay out a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing and little cubes of bacon and you at least have an Ireland of the mind — an Ireland with steaks, lots of steaks, from tough little grass-fed baseball steaks to expense-account Wagyu strips with Irish whiskey peppercorn sauce.
The primary totem of this Ireland of the mind, besides the Guinness and the splendid list of rare Irish whiskey, is corned beef and cabbage — a dish with roots in the immigrant cooking of New York's Lower East Side, repurposed and given meaning. Boudet pickles his own corned beef, steams it until it is soft as Langer's pastrami and serves it in thick, hand-cut slices. The cabbage, braised in butter, is served alongside in an intact wedge, quartered leaves still attached to the core. There are potatoes — there are always potatoes. The corned beef is a bit bland, not quite as salty as you might expect it to be, but the flavor blossoms when you dab it with a bit of mustard.
You can also get corned beef griddled and glazed as a proto deli sandwich, as well as stuffed into deep-fried Reuben balls with Russian dressing on the side, which strikes me as kind of Jewish-Irish food as channeled through Plaquemines Parish.
The best dessert is a textbook chocolate silk pie. A recent Tuesday special — three-course dinners are $15 prix fixe on Tuesdays — included chicken-fried steak, smoky black-eyed peas and a splosh of collard greens, which was as delicious as it was unexpected.
The confusion is part of what can make Tom Bergin's a magical place — if you show up on a Sunday afternoon, you may find the Saints on the bar TV, half the room screaming as if deranged and Boudet in the parking lot wrestling with a giant pot of jambalaya that he has figured out how to make but not how to sell.
That jambalaya, if a bowl should happen to find its way onto your table, is phenomenal, easily the best in town, with plenty of shrimp, vast quantities of fiery sausage and a texture that veers toward the looseness of Venetian risotto. Even if you're a Falcons fan, it is probably worth wearing a Saints hat for the afternoon.
In a classic L.A. bar, Little Dom's Brandon Boudet has conjured up an Ireland of the mind ... with lots of steaks ... and jambalaya?
840 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 936-7151, tombergins.com
Appetizers, $4-$15; salads, $9-$14; sandwiches, $9-$15; main courses, $13-$16 and up to $55 for steaks. Desserts, $8.