Dublin is home to an impressive 1,000 pubs, which isn't to say that it's home to 1,000 impressive pubs. Many are dives, and even stately affairs like The Long Hall and The Stag's Head sometimes seem like the result of a publican instruction manual describing how to mix stout beer, literary history, marble countertops, carved wooden details, and a menu thick with fried food in order to create something thoroughly pleasant but unoriginal. At first glance, L. Mulligan Grocer, a traditional-looking storefront across from a tattoo shop on a modest block well outside the city center, looks like a modest version of the same. But one look at the menu suggests that this place isn't just another draft and chips sport.
"We opened L. Mulligan Grocer in July 2010," says Seaneen Sullivan, one of the owners. "It was like the 'Marie Celeste' [a merchant "ghost ship" found floating abandoned yet fully provisioned in the Atlantic in 1872] when we came in: half-drank pints, abandoned full ashtrays, and a sticky veneer on the beautiful wooden bar. We worked hard to restore the pub to the state it deserves. Mulligan's is a very old pub, so we are custodians of a long tradition of eating and drinking here."
Gone are the fallen soldiers and cigarette butts. The pub is well-worn but polished where it counts. There's a front room with a long meandering wooden bar outfitted with a dozen taps, a handful of tables and booths, and a rear dining room with more seating. The space is humble and welcoming, as a neighborhood pub should be, but the food and drink are ambitious. Menus bound in vintage cloth list traditional favorites and seasonal dishes that lean heavily on Irish ingredients. Though some of the dishes, like the Scotch egg encased in rare-breed pork and herbed crumbs, feel like classic gastropub fare, the breadth and scope of the menu is broader and in constant flux.
Still, that Scotch egg is a damn good place to start. The yolk is perfectly runny and its richness is balanced by the relish and red chard that accompany it. A carrot and coriander soup with chili oil is earthy, sweet, spicy, and savory; Dublin Bay prawns with Hoegaarden citrus mayonnaise put your average shrimp cocktail in the doghouse; mussels come in a Leffe Blonde broth with walnut sourdough bread. Our favorite dish was the pescatarian board, six seafood preparations that ranged from herb-crumbed haddock to a marinated mussel salad served in its own little Mason jar. Stop by on a Sunday for the weekly roast made with Irish free-range pork.
What makes the pub food renaissance beginning at L. Mulligan more remarkable is that it's happening in a country that's continuing to grapple with recession. The economy notwithstanding, there are several new and very good restaurants thriving in Dublin, a mix of concept restaurants like Jo' Burger and cozy neighborhood places such as Wuff.
"There is a real sense of 'Why the hell can't we?' about some of these concepts and they really do work," Sullivan says. "It is about a commitment to quality. There are fewer egos and more people doing things they love: be it 13-hour slow cooked BBQ, infusing hedgerow berries in Irish-produced spirits, or using native breeds like Dexter beef. It is brilliant to be part of."
But all that gourmet ambition doesn't mean spirits have become secondary - this is still Ireland after all. L. Mulligan emphasizes Irish craft beer but stocks more than 100 imported beers. Patrons would do well to skip the Guinness (no offense) and try a pint of the P'house Oyster Stout or the Trouble Dark Arts. There are also more than 150 whiskeys from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Japan, and Belgium. Sullivan et al. are also embarking on an effort to bring back cask beer (also called real ale), unfiltered and unpasteurized beer conditioned in a cask without added nitrogen or CO2 pressure. According to Sullivan, L. Mulligan's new sister restaurant, W.J. Kavanagh's, is the only pub in Ireland with a full-time cellar man responsible for cleaning lines, conditioning kegs, and overseeing quality.
Getting by on pints and finger food is no longer an option.
More Information: L. Mulligan Grocer is located at 18 Stoneybatter in Dublin 7. Open and serving food Monday–Friday from 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 p.m.