To my mind, there are three levels of food in Irish pubs. At one end is the traditional pub, where your only dining decision is whether to have the cheese and onion or salt and vinegar. And then there is proper pub grub, comforting soups, tasty sandwiches, and old favourites like bangers and mash or lasagne, usually in overly generous portions. At the other extreme of the scale are the ones who take themselves very seriously, where you can expect such delights as 'roasted marrow bones with curried clams in a grilled octopus reduction'.
Aside from the extreme examples, the Irish gastropub (or licensed premises that serve food, as I like to call them ) is very much an established concept by now. Just as a cafe is likely to have a menu of soups and salad, so the Irish gastropub will offer starters of chowder, Caesar salad, and something involving the marriage of beetroot and goat's cheese. Then on to fish and chips, a burger, and something involving pulled pork for mains. The more evolved will stretch to pork belly and rib eye or mussels, and perhaps a sea bass special. There will be a chocolate fondant and lemon tart for dessert, maybe even a sticky toffee pudding. These are all good, sturdy, dishes and the accepted standard of pub food. Sometimes they are exactly what you want. Some do it well and are exceptional, and some just do it. Either way is fine but you will not get any surprises. Occasionally, we come across a pub which is attempting to do more.
In Dominick Street, a serious transformation has taken place. John Keogh’s — The Lock Keeper blends seamlessly into its surroundings as though it has been there always. Even though I had lived for years in the area I was hard pressed to remember what had been there before. A bicycle shop I think? The pub and restaurant takes its name from John Keogh who was lock keeper of the adjacent Parkaveara canal lock on the Eglinton Canal in the latter part of the 19th century.
There is dark wood furniture, high stools, and snugs where you can monitor the comings and goings of Dominick Street through the window. Antiquities and collectables abound, original mirrors on the walls, and glass lightshades hang from the ceilings, all collected over the last few years. The bar stocks over a dozen craft beers, dozens of whiskeys and gins, along with all of the usual products. This is a gastropub in the truest sense of the word, an establishment that caters first for drinkers and takes its food more seriously than others, a pub for people who love pubs.
The waiting staff are friendly and informative and manager Steven Murphy runs a tight ship. What matters most, though, is the presence in the kitchen of a chef named Pat McEllin. Flavours are exuberant and often unexpected, the heady tang of lemongrass in a beef brisket doughnut amuse-bouche that has been tossed in smokey spiced sugar, a subtle hint of star anise in a pickled egg — Pat cooks like a man recently released from a French cuisine prison. It makes a bit more sense when you know that prior to coming here he was head of the brigade at the Latin Quarter Bistro. While his cooking in LQB was faultless, McEllin is clearly relishing the escape from the confines of the classic, precise, techniques and revelling in the cornucopia of new ingredients now available to him to play with. Right now he’s giving an example of how to craft tight, compact, menus to a budget, without sacrificing flavour, inventiveness, or wit.
Word of this new dining destination is not fully out yet and on a warm weekday with a promise of showers, it is sparsely populated with punters. The cheery waitress talks us through the producer-led, short menu. It speaks of local and seasonal, but nothing is foraged, gathered, or from the hedgerow. McEllin is not trying to make a point. He’s just cooking with the good stuff, and being thrifty. The heavy weather leads us to sample a selection of the smaller plates. A smoked haddock scotch egg with a creamy curried mayo, polenta chips with a heavy dusting of parmesan and a intense aioli, Herterich's puddings with the aforementioned picked egg and mustard relish, wild rabbit rillettes with pickles and ale chutney. All are hearty pub fare and priced modestly between €6 and €8.
The menu also offers a selection of larger plates including seasonal handmade ravioli, braised lamb shoulder, and flat iron steaks, and daily specials are available. The details clearly matter and the food is served on pretty ceramics and traditional tapas bowls. Desserts are basic things executed with smarts. A central flavour is chosen and embellished, strawberry, chocolate, or lemon. A plate of Keogh's strawberries and cream arrives to the table smelling like Wexford in high summer. With warm Belgian waffles the cappuccino ice cream and vanilla marshmallows are excellent, all united by a silky chocolate sauce. We manage to find the only thing not made in house with the waffle itself, which is good nonetheless.
The Irish pub is the definition of community spirit, history, and tradition, and Galway pubs especially are full of character and fun. We have no shortage of places to drink a pint. John Keogh’s has already gone a long way to identifying its own unique character. For those looking for atmosphere, ambiance, maybe some sport, and some truly great food, this is the place for you. John Keogh’s joins the ranks of top watering holes in Galway with a quality, well priced, food offering to sweeten the deal. John Keogh’s — The Lock Keeper is what other pubs with 'gastro' ambitions should measure themselves against.
John Keogh's — The Lock Keeper, 22-24 Upper Dominick Street, Galway. Tel: (091 ) 449 431.