A taste of America

 

FOURTH OF JULY:Word is spreading about Drogheda's quirky new restaurant. Eastern Seaboard Bar and Grill offers simpe but delicious food in dramatic surroundings. The flavour is distinctly US of A writes EILEEN BATTERSBY.

IT CATCHES THE eye: the great bird, triumphant, a fish in its bill held high against the dark blue evening sky. You may most likely have seen it before noticing you’ve crossed the four points of a traditional mariner’s compass there on the polished floor. A handsome buffalo head appears to be watching over the entire scene. There is a wall of glass decanters, a mix of antique and modern, while a trio of glass heads are engaged in the kind of conversation that never ends. There is a definite mood, relaxed and welcoming, it’s a place to be.

You could be in downtown Manhattan or back in Brooklyn, and yes, there is also a touch of San Francisco. Wherever it is, the feeling is good and the crab cakes might well make you think you’ve landed in heaven. A tattered vintage US flag hangs proudly.

Eastern Seaboard Bar and Grill is in Drogheda, Co Louth. Jeni Glasgow, from Balrath in Meath and her husband, chef Reuven Diaz, met in New York. The couple wanted to create something different. They have. Within weeks of opening, on Thanksgiving night, parties of diners had already begun travelling from Dublin by train; Drogheda train station is a couple of minutes’ walk from the restaurant.

It was a brave thing to do (“or maybe, just crazy?” suggests Glasgow), opening a new business at the beginning of a global recession. But it has flourished; the only “problem” they have had to contend with is the good weather.

“I remember thinking on bank holiday Monday, it seemed a little quieter than usual,” says Glasgow, a stylist and designer who spent five years working in Manhattan and enjoyed the energy of life there. “There were a couple of empty tables and I’m not kidding – that hasn’t happened, we are always so busy, then I realised – the sun was shining, we had competition, the weather.”

Be advised, it is often difficult to secure a table here, weekends are booking out in advance, and reservations which are now essential are being made from as far away as Tokyo and Denver, Colorado.

There were some teething pains – a robbery, a shock ESB bill charging €11,000 for one month (it was rectified), a huge dinner party that arrived unannounced and stayed long into the night, a chaotic evening of overbooking and power cuts, not forgetting a memorable episode with the definitive at-war-with-the-world customer from hell whose complaints were so extreme that Glasgow, who has a terrific sense of humour, quietly assumed it was a gag for candid camera. “I never got upset, I should have but I didn’t, I just went along with it, it was so crazy, I thought it was being filmed.”

The enthusiastic staff dress in a uniform of T- shirts printed with deliberately off-centre, striped ties and jeans, and enjoy being part of a business that marks occasions; a couple of hundred little horses decorated the space for the Cheltenham Festival, Obama’s election was greeted with on-the-house stars-and-stripes cupcakes and a specially concocted “Obama Breezer”, while bunny-shaped cookie cutters set the scene over Easter.

If there is a sense of America, it is original and not pastiche, the detail is subtle and quirky, the music is eclectic and always good. Even the most ardent of non-smokers would have to concede that the smoking area is attractively Deep South with foliage and low sofas; it is almost a café unto itself. On chilly evenings it is warmed by large free-standing, eco-friendly Bio-ethanol heaters using a fuel-derived from sugar cane. The colours throughout the restaurant and bar are earthy and muted. The large bird painting is a reproduction of the 19th-century American artist John James Audubon’s Great White Heron, which was painted in Key West in 1832, and selected by Diaz because of its spectacular power, and “also because the bird is having a meal”.

By day or by the night the painting is dramatic – Audubon, says Glasgow, represents a different aspect of American culture. “It’s less obvious, many people say, “what a great picture” while it’s great to see how our American guests spot the reference and enjoy it.” She commissioned the reproduction from a young artist, Sam Horler.

The buffalo is also interesting. “He is Irish, you know . . . he was bred here by a friend, Raymond Coyle, who actually has a herd of American buffalo in Co Meath. Our buffalo had a short happy life . . . we like to think he feels at home here.”

There are other animal heads, including a caribou, on the wall, and select pieces of antique furniture, a carved credenza, an oval inlaid table, a large Victorian screen with birds in relief on it.

The space is open and the seating is a clever mix of simple bistro chairs, dark wood tables and long sweeping curved wall seating. The feeling is relaxed and casual yet the look is stylish. Recently Eastern Seaboard was shortlisted for Best Restaurant Design as well as for Best Newcomer in the annual Restaurant Association of Ireland awards.

