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Looking for Boxty

The quest for Irish cuisine in Memphis.

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"I always open the menu with trepidation," says Irish-American chef Margaret Johnson, author of six cookbooks on Irish cooking, including The Irish Pub Cookbook.

She's talking about Irish-themed restaurants. "[Even if] you put an 'o' on Buffalo chicken wings, I don't care how you slice it, they're still just Buffalo wings!"

Johnson, who traveled here as a guest chef when Memphis In May honored Ireland in 2005, explains, "A country that suffers through a famine never really gets the chance to develop a culinary legacy."

Things are changing, however. "In the 1990s," Johnson says, "Irish chefs realized they had to catch up with the times. Now, the economy there is the fastest-growing in Europe. Everything is ultramodern, and the food scene is undergoing a natural evolution."

Because of this evolution, Johnson says Irish pub owners could easily devise an all-Irish menu that would please 90 percent of their American customers.

"Every chef has a great potato recipe," Johnson says. "The boxty is a popular potato cake that can be made many different ways. Some people use leftover mashed potatoes. Others use cooked and grated potatoes, and others use raw potatoes so it looks like a latke."

Corned beef, she states emphatically, is not authentic Irish cuisine.

Memphians hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the culinary rainbow can go to Cooper-Young's Celtic Crossing or visit Dan McGuinness' East Memphis or Peabody Place locations, where menus featuring potato soups, fish sandwiches, and hearty rib-eyes aim for authenticity.

"We did a lot of research," says Dan McGuinness general manager Jody Clark. "We found a degreed chef who was born and raised in Ireland, Rita Burk, and retained her help for the initial recipes here."

Of Dan McGuinness' menu items, which include Scotch eggs, bangers and mash, cod battered in Harp lager, and beef tips marinated in Guinness stout, Clark notes that "a good 60 percent is true Irish cooking, while we've Americanized the other 40 percent. Our chef, Victor Banks, worked directly with Rita."

At Celtic Crossing, Amanda Naylor, an Irishwoman raised in London, heads the kitchen, baking soda bread fresh daily and churning out genuine Irish faves like boxty crepes, potato and leek soup, battered-and-fried cod with Galway tartar sauce, and the "Delicious Dublin Duo," which is shrimp wrapped in Irish bacon that is served with a tangy Guinness sauce.

"I make the soda bread in huge batches in about 15 minutes every morning," says Naylor, "and then it takes about two hours to bake. I don't get homesick, but I like the Irish breakfast. The bangers and rashers [sausage and bacon] definitely remind me of home."

Most Irish food, she says, is comparable to soul food because both are essentially country cooking.

"I think Irish cooking has a reputation for being very bland, but by mixing it with an American influence, I'm able to make it more exciting," she adds.

On St. Patrick's Day, Naylor expects to pull a long shift, serving up hot plates for her fellow countrymen and American celebrants alike. "I'll be here all day, coordinating the whole structure of the kitchen," she says, "making sure the food's going out quickly and hot."

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