Lamb O’ McSorley’s

In food on 09/01/2009 at 9:19 am

Did you know they serve food at McSorley’s Old Ale House? From all the stories I’d heard, it was just a bar, like Cheers, but more manly macho macho man, all sawdust and broom handle mustaches. Last night, we dropped in after wandering the East Village for a good long while.

It’s a tucked away place in Cooper Square, on 7th Street, dead-ended by another street that’s named for someone obscure. The place is on the bottom floor of a tenement building, and has been the subject for many a painting.

can you smell the history?

best vantage point in the back

The place is is begging to be photographed or captured in some way. I only got a shot on my cameraphone, but these historic pics add to the ambience that’s reeking from every crevice and cranny. Yes, there’s sawdust on the floor, but only a sprinkling. The best spot to hunker down is at the end of the bar, in the corner by the window, next to the pay phone behind the double door. That’s where we sat down, sharing a table with a guy reading a comic book.

First though, we ordered at the bar with no stools. I was dazed from trying to soak in my surroundings, so the other half (who’d been here plenty of times) got a dark. I squeaked, “What else you got?” Bartender said, “A light.” So that’s what I got. Easy. We’d been trudging the ‘hood trying to find this ramen place we’d been wanting to eat at, but to no avail. I wanted to eat something since I’m an alcohol super featherweight. There was a menu behind the bar:

feed me seymour

Except the one I saw said ‘lamb’ at the top. I love lamb, that gamey tang filling my nostrils is one of the best visceral odors on Earth. Some would say body odor lite, but I beg to differ. I asked the bartender if it was any good, and ordered it. By that time, we’d gotten our beer, each came in two small mugs (the origin of the term ‘double-fisting’?). I could barely finish one.

lite on left, dark in center

The other half likes the dark because it is really smooth and easy to drink. Actually it doesn’t taste like beer, at least the bitter aspect of it. This is coming from a wino connoiseur. I like the light because it does taste like beer, just very fresh and full of hops. It reminded me of brewery tours where the whole compound smells like the grain. You can’t get it out of your nose. Here, it was bitter at the front end, then finished sweet. It hits you each time you take a sip.

The decor of McSorley’s is awesome, just beat-down weathered dark wood, all the scratches and dents in full view. The walls are covered with photos, newsclippings and references to all things Irish. We ate our dinner sandwiched between Ole John McSorley and Lee Harvey Oswald. The other half especially liked the small certificate hanging next to the window: The New York Police Department has deemed these windows to have the proper dim out capabilities. We’re supposing this was during one of the wars. I like how there was a foot gap between the end of the wall and the window, so the tourists aren’t oogling right over you.

My lamb plate arrived, all messy, on one of those thick beige ceramic oval plates. The meat was sliced thin, like roast beef, with brown gravy on top. In a mug on the table was a really super spicy mustard, the kind that burns your nostril hairs. I spooned some on everything, to the other half’s dismay. Beside the lamb were halved boiled potatoes that were warmed up and caramelized on the cut side. To round out the plate were bright orange carrot coins cut on the bias and zucchini half moons. My fork tine was bent askew so it was hard to pick up the peas scattered underneath.

The plate looked reminiscent of Swanson’s Hungry-Man dinners I used to eat, but the taste of the meat was far better. The lamb was succulent, without the gravy, done to the right pinkish rare. I know what we’re making come Easter. The potatoes were solid while the veggies could’ve been better roasted rather than just blanched. It’s what you expect from Irish food, but just a bit more refined. I can’t wait to try the other dishes.

pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room, defunct

A place like this has got to have its quirks, and McSorley’s doesn’t disappoint. Many working there were young, all with a slight pleasant Irish accent. Hanging over near the end of the bar is a T-shaped chandelier. Every Thanksgiving, the folks hang a turkey wishbone astride it and let the dust gather. It’s been a long time since that tradition began:

dust bunnies unite

Adapted from Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson
4-pound leg of lamb
2 two-ounce cans anchovies
1 small bunch rosemary
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced lengthways into 3 pieces
6 tablespoons butter, softened
Black pepper
1 bottle McSorley’s beer, dark or light (or 1/2 bottle white wine)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 bunch watercress, to garnish

1. Preheat oven to 425°F. With a small sharp knife, make about 12 incisions 2 inches deep in the fleshy side of the lamb leg. Insert a piece of garlic, half an anchovy, and a small sprig of rosemary into each incision. Push all of them right in with your little finger. Cream the butter with any remaining anchovies and smear it all over the surface of the meat. Grind plenty of black pepper over it. Place lamb in a roasting pan; pour the beer around it. Tuck in any leftover sprigs of rosemary; pour lemon juice over. Place in oven; roast 15 minutes.

2. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F; roast lamb for an additional hour, or slightly more, depending on how well-done you like your meat. Baste from time to time with the winy juices. Take meat out of oven; let rest in a warm place at least 15 minutes before carving.

3. Meanwhile, taste the juices to see if any salt is necessary (the anchovies should take care of most of the salt needs). During roasting, the wine should have reduced somewhat and mingled with the lamb juices and anchovy butter to make a gravy. If it’s too thin, reduce it some more on the stovetop.

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