Brendan’s: Pub grub goes upscale


Voice-Tribune, May 10, 2006

It’s hard to believe that so many years have gone by so fast since I was a boy reporter for the old Voice-Jeffersonian back in the early 1970s. My beat included St. Matthews City Council, and this was no easy chore, as then-Mayor Bernard Bowling Sr. didn’t like the newspaper, an attitude that we reciprocated in full.

Bernie couldn’t keep us out of council meetings (although he would have liked to), but he ordered city officials and staff not to talk to “The Rag,” as he indelicately called us. This made reporting profoundly difficult, especially for a 20-something reporter without much investigative experience. But I had a secret, and 30-some years later, I guess it’s safe to let it out: A few of the city council members, kind gentlemen in their 70s who just weren’t as comfortable as their boss about the idea of being blatantly rude, would let me tag along when they went over to Maier’s Tavern to unwind with a few beers after meetings.

I picked up a lot of unprintable gossip this way, and enjoyed the beer and the fellowship; and if they never told me where the real bodies were buried or let me see the smoking gun, it probably doesn’t matter much at this late date.

But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Maier’s, an amiable, comfortable saloon that would have been as much at home in Germantown as old St. Matthews. So I was intrigued when I heard that the old place, which had borne the name Maier’s since the 1950s under several changes of ownership, was sporting a new name and a new look as Brendan’s Restaurant & Pub.

43 stars
Brendan’s Restaurant & Pub
3921 Shelbyville Road
(502) 895-1212

The new owners also have Flanagan’s and O’Shea’s, and they’ve reinvented the newly christened Brendan’s in much the same style as their popular properties on the Baxter Avenue strip: Call it an “upscale pub,” with a loud and happy and very well-stocked bar backed up by a restaurant that does pub grub very well indeed but goes beyond that to offer a taste of fine gourmet cookery as well.

They’ve completely renovated the old place and yet managed to retain much of the original cozy neighborhood-tavern feel. It seems larger and more spacious now, with an imposing wooden structure surrounding a large, square bar in the front of the room, a good-size dining area behind it, and an attractive enclosed patio at the rear making a pleasant place to dine al fresco when the weather is right. The walls are exposed old red brick, mostly, and save for a small section opened up by skylights, the atmosphere is dark, so dim in fact that it can be difficult for middle-aged eyes to make out the menu and bar lists. Many of the tables are high, furnished with a variety of heavy stools; the back half of the dining room offers regular-height tables of attractive undraped dark wood. There’s no separation between smoking and no-smoking areas, making the latter a bit of a joke when the bar is busy, as it usually is.

The bill of fare, as noted, begins with more-or-less traditional bar munchies but goes well beyond mere pub grub. Well over a dozen starters and salads are almost all $5.99 or $6.99, save for the magisterial sampler platter ($12.99), a meal in itself that includes crab cakes, shrimp won tons, crab dip, veggie quesadillas and dipping sauces, enough to feed the entire table.

There’s a good assortment of sandwiches ($5.99 to $9.99), and a selection of more ambitious main course dinners that includes such upscale offerings as salmon covered with sunflower seeds and served with a sweet basil pesto sauce ($9.99); a jerk chicken dinner ($10.99) and garlicky scampi over angel-hair pasta or seared peppercorn-crusted pork medallions, topping the menu at $14.99.

In keeping with its excellent bar, Brendan’s dramatically exceeds neighborhood tavern expectations with a fine, intelligently chosen wine list that features interesting international wines, virtually all $30 or less per bottle, priced at a flat $20 on Sunday through Wednesday evenings. Making one’s choice even more difficult, there’s also a very fine beer list, featuring some 40 bottled beers and 20 on tap, with many offbeat import and artisanal labels. (Unfortunately, quite a few of the beers listed weren’t currently available. They were also out of the salmon main course and some of the dessert offerings.)

I thought long and hard about trying the fancier dishes with wine, but ultimately gave a quiet toast to my old city council buddies by going the pub grub route with beer, albeit better beers than the mass-market labels we used to choose back in the day.

Our dinner began with a shared appetizer plate of rock shrimp wontons ($5.99). A half-dozen golden-brown spheres nearly the size of golf balls may well have been inspired by the Bristol’s famous green chile wontons, but they earn stature in their own right with a completely different treatment: They’re stuffed with a succulent mix of cream cheese and chopped rock shrimp, flavored with a hint of fresh ginger, with a teriyaki-style dipping sauce that gains authority from a dose of fiery serrano peppers. These went down fast, accompanied by pints of Harp Lager and an excellent BBC seasonal beer, Bourbon Barrel Stout, a dark, creamy brew with flavors of chocolate and just a hint of Kentucky’s finest, in an appropriately heavy beer that’s not overly sweet.

Both dinners were fine: Fish and chips ($9.99) were first-rate, two good-size cod fillets, crisply breaded with a malty beer batter and fried grease-free, served atop a pile of freshly made thick waffle fries. An accompanying crock of tartar-style sauce gained flavor interest from a dose of fresh dill. A Reuben sandwich ($7.99) was also fine if a bit non-traditional: It was served open-face on thick-sliced dark-brown pumpernickel bread, a generous portion of salty corned beef and a dab of crisp sauerkraut, topped with melted mild white cheese (Lorraine Swiss, the menu said). Pink Thousand Island dressing was served in a small cup on the side.

Both dishes came with choice of sides. Slaw was straightforward, fine-shredded cabbage with onion and carrot. A special side dish of the day, mashed red-skinned potatoes, was exceptional: Skin-on, coarsely “smashed,” enriched with cream and distinctly flavored with black pepper. No mere afterthought, it was a beautifully planned and executed dish that would have done justice to, say, the Oakroom.

There’s a good selection of desserts. We would have liked to try the cinnamon ice cream, but they were out of it, too. No question, Brendan’s has improved on Maier’s. I think the old City Council guys would have given it thumbs up, too.

ACCESSIBILITY: The entrances are beautifully accessible to wheelchair users. There’s no effective separation between smoking and non-smoking areas.