Feel a Draught?: Tigín opens an outpost in a Hampton Inn downtown? O'Really!

Feb 27, 2008 at 4:00 am
I've visited restaurants in some strange locations. I've logged probably thousands of miles driving through St. Louis' suburban sprawl, searching for strip-mall gems hidden amid the furniture outlets and swimming pool-supply stores. But for a truly incongruous dining experience, Tigín has 'em all beat.

Tigín is an Irish pub and restaurant. Its bar was taken from an actual pub in Ireland and reassembled on the ground floor of the Hampton Inn at Washington Avenue and Third Street, a few blocks southeast of the Edward Jones Dome.

Had events transpired as planned, I wouldn't even be reviewing Tigín. I'd be reviewing Fadó, a larger Irish pub and restaurant slated to open in the heart of the Central West End. Fadó is the flagship brand of a national chain based in Atlanta. The reported cost of its St. Louis build-out: $3 million. Tigín is part of the same chain. It's basically a stripped-down Fadó, the sort of place you can put into an airport (as the chain has in Dallas) or, well, a Hampton Inn.

Both Tigín and Fadó were due to open in St. Louis last year, but the Central West End location, just north of the intersection of Maryland and Euclid Avenues next door to Golden Grocer, remains empty. Fadó failed to garner approval from neighborhood residents and businesses as required by the city's excise commission. John Piccirillo, director of marketing for Fado, Inc., told me the chain has given up on that specific address but is still seeking a St. Louis location. He doesn't expect an opening before 2009.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

As the delay went on, my curiosity was piqued. Why does the Central West End fear Fadó? Football hooligans? Brawling Republicans and Loyalists? Grad students bitter they couldn't finish Finnegans Wake? U2 cover bands? If nothing else, a visit to Tigín might reveal what kind of threat to society Fadó might pose.

Tigín is Gaelic for "small cottage." The exterior of the St. Louis Tigín doesn't look like a cottage. It looks like a Hampton Inn. The interior doesn't look like a small cottage, either, though it comes a little closer. There is a large central room with the long, handsome bar and ornate bar taps. Smaller dining areas flank the bar on either side. The area on one side feels like your average nondescript pub; the one opposite features a fireplace and a separate, darker and more secluded room.

You seat yourself — at least I did on my visits — but I was never quite sure whether I was sitting in a non-smoking area. If this is a concern, you might want to ask a server. If you can find one. Service, though friendly, is very casual.

The décor captures the look of an Irish pub without overdoing it. There are many black-and-white photos of (I assume) Irish scenes. I could have done without the electronic sign at the bar counting down to St. Patrick's Day, but at least half the flat-screen TVs were playing European soccer matches rather than ESPN programming.

Guinness, Harp and Smithwick's are the only Irish beers on draft, and with a couple of exceptions (Boddingtons on draft and Duvel by the bottle), the beer list will disappoint those hoping for a pub with an emphasis on beer rather a generic pub-light atmosphere.

The number of not-particularly-Irish dishes on the menu is surprising. Appetizers include chicken tenders, sliders and wings. The latter two are flavored with Smithwick's and a Guinness-based barbecue sauce, respectively. But still.

Better to skip ahead to the part of the menu labeled "Traditional Fare": fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage and — a dish I love to order just to say it — bangers and mash. This is pork sausage served with mashed potatoes, and Tigín skimps on neither. You get five plump sausages arranged around a mound of mashed potatoes, the sausages, potatoes and gobs and gobs of green peas swimming in brown gravy.

The bangers had crisp skins that easily pulled away from the soft sausage. The flavor was mild. The potatoes were listed on the menu as "colcannon" mashed potatoes, which describes a dish made with cabbage or kale. (There are countless variations.) I didn't taste much besides mashed potatoes, but they were pretty good mashed potatoes. The gravy had the sweet flavor of roasted onions. It made for a hearty, comforting meal.

Then there are the boxties. The boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake. It doesn't much resemble a latke. It's about as thick as your average buttermilk pancake, but more chewy than fluffy. The texture is rather smooth.

Tigín offers three boxty entrées, each featuring the pancake wrapped around meat or seafood and vegetables. I opted for the "Trinity Steak Boxty": grilled steak, mushrooms and onion in a sauce with a strong and eventually overwhelming note of clove. Atop the boxty was a beige whiskey-garlic sauce that didn't taste strongly of either and was more or less lost once it mingled with the sauce inside.

A piece of counterintuitive advice: Don't order the fish and chips — at least not on a Friday during Lent. I'm not Catholic, so when I visited Tigín on a Lenten Friday and saw how many orders of fish and chips the servers were hustling out of the kitchen, I figured the dish might be popular based on merit, not convenience.

The fish is cod, two medium-size fillets in a jacket of golden-brown batter. These are served atop a pile of short, plump chips, with coleslaw, tartar sauce and a lemon wedge on the side. The chips were crisp and hot, the interiors soft but not mushy. But despite its appealing color, the batter on the fish was soft and doughy, with only a slight crispness to the exterior. The fillets needed more time in the fryer. The flaw highlighted the relative blandness of the cod itself.

Was the kitchen overwhelmed by the number of fish-and-chip orders that day? I hope so: If nothing else, an Irish pub should get fish and chips right. Then again, on an earlier visit, when the kitchen was absolutely slammed by the simultaneous arrival of dozens of conventioneers, it still managed to turn out a decent bacon cheeseburger.

There is a long list of sandwiches, more American than Irish: grilled chicken breast (again with the Guinness barbecue sauce), grilled salmon, a cheese steak. The bacon cheeseburger I ordered was excellent, the patty served between medium-rare and medium even though I didn't specify a temperature, the bacon slices thick, crisp and very flavorful.

Tigín's "signature" dish is the chicken boxty quesadilla. This consists of pepper jack cheese and grilled chicken between two boxties, with red chile aioli squirted atop each wedge. The boxties weren't especially crisp, so you couldn't pick up the wedges as you would with a quesadilla. The flavor of the cheese dominated: tangy, but not very distinctive. The aioli tasted like generic mayo more than anything else.

The mock-Irish boxty quesadilla is a dispiriting concession to American appetites, the sort of thing you'd find at Applebee's.

So what are residents of the Euclid Avenue corridor worried about? The Central West End already has an Applebee's.

Correction published 2/28/08: In the original version of this story, we erroneously stated that Fado, Inc. had targeted "the former Golden Grocers space" in the Central West End. In fact, the company had taken aim at a space next door to Golden Grocer, which once housed a restaurant operated by the grocery. Golden Grocer remains very much in business -- and continues to operate without the "s" we pointlessly tacked on to its name. The above version reflects this correction.

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