What’s a critic to do with an uneven restaurant? It’s a tough call. I had a lovely meal at Mattie & Eddie’s Irish Bar & Restaurant, complete with an Irish server who repeatedly called me “sweetheart,” but only after a visit so abysmal that I considered finding somewhere else to try. After consulting with the rest of the Northern Virginia magazine team, I realized that all I can do is tell you what I experienced and let you make the call whether you want to eat there yet.
When I spoke to chef-owner Cathal Armstrong, he admitted that COVID has presented outsized challenges to him and his restaurant. “Staffing is a huge issue right now,” he said. “We’re pulling our hair out.” Of course, he’s not alone. It’s an unfortunate trend endemic to the restaurant business. But diners continue to spend their hard-earned dollars to eat out.
My introduction to Mattie & Eddie’s was less than auspicious. After being moved (at our request) to a booth from an off-balance high-top, it took a while for our server to arrive, despite the fact that we were among the only diners in the building. We ordered the cheese plate, an assemblage of Irish-crafted curds served with slices of bread dense with fruit and nuts, as well as chunky, spiced blueberry jam. When we asked the server to take us through what each was, he admitted that he didn’t know. That’s fine, but when at length he returned, he mumbled what might have been some information unintelligibly and was then on his way.
The kitchen team was not on its A-game that day either. Fish and chips were greasy outside and mealy within. The shepherd’s pie was even more disappointing. What arrived was more like a soup than a stew. What was described as “braised lamb shoulder” on the menu was in practice akin to a gamy version of a selection from Dinty Moore.
The most acceptable meal on that visit was the Irish breakfast, a collection of meats and carbs. It’s a bounteous plate–actually a pair of plates, as a small one filled with hearty bread and a dollop of Kerrygold butter comes on the side–crammed with everything from nicely seared bangers to appropriately spongey black-and-white puddings, all made by an Irish butcher in New York (Armstrong says that while it’s not legal to import pork from his homeland, this butcher has a product “close to what you get in Ireland”). Other elements were more of a bummer–scrambled eggs were flavorless and oddly granular. The meaty beans were palate-searingly sweet, while home fries tasted of a long wait before serving. We were eager to leave, but after a lengthy absence, we eventually had to get up to find the server in order to pay.
On my return visit a few days later, it was as if I’d entered a different restaurant. There was the changing of the guard in service that I mentioned, from largely missing in action to a warm welcome from an informed, friendly professional. The meal began with an interesting special, melon salad submerged into a zingy bowl of labneh (strained yogurt) and punctuated with fresh mint and crunchy hazelnuts. This was the kind of gastronomy I was expecting from Armstrong.
Armstrong is a Dublin native who has previously opened 10 restaurants, including his first in Ireland at the age of 19. His eleventh is in the spot in Arlington’s Westpost previously occupied by another Irish pub, Siné. Mattie & Eddie’s is named for Armstrong’s grandparents, adorably portrayed in the logo designed by the chef’s brother Gerald.
Armstrong’s talented hand again showed itself when I sank my teeth into the corned beef. The chef says that each brisket takes three weeks of preparation before it’s ready for diners. He adds that corned beef is more of an Irish-American food than an Irish one, owing to a fusion of influences that met in New York or Boston. His version certainly owes a debt to Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Lovers of a big slab of Bubbe’s brisket (and I don’t trust anyone who isn’t) will be delighted that the beef is presented unsliced and ready for a fork to pierce its supple layers. It’s covered in creamy, herbaceous parsley sauce and laid over a tangle of ethereally tender and buttery cabbage confit. I avoided the potatoes on the side with their crunchy centers.
And the fish and chips? I never tried Armstrong’s now-shuttered Eamonn’s, A Dublin Chipper in Alexandria, but I feel like I missed out if it was as solid as my second attempt at the same dish. The homemade fries were pleasantly crisp and well-salted, but the star was the very same haddock that had disappointed so bitterly on my first visit. Meaty and flaky and wrapped in a crisp, non-greasy jacket, it was the opposite of the previous trial. The difference? When he’s in the kitchen, Armstrong is religious about not only changing the oil nearly every day, but also making small batches of batter and keeping them on ice so they remain ideally cold. The dish comes with seven homemade sauces, including everything from fry sauce to my favorite, a slightly sweet curry. That’s not to mention the malt vinegar, brown sauce, and ketchup already on the table.
Our delightful server rightly encouraged us to sample some dessert–specifically the jam-filled doughnuts. Fried to order, they’re an ideal sequel to the fish and chips, and further evidence of the team’s acumen with a fryer when it’s on its toes. The three balloon-like balls of dough are rolled in sugar and filled with likably sweet-and-sour blackberry jam. The jam changes with the seasons, says the chef, because his staff makes it using whatever is fresh locally.
Pandemic times are tough for everyone, and I know that especially extends to restaurants’ abilities to hire capable help right now. “We have a long road to recovery ahead of us,” he says of the sometimes shaky start he’s had since opening last spring.
My heart is with all of them, but it’s my job to tell my readers about my reality, unvarnished. I have confidence that as the crisis abates, so will the uneven experiences like mine. I look forward to returning to Mattie & Eddie’s then.
1301 S. Joyce St., Arlington
See this: It’s an Irish pub and looks like precisely that; touches like a mural on one wall on the way to the bathrooms add a little bit of flair.
Eat this: Eamonn’s Fish & Chips, house-cured corned beef, doughnuts
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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