New take on classic Irish fare

BY DAVID HAMMOND for The Chicago Sun-Times

Messing with the traditional food of Ireland always seemed to me to be asking for trouble.

In the right hands, however, even the meat-and-potato basics of time-honored Irish food can be transformed into new dishes that continue to reflect heritage.

Chief O’Neill’s (3471 N. Elston) has been a popular Irish pub for years. Recently, they hired a new chef, Alan Lake, who told me his goal was to “elevate the food,” turning quintessentially humble ingredients into dishes I call Haute Hibernian.

And Lake knows from haute, having been a chef at Dublin’s distinguished Shelbourne Hotel, where guests who spend over a $1,000 dollars for a room expect the best Ireland has to offer.

At the Shelbourne, Lake earned the somewhat naughty-sounding kitchen nickname Underpants O’Malley. Though he’s enhancing traditional Irish cooking, Underpants is no Fancypants, and he sticks to the basics and tries to bring out what’s best in them.

Fish ’n chips, for instance, are made with fresh — never frozen — cod, fried in beef tallow, the fat once considered the essential ingredient in all things fried since it renders food a beautiful brown. Perhaps it’s higher in fat, but it’s also higher in taste. Lake finds tallow-fried food to be “creamier,” and he serves his fried fish with mushy peas, a classic accompaniment.

Irish peat is used to smoke whitefish and shrimp, conjuring the scent and taste of Irish whiskey.

Lake sources lamb from Mint Creek Farm, whose hormone-free, cleanly raised meat is found at local farmers markets. His lamb stew gains dimension with Guinness-roasted barley. “Roasting the barley in Guinness seemed natural,” says Lake, because the brew itself is made with barley, and in Ireland, both beverage and grain are “consumed in large quantities, though usually not together.”

For Lake, Irish food is a lot more than meat or fish with boiled vegetables, and he stands firmly within “the tradition of sourcing good ingredients and preparing them simply and cleanly, not over manipulating them. When produce is this good,” said Lake, “I leave it alone. Part of being a chef is just knowing when to let it be.”