Despite the kilted waitstaff, a menu that features soda bread, shepherd’s pie and free-flowing taps of Harp, Guinness and Smithwick’s ales, Dublin Square owner Mike McGeough balks at the suggestion that he’s created a theme restaurant. Themes, he says, are usually the province of chains, where atmosphere often trumps quality. That is not the case with Dublin Square.
“I wanted to recreate as best I could the Irish experience,” says McGeough, 47. “But we’re not a chain, we’re a family business, and I’m out there running the food alongside the others.”
McGeough was born in the U.S., but when he was 13, his parents moved the family to Portmarnock, Ireland, a suburb north of Dublin, where they lived for the next five years. Those years had a big influence on Mike and his brother and business partner, Sean, who now lives in England.
“I really enjoyed the Irish hospitality,” McGeough says. “The pub culture is more than just a place to drink, it’s a place for people to meet, and I couldn’t find anything that felt like that when I got back here.”
Though they eschew the chain label, the McGeoughs may, in a small way, be heading in that direction. After the successful launch of the first Dublin Square in Bordentown two years ago, the brothers opened this second, much larger one in Cherry Hill in January. In May, McGeough made another trip to Ireland to outfit the third Dublin Square, which opened in Washington Township in July.
At 10,000 square feet, the Cherry Hill site posed the greatest challenge, so the brothers brought in financial backers to help cover the $1.5 million cost of renovating the 200-year-old farmhouse formerly inhabited by Swanky Bubbles, a champagne bar. The renovations were carried out by Irish tradesmen working with Clare Construction of Hackensack. Most of the décor came from McGeough’s trips to the Emerald Isle.
The menu was devised by Ian Whitfield, who serves as executive chef in Bordentown and oversees all three kitchens. A native of Newcastle, England, Whitfield takes pride in the restaurants’ authenticity, noting that the Irish items account for 70 to 80 percent of what customers order. On Sundays, musicians play Irish music in the second-floor dining room, which also serves large parties and families.
“We can’t make ourselves any more authentic,” Whitfield says, “other than being in Dublin.”
Nevertheless, appetizers lean more toward American fare: wings, potato skins, chicken tenders and fried calamari. Curry chips—hand-cut steak fries with a curry dipping sauce—were excellent. Irish sausage rolls were a bit disappointing, the puff pastry being greasy and overwhelming the sausage and onion filling.
The kitchen is strongest in entrées such as shepherd’s pie and corned beef and cabbage. We ordered the latter “boxty” style, replacing the red potatoes with Irish potato pancakes, an option offered with several entrées. It works particularly well with the wild salmon, pan seared in white wine and lemon cream sauce.
Another flavor-packed Irish dish was bangers and champ—mashed potatoes and scallions topped with grilled Irish sausage, the smooth texture of which sent me back to the summer I lived in Britain during high school. Fish and chips was also a standout, using South African hake dipped in a black and tan beer batter. Lamb shank, braised for two hours in Guinness, was moist and tender and finished with a garlicky au jus sauce. Most entrées come with excellent sautéed or steamed mixed vegetables.
Nearly all dishes are generous, so much so that we found ourselves walking out with multiple take-home boxes. Possibly the best deal in town is the $8 house salad, which, for an extra $5 comes with grilled salmon. The salad of baby greens, wild mushrooms, olives, eggs, cranberries and feta with a roasted garlic balsamic dressing was outstanding. Seared tuna salad was generous, but the fish lacked flavor. The two soups we tried—creamy potato leek and beef barley—were hearty and satisfying.
The new dessert menu features a marvelous Jameson chocolate walnut tart. Another favorite is custardy bread pudding with butter pecan ice cream. Buttermilk lemon tart should have been tarter and cooked a bit longer. Spiced apple cake is big enough for the whole table to share: two large slices of moist cake filled with three generous scoops of vanilla ice cream (or, on request, homemade brown bread ice cream) and caramel sauce.