Wednesday, February 13, 2013

P.J. O'Brien: The Most Charming Irish Pub in Town

Nestled away on the corner of Colborne Street and Leader lane, behind the King Edward Hotel in Toronto's historic St Lawrence Market neighbourhood is P.J. O’Brien, one of the most charming and authentic Irish pubs in town. With it's hardwood floors, copper top bar and white table linens, the handsome interior is trumped only by the old world charm and hospitality of Johnny, the pub's charismatic bartender. Always smartly dressed in black vest and tie, he keeps regulars topped up with premium tap lagers and ales like Guinness, Harp and Kilkenny, and makes everyone who walks in the door feel right at home.

Johnny, the friendly face behind the bar at P.J. O'Brien 

View from the dining room through to the sports bar 
where fans watch soccer every weekend

A regular weekend tradition, we've been coming to P.J. O'Brien for over 10 years, when Pat Quinn still held court every day, and could be found tottering down the street during the winter months decked out in a full-length brown mink, with matching Cossack-style fur hat, and accompanied by his loyal companion Guinness, an all-brown cockapoo. Not a Christmas went by without Pat Quinn buying us a drink on the house. Such random acts of kindness leave an impression. He was a lovely fellow with a heart of gold. 

A perfect pint of Guinness hand delivered by Johnny, P.J. O'Brien's 
charismatic white-jacketed bartender

What also keeps us coming back over the years, is P.J. O'Brien's traditional pub fare and Irish comfort food which are always reliable. Their melt-in-your-mouth Corned Beef and Cabbage is the biggest hit; old-fashioned Beef & Guiness Stew with with potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots and mushrooms is classic comfort food; and the Chicken Curry and Kilkenny Ale Fish & Chips with homemade lemon tartar sauce are hard to beat. Grilled Calamari Salad with baby greens, roasted bell peppers, olives, grape tomatoes, feta cheese and herb white wine vinaigrette are one of my low carb favourites, as well as their Classic Mussels Provencal with PEI mussels cooked in garlic, onions, celery, bell peppers, white wine and tomato basil sauce. P.J's also features a Daily Omelette, which they'll customize to your liking if you ask really nice.

A lovely chewy baguette and plate of butter arrive at the table with pints of Guinness

Ground Angus Steak Burger topped with blue cheese, mushrooms and 
sautéed onions served with Yukon fries

Corned Beef & Cabbage with mashed potato

Omelettes can custom ordered such as this one with mushroom, onion, spinach and broccoli

Beef and Guinness Stew with potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots and mushrooms

Grilled Calamari Salad  with baby greens, roasted bell peppers, olives, 
grape tomatoes, feta cheese and herb white wine vinaigrette

Featured on 'Restaurant Makeover' for the adjoining Pat Quinn Lounge, and chosen by the National Post as one of Canada’s best restaurants, P.J O’Brien’s continues to preserve the charm and Irish hospitality for which it's become renowned. They also feature a Saturday brunch menu with traditional favourites such as Eggs Benedict, Steak and Eggs and their full Irish Breakfast with eggs, homemade sausage, rashers of bacon, black pudding, baked beans and roast potatoes, as well as traditional Celtic music every Friday and Saturday night. A popular watering hole for the after work crowd, and with lineups around the block on St Paddy's Day, P.J. O'Briens is a touch of Ireland in downtown Toronto — and that's no Blarney.

Guinness Braised Lamb Shanks
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy Executive Chef Paul Pisa, Quinn's Steakhouse and Irish Bar

4 lamb shanks, each about 1 lb
Salt + ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 each: onion, leek, celery stalk, peeled carrot, all cut into 2-inch chunks
2 each: peeled garlic cloves, sprigs thyme, sprigs rosemary, bay leaves
8 whole black peppercorns
1 plum tomato, quartered
2 cups Guinness or other stout, at room temperature
2 cups chicken or beef stock

Season the lamb with salt and pepper. In large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Cook the lamb, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer the lamb to 4-inch deep casserole or baking dish — the meat should fit snuggly as possible. Drain off all but 2 tbsp of fat from the skillet, and add the onion, leek, celery, carrot and garlic. Raise the heat to high and cook, stirring often, until nicely browned, about 5 minutes. 

Add the vegetables to lamb along with thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, peppercorns and tomato and return the skillet to heat. Add the beer and stock, scraping up any brown bits. When the liquid is hot, pour it over lamb. Wrap the pan tightly with foil and bake in centre of preheated 325°F oven until the lamb is fork tender, about 2-1/2 to 3 hours. 

Carefully transfer the lamb shanks to a platter. Strain the braising liquid into medium saucepan, discarding the solids. Wash the braising dish and return the shanks to the dish. Bring liquid to boil over medium-high heat. Skim off fat that rises to surface. Reduce liquid until salt level is to your taste. Pour sauce over lamb. Cover and return to oven. Bake until hot, about 15 to 20 minutes. Chef Pisa pairs these lamb shanks with barley root vegetable risotto, but you could also serve them with buttery mashed potatoes, rice or creamy polenta.

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