SULLIVAN'S POUR HOUSE | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
The potato is my favorite food. Nutritionally, it may be lacking this or that, but even the most limited cook can twist the humble tuber into dozens of delicious dishes. All manners of prepared potato delight me, and I'm always happy to discover new and delicious configurations. The highlight of my visit to Sullivan's Pour House was eating a potato concoction I've never had -- colcannon. It is my new absolutely favorite potato dish.

Colcannon, one of the Irish specialties noted on the menu by a wee shamrock, combines two of the world's greatest add-ins, onions and butter, with two of their frequent collaborators, potatoes and cabbage. The green onions, cabbage and potatoes are mashed together into a thick sweetish porridge, then served in a little crock with a whopping great puddle of melted butter in the middle. (I ordered it as the appetizer, which is enough for two -- and what can be more romantic than sharing buttery potatoes together? -- but it can also be added as a side dish.) Neither the onions nor the cabbage -- both strong contenders -- overpowered the potatoes: It was the perfect combination of common ingredients that made the colcannon taste unique.

I ordered the shepherd's pie and was warned it would take 45 minutes. That's fine by me. This is a baked dish that should take that long to cook, and the down time could easily be filled by nursing one of the several available Irish drafts. The Pour House lends itself to lingering anyhow, a cozy wooden bar with a dozen tables. The shelves and walls are filled with Irish tchotchkes -- bar signs, flags, photos and even a clock set to Irish time (in case you were wondering). Football jerseys are pinned to the ceiling, mostly identifiable by their sponsors: Digifone, Wexford Dairy. Friday and Saturday evenings, the Pour House has live entertainment.

Most restaurants serve what they call a "traditional" shepherd's pie: ground beef, onions and carrots in brown gravy, topped with mashed potatoes (and sometimes cheese). And I mean them no disrespect -- that configuration is certainly one of the traditional set-ups -- but the real traditional shepherd's pie is pure poor-people food: whatever is leftover from Sunday dinner put in a bowl, topped (and stretched) with mashed potatoes (that might also be leftovers) and reheated. The idea of making a shepherd's pie totally from scratch, rather than from the dregs of the refrigerator, is a novelty for me.

My mother could -- and did -- make shepherd's pie out of anything. It was benignly covered with mashed spuds, and you never knew what might be in it until the big spoon disgorged it onto your plate: hideous vegetables like Brussels sprouts in cheese sauce that were naturally left uneaten at previous meals; breakfast sausages; meat scraps; even canned tuna fish. My mother had no time for gravy -- you ate it as it came, though I fortified mine with taste-killing ketchup when necessary. To complain was to hear how lucky we were, how bad times had been -- and frankly, most of these pies were palatable. (The tuna one was a real misstep.) Mashed potatoes have such an all-encompassing goodness that they can really harbor -- and pacify -- any odd bit of food.

My shepherd's pie here was excellent: A substantial filling of minced beef, onions, peas and carrots was supported from underneath by pie pastry and covered with cheesy whipped potatoes that had been attractively applied with a pastry tube, creating dozens of little baked ridges and ravines. My companion had the Irish "fry": a huge platter with two eggs, rashers (similar to Canadian bacon), bangers (sausages), black and white pudding (more sausages), bread and two potato pancakes. It looked like breakfast for four. He ate it all, and pronounced it "good at any time of day," though he thought the potato pancakes were a little too greasy. I won't hear a word against any potato.

Still smitten with my new spud-love, I pursued it to The Oxford Companion to Food, where I learned colcannon can be used for matchmaking. A single lass would put a bit in a stocking hung from the front door handle; the next man over the threshold might be her future husband. This would be OK if there were some colcannon left over, but romance is more often won at the dinner table. Better to ply the bachelors with warm yummy potatoes than to have it languish cold and lonely in a sock. * * *

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