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Good for What Ales You 

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
The Liberties
998 Guerrero (at 22nd Street), 282-6789. Open 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. daily. Reservations: not a bad idea, but not vital. Parking: moderately difficult. Muni: 14, 26, 48, 49, J, and BART (24th Street Station). Noise level: loudish.

If you've ever been to an Irish bar, your first impression of the Liberties will probably be that it looks just like an Irish bar, except really clean. The cleanliness seems to be an intentional effect; even extols the restaurant's "clean casual ambiance." There's lots of polished wood, a mirror over the bar, and even some open space greeting you as you walk in.

Ain't nothing wrong with a clean restaurant, as your local health inspector will attest, but in an Irish bar this level of gloss lends an atmosphere of artificiality. The menu is similarly untraditional, as no doubt it must be to survive on this corner. There are standard, expected dishes, but also modified Irish-influenced dishes and flights of fancy that come no closer to Ireland than Caligula did. A selection of good beers rounds out the meal, though the assumption that beer is why you're at the Liberties in the first place may, of course, be a rash one. The Liberties draws quite a decent pint -- Guinness, Beamish, Caffrey's, Bass, Boddington's, and others, all in the $4 range.

In the appetizer realm, there are only a few hints of Irish influence. ("Appetizers" is perhaps a misnomer: Many of these dishes are best eaten as companions to bounteous drink, followed only by more of the same.) The sausage trio ($7.50) is a heavy way to start, but quite tasty, with three very mild sausages, varying more in texture than flavor, accompanied by a smooth mustard. Half a dozen oysters on the half-shell ($8) are nicely fresh, and a horseradish sauce complements them without smothering their flavor. An artichoke and cilantro soup ($3.95) is terrifically rich and flavorful; the artichoke and cilantro play better together than one might expect, thanks in part to the propitiating effect of cream.

Boxty, the potato-based griddle cake, is unexpectedly given a Mediterranean vacation with a topping of red bell pepper and feta cheese ($6.50). (Boxty is a pliable thing. It's most often found beside a piece of meat, but here at the Liberties it pops up as an appetizer and again at brunch, made with smoked cod and topped with poached eggs: quite the trencherman's meal.) The Mediterranean treatment works surprisingly well -- the boxty is smooth and somewhat doughy, the feta is made mild by cooking, and the peppers provide a perfect tart sweetness. This is a good example of noninvasive culinary innovation.

Then there're things like chicken satay and crab cakes with ginger aioli. They're probably fine.

The main courses are a hearty bunch. The fish and chips ($8.50) are top-notch: The pieces of fish are coated with a beer-based batter, and are excellently fresh and flaky. In addition to the usual malt vinegar, there is a creamy lemon-caper sauce that lends a touch of refinement to the dish. The hamburger ($6.95) is a good basic burger; it comes with Irish bacon or cheddar cheese for a dollar more. Venison and mushroom pie ($9.50) is terrific. Strong-flavored, rustic, and with a thick, flaky crust, it features meat that's perfectly tender, not stringy as venison so often is. If you're not a venison fan, however, this is a dish to avoid, as venison is, well, unmistakably in there. Another excellent dish is the salmon fillet ($13.95). It's perfectly simple -- just a roasted piece of fish on a bed of light mashed potatoes -- but completely satisfying.

There are several less classically Irish main courses, too -- risotto, ravioli, and vegetable cassoulet. The ravioli ($9.25) are filled with five cheeses (at least two of whose effects will be lost on the average diner), lightly scented with saffron and pepper, and served in a thin, sweet, oniony tomato sauce. The dish is actually quite good, a break from the restaurant's onslaught of meat, and it doesn't fall into the usual ravioli cliches.

Simplicity is the watchword of dessert at the Liberties. A rhubarb crumble ($4) is served warm and smothered in custard. It's hardly sweet at all, but all of the ingredients' flavors come through satisfyingly. It's a very good dessert in an utterly un-American vein. The chocolate cake ($4.50) tastes mostly of mousse and the burnt orange sauce. It doesn't do anything wrong, but it's not exceptional. And the Guinness ice cream ($4.25), which sounds exciting, is pale and mild. If your tongue is already saturated in beer, it's hard to make out the stout flavor at all. The restaurant might do better to offer a moist Guinness chocolate cake, perhaps with a side of the ice cream.

The Liberties is a very good place for draft beer in an Irish mode, where you happen to be able to get quite a good meal. For harmony's sake, the Irish classics are the most pleasing dishes, but the innovations are tasty as well. Possibly time's patina will give the restaurant a little less sheen and more homeyness -- until then, try to spill a lot.

About The Author

Paul Adams

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