2010-06-03 / Cuisine

Celtic Ray embodies authentic spirit and taste of Ireland

rogerDICKINSON cuisine@floridaweekly.com

The “Now Under Original Ownership” banner hangs on the front of the Celtic Ray, Punta Gorda’s sole Irish pub.

Kevin Doyle opened the Celtic Ray in 1997. He lost it after Hurricane Charley in 2004 and reclaimed ownership this year, so we stopped in to see its reincarnation.

Entering the Celtic Ray is like being transported to one of Ireland’s famous pubs. We were surrounded all things Irish from ceiling to floor. Irish folk music was playing. We seated ourselves close to the bar, the pub’s focal point.

There was no hostess, no wait staff, no menu. Max Doyle, the bartender and son of Kevin Doyle, directed us to chalkboard menus. True to Irish pub culture, the Celtic Ray’s food and beverage orders are placed at the bar.

Max asked what we wanted to drink. It was hard to choose from the United Nations of beers — on tap and bottled brews. Beer rules the day at the Ray. With more than 40 offerings. I chose a Guinness and my companion ordered a Hoegaarden Belgian white beer. Both draughts were 20 ounces ($4.50). I sampled sampled several different brews and discovered Kelkenny Irish Cream Ale is my new favorite beer.

Above: Fish and chips, featuring Icelandic cod fried in lager beer batter. Left: Hoegaarden Belgian white ale, 20 ounce. draught. Above: Fish and chips, featuring Icelandic cod fried in lager beer batter. Left: Hoegaarden Belgian white ale, 20 ounce. draught. As we sipped and discussed our food orders, we took in the laughter and bar chatter. There’s no TV in this pub. Mr. Doyle explained that TV is taboo in authentic Irish pubs and he would never have one at the Ray.

The Celtic Ray menu offered a handful of appetizers and entrees, a few sides and no specials. Food, it appears, ranks second to brew. Kevin proudly told us that all the dishes served at the Celtic Ray are based on vintage Irish recipes from the Doyle family.

Chef Tank enlightened us on the preparation of many dishes, which helped decide what to order. We started with the Scotch egg ($5), a hard-boiled egg wrapped in Irish sausage meat, coated with breadcrumbs and fried. Crunchy on the outside and tender in the middle, there’s not a drop of Scotch in this dish, but the sausage gave it a good kick.

ROGER DICKINSON/ COURTESY PHOTOS ROGER DICKINSON/ COURTESY PHOTOS Next, we shared a veggie pasty ($10) — puff-pastry-wrapped root vegetables in a light mustard curry sauce. (Though we thought the flavor was a bit mild, the Irish history of the pasty was rich. The authentic Irish pasty comes from dinnertime leftovers wrapped and baked in pastry dough and taken to work the next day.)

We finished our starters a bowl of leek and potato soup ($4), a creamy concoction infused with leeks and studded with chunks of potato. Each dish included coleslaw and dense, crispy homemade Irish soda bread.

I ordered a personal favorite, braised lamb shank ($13). The shank was substantial, well trimmed, and was served with a Newcastle ale gravy. Though it was flavorful, the meat might have seemed a bit dry if not for the gravy. My companion ordered the Breton chicken, a tender breast of chicken baked in puff pastry, served with a creamy rosemarychardonnay sauce.

Both entrees were served with Irish colcannon, a traditional Irish mash of potato, green cabbage and onions. I’d also recommend a side of Celtic Ray’s mushy peas, a traditional Irish dish that went well with all our food.

We had to try the specialty of the house, fish and chips. It lived up to its reputation: tender Icelandic cod dipped in lager beer batter and delicately fried, served with extra crispy fries made even better with a dash of malt vinegar.

For dessert, we ordered the Jameson bread pudding and the Dublin tart. The bread pudding was made with day-old soda bread, prunes, golden raisins and whiskey — interesting, but the tart was our favorite: a light, flavorful mélange of Cadbury chocolate pudding, homemade pie crust and Bailey’s Irish whipped cream.

The Celtic Ray is a fun alternative to the typical restaurant and entertainment scene. In fact, it offers free live entertainment and stand-up comedy several times a month. Charlotte County should celebrate having such an authentic Irish pub this side of the Big Pond.

Cheers! ¦

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