Finnbar’s Pub, 452 Broadway, Troy, 326-3994. Serving 3-10 Mon-Thu, 3-11 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: gourmet Irish pub
Entrée price range: $6 (chicken goojons) to $14 (Irish stew)
Ambiance: classic Irish Pub
The degree of craziness depends on perspective. It’s crazy to put your savings into starting a restaurant. Restaurants fail reliably. But when you’ve been inside the business for 14 years, as was the case with Sean Costello as he worked his way through the ranks to become manager of Albany’s Hollywood Café, you have a sense of what works. So when he and his wife, Megan, heard about Troy’s shuttered Holmes & Watson, they saw the potential for an Irish pub.
It wasn’t easy (it never is). A year passed between their initial walk-through of the property and its opening in July 2012. But they’ve taken a downtown place that was on its uppers, cleaned it up, re-styled its approach to food and drink, and come up with a welcoming, comfortable, somewhat anomalous eatery.
That’s what led me to order the mac and cheese ($7.50), a dish in which I rarely find even ironic pleasure. Making pasta from scratch? That’s above and beyond. The cheddar cheese sauce is almost literally the icing on the cake.
Megan was a hairdresser before plunging into the business, and she and Sean have two small children (Finnbar is the name of their son). Perhaps that’s a good threshold from which to step into the madness of the foodservice biz. “It’s a little more than we expected,” she confesses with a laugh, but I found a place smoothly humming, with every course its own pleasant surprise.
No big architectural changes were wrought. You enter into the dark bar with the tin ceiling, beyond which are some dining areas. But there’s a nicely spruced-up patio that proved perfect for an early dinner, a big piece of blue sky over the box of the surrounding buildings.
Irish stew ($14) leads the menu’s entrée list, and when it promises braised leg of lamb, I believe it—because I had the cottage pie ($10), which is made from slow-roasted brisket. It’s an 18th-century name for shepherd’s pie, which was known as a fixture of bad Irish barrooms. But instead of a gummy compote of ground beef, this version floats the tastier meat in light stock with added peas. Given my expectations, it seemed paretically dietetic. Even the potatoes get special treatment here: they’re mashed, of course, but they’re laced with kale. It works.
Even if they call it “patty,” it’s a burger ($9), a half-pounder on a roll they bake. From scratch, like all of chef Daniel Cunningham’s fare. They cut the fries for the fish and chips ($14) and chicken goojons ($6) and appetizer portion of chips and cheese ($6) or shepherd fries ($8), so-named because of the stewed beef and lamb gravy that tops the potatoes.
A page of specials includes fanciful apps like lettuce wraps with smoked chicken, rice and pecans ($6), a $10 heirloom tomato salad with shaved cheese, an Irish potato pancake called boxti stuffed with chicken and onions and topped with a black bean sauce ($12), and a fried eggplant sandwich ($9) that my friend Peter sampled, which had all the cheese-rich goodness of a parmigiana, but with toast and caramelized onions—and a side of fries.
Sean seemed ubiquitous during the evening, checking on patio tables, working the tables inside. And he had a singular knack of making you feel that you’d made the best possible menu choices, yet your life wouldn’t be complete without a return visit to try the item you skipped.
Thus it was that I was talked into a portion of Cheesecake Machismo cheesecake for dessert, which is a lot to ask one’s body to reckon with after brisket and potatoes and mac and cheese.
Draft beer selections include Guinness and Harp, of course, along with Sierra Nevada, Smithwicks, and a couple of Sam Adamses. But they’ve found other NYS brews like Ithaca Flower Power, Lake Placid UBU Ale, Brooklyn Blast IPA, and the made-for-them Davidson’s “Finnbar’s” Red. But it’s a very wide-ranging menu that even gets as abstruse as Blue Point Blueberry Ale, Leinenkugel Lemon Shandy, and Angry Orchard Cider.
The building was itself a brewery (Stoil’s) in the early 1900s, somehow surviving through Prohibition. Later in the century it became “Eddie’s,” persisting into the early ’70s as one of the city’s last men’s bars.
Its previous incarnation was lengthy but showed evidence of decline in recent years, so it’s nice not only to have a pub here once more, but one that’s young and forward-thinking and full of promise.