Aspen Times Weekly: Luck of the Irish at Finbarr’s | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Luck of the Irish at Finbarr’s

by Amanda Rae

When the 2014 Michelin guides to Europe were published recently, the Irish press reacted with pride: "The days of having to put up with dodgy pub food are at an end," boasted one headline. Nine restaurants on the Emerald Isle garnered Michelin stars, and an unprecedented 34 venues were featured in a separate guide to pubs there and in Great Britain.

Meanwhile, in Aspen: as bonafide sports bars could be seen as creeping toward leprechaun status, Finbarr's Irish Pub has been bustling almost nonstop since it opened two years ago, on Dec. 5.

"Certainly in Ireland, they've raised the bar on the gastropub," says owner Denis Finbarr O'Donovan, a County Cork native who moved here some 20 years ago and worked in Aspen's jewelry and fine-art industries. "We're pushing the envelope of what you'd expect food-wise from a pub, be it our football specials or our dining room menu."

One might not expect to find "globally influenced cuisine" at a joint that welcomes rabble-rousing, jersey-clad, pint-glass-clinking sports fans, but executive chef and general manager Joe Flamer's menu showcases just that: curry, poutine and pheasant cassoulet have mingled with fresh-baked soft pretzels to dip in Guinness-cheddar fondue, cod sliders and pulled pork-stuffed chile rellenos. Chicken wings are highlighted on game days, obviously, but the plate includes thighs, too, for a more satisfying snack. While chicken schnitzel, lamb shepherd's pie and fish 'n' chips are classic standbys, fruits of the earth abound as well: Greek flash-fried broccoli with caper-lemon aioli; kale salad with pears, Maytag blue cheese and fig vinaigrette; and a complex house-made veggie burger that slays even carnivorous appetites.

"If you can make vegetarians happy, you're doing something right," Flamer quips. "I want everything to be simple and flavorful — (no) fancy foams, just good, hearty food. You're gonna eat something awesome and walk out full."

Preparing to unveil Finbarr's new winter menu any day now, Flamer is especially excited about his sustainably sourced seafood creations: mussels nestled in a pool of creamy potato-bacon chowder, salmon with sweet pea risotto, and Dover sole over lemon-lobster mashed potatoes and lobster bisque.

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"It's elevated comfort food," O'Donovan says, "and reminds people of something they had once upon a time, in a different part of the world."

To use a phrase as washed up and watered down as "there's something for everyone" doesn't seem fair to Finbarr's, yet it's an apt description. On a recent Sunday afternoon, octogenarians sit alongside 20-somethings at the bar, families with young children dine at tables and chairs, and couples of all ages cozy up on leather couches before a crackling fire.

"There's no generation gap," O'Donovan marvels. "You don't know who your client base is going to be until you open the doors, but it's really become a locals' favorite." (He's not spitting hyperbole: Finbarr's has earned The Aspen Times Locals' Choice Award since it opened, in 2012 and 2013.)

Such mass appeal is thanks in part to Finbarr's design: O'Donovan and his wife, Kelly, who runs the Elliott Yeary Gallery upstairs, renovated the former nightclub space to showcase a massive, horseshoe-shaped bar, surrounded by high-top tables with clover-green-leather bar chairs and banquettes. Only a third of the room was reserved for dining tables.

"There's no backs-to-the-bar situation," O'Donovan explains. "We wanted the very essence to be a pub, a social gathering spot."

Thanks to nine widescreens — two added at the end of the summer in anticipation of football season — there isn't a bad seat in the house. "You're literally surrounded by high-definition TVs," O'Donovan says. LCDs and harsh lighting are all but synonymous with sports bars, but high-ceilings, stained glass, and soft lighting on whitewashed brick lend a warm glow; it's all too easy to forget you're underground.

"The very old pubs in Ireland, from the Victorian era, were elegant establishments," O'Donovan says, pointing to a sparkling fixture above us. "They had crystal chandeliers, so we emulate that."

The space is pleasantly devoid of cheeky ephemera. Instead, black-and-white photographs depict notable Dublin landmarks, which O'Donovan passed on his nine-mile bike ride to college: Grattan Bridge, the Mansion House, the city's windy coastline.

But perhaps the Irishman's biggest source of pride is draught beer. "We have the coldest beer in Aspen," O'Donovan says, and while my deadline prevented thorough scientific testing, I've been to enough bars to believe it. Finbarr's cutting-edge Chill-Rite system encases keg lines in glycol to keep brews at a constant 32 degrees, and pour with less foam than traditional taps. Beers don't change temperature from keg to glass, so their flavor isn't tainted.

Aside from Guinness — "right dead center, where God intended it to be," O'Donovan says (see "My Goodness, My Guinness," opposite page) — Finbarr's pours about a dozen brews, including Smithwicks, Pacifico, Blue Moon, Hofbräu, Miller High Life, and a monthly rotating tap, which currently features Aspen Brewing Company. Scotch and Irish whiskeys — Jameson, Powers, Bushmills, and Redbreast, plus Middleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey, from O'Donovan's homeland of County Cork — round out the standard liquor selection.

Because of its classy yet laid-back vibe, I often take friends visiting from out of town down the steps to Finbarr's. My favorite moment is the big reveal: we heave open the heavy wooden door, decorated with wrought-iron and tiny windows of green glass, and step into a space that isn't dark or littered with dusty tchotchkes as they anticipate. Rather, it's bright and welcoming, like being inside an oil-lamp.

As with everything else, O'Donovan considered the entrance carefully.

"It's a reproduction of a door in an old Protestant church in the village that my father was born in," O'Donovan says. He smirks. "Except in the church they didn't have whiskey-bottle stained glass."

An affinity for Irish pubs may be in Amanda Rae's blood: her ancestor was a stowaway on a ship bound for America during the Irish potato famine. amandaraewashere@gmail.com

My Goodness, My Guinness!

“In Ireland, you’d be tossed out of a pub if you were to interrupt the three-minute pour,” says Finbarr’s Irish Pub owner Denis Finbarr O’Donovan, referencing the stout’s slow-settling, cloudy swirl. “Over here, people are less interested in the pour than the flavor. That generation of patience isn’t there, to sit and watch the ritual.”

Some might argue that Guinness on the Emerald Isle tastes better than the U.S. import, but all beer sold in the U.K., Ireland and North America is brewed at the historic St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. Temperature, however, plays a role, and Finbarr’s cutting-edge Chill-Rite system keeps suds a frosty 32 degrees.

Still, O’Donovan can’t help but observe fellow Irish expats and service-industry folk to see their reaction after those first glorious sips.

“Invariably, its good,” he says. “The system supports Guinness very, very well. Kegs are drained efficiently, and the beer comes out cold and as pure as can be.” Sláinte!