In planning the menus the couple wanted to offer delicious, simple food at reasonable prices such as a pail of deep-fried shrimp, a butcher’s board of cured meats or ploughman’s plate of warm crusty bread, sharp vintage cheddar cheese and sliced apple. The salted and seeded loaf is already a favourite, as is the American -style chocolate fudge brownie. Among the most popular features of the main menu are slow roast pork belly with salsa verde, the pan-fried mackerel with lemon and shallot dressing, and baby back ribs.

Diaz, a strong silent type with a flair for the one-liner, is a thoughtful chef and has focused on simplicity of preparation and presentation. He encourages his customers to “compose” their own dishes by selecting from an exciting selection of sides such as slow roast organic carrots, sauté baby spinach, sweet potato wedges and what has been widely complimented as possibly the world’s finest mashed potato. As for the aforementioned crab cakes, it has already been decided – you’ll be hard pressed to find their equal.

There is a neighbourhood feel to the place and it’s also a family restaurant, a number of party celebrations have been hosted here, including a local school’s cook book launch. It’s an ideal venue for a jazz session and Diaz is planning a classical guitar evening. Many parents have their stories of not being made welcome at restaurants when they arrived with young children. “I know that feeling too, I wanted to make our restaurant as child-friendly as I would expect a place to be for us.” The children’s menu has style not clichés – and offers sliced fillet steak, lamb chops and tiger prawns, as well as a complimentary appetiser of carrot sticks, cucumber spears and celery swords with a roasted red pepper dipping sauce and bread sticks.

Most of the food is locally sourced and small producers are encouraged; strawberries are delivered daily by Molly Mulvaney of Mornington, while elderflower cordial, rhubarb, butterhead lettuce and artichokes all come from the garden of their Balrath neighbours, John and Elizabeth Simpson. Glasgow and her children picked nettles in spring for a deliciously green soup that won a big following. “We’ve a regular customer who has promised the best beets ever from his allotment down by the railway tracks.” They wanted to get the community involved, and they have.

This time last year Jeni Glasgow, a woman of imagination and ideas who admits to thinking in images, was a freelance event and wedding planner, working from home, minding their two little boys, Finlay and Saul. Reuven, then working as a head chef, was approached about a premises. The space was available; it was but a shell so they planned and designed it from scratch.

It had one huge advantage: a large feature bow window with an almost nautical shape, like the bridge of a ship. It excited Glasgow who recalled the time her husband, then her fiancé, had given her a small compass when she was returning to Ireland. “He gave me the compass, saying it would help me find my way back to New York. It did. I went back and now we’re here.”

The compass motif is used to striking effect in the polished concrete floor which reflects the overhead lighting. Glasgow began sourcing fittings on the internet, from large capiz shell globe shades from the Philippines, to the New England-style lantern lights for over the bar area, to light shades from Denmark for the window ledge lamps. The shelving that would go behind the bar was to house a collection of decanters. Mo Glasgow, Jeni’s mother, also a stylist, contributed the first few pieces, along with the vintage stars-and-stripes flag which now takes pride of place and as Glasgow points out “signalled the beginning of our journey”.

Meanwhile, Reuven was designing a high-tech kitchen and amassing an international collection of fine whiskeys, while Glasgow organised the wine list.

Within two months of opening, they had also moved their entire household, including their six cats. Eastern Seaboard Bar and Grill has been open for seven months now. Since opening night, business has been good. Many people have quoted back to Diaz a comment he made when interviewed on local radio about the madness of beginning a new business at the start of a recession. “It’s never a bad time for a good idea,” he said, looking around at the close of another busy evening. He smiles at the memory. “This place has become bigger than us; it has taken over whatever we did in the past and become our present and future.”

It is hard work; all that attention to detail and the ability to make everything appear as natural as breathing takes commitment. “We really did think it would slow down after Christmas,” says Glasgow, “but it didn’t; the week days are often almost as busy as the weekends. I’ve noticed people who come for lunch, return for dinner. It’s so satisfying.”

She looks around and is happy. “I really like welcoming people into our place, when I see them settled in at a table, at the bar, deep in conversation. I think to myself, ‘this is what I wanted’ – aside from the great food, it’s to make a space that people enjoy.”

Today Eastern Seaboard Bar and Grill is marking Independence Day with complimentary New York-style giant pretzels with a sweet mustard sauce and the entire premises will be festooned with “about a million little stars-and-stripes flags”.


Eastern Seaboard Bar Grill 041-9802570. Booking is advised. www.easternseaboard.ie (under construction), info@easternseaboard.ie