It already felt a little like St. Patrick’s Day during an early March visit to Irish House, chef Matt Murphy’s pub and family-friendly restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. Bartenders steadily drew pints of Guinness, patrons munched plates of fish and chips and corned beef sandwiches and singer-songwriter Ruby Ross strummed an acoustic set from a nook near the hearth.
In the kitchen however, the orders filtering down from chef to line cook veered away from the familiar Celtic script.
“Let’s get a salmon and the shepherd’s pie, both paleo,” Murphy called out to his crew in the remnants of a brogue from his native Dublin.
A thick slab of salmon sizzled in olive oil, soon to be plated with asparagus, a cabbage and carrot stir-fry and a drizzle of curry, while into a ceramic crock went the accustomed ground beef and vegetable mixture for shepherd’s pie, a flourless demi glace replacing the gravy and a layer of pureed parsnips replacing the usual potatoes. A few minutes later, two essentially Irish dishes arrived at the table, tailored for patrons keeping gluten-free or following a paleo diet, that increasingly popular regimen of high-protein, very-low-carb eating.
Across the Irish House menu, dishes are now designated as paleo and anti-inflammatory, gluten free or vegetarian, or they get asterisks if they can be modified to fit one of these modes. Murphy started working these changes into his routine last fall, and as Irish House revs up this week for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations he plans to introduce a new menu that’s been designed from the start for easy compatibility to different diets.
“We are making it just part of what we do,” said Murphy. “Like when you order a burger cooked medium well or mid-rare, now we check a box if it’s paleo or gluten free, too.”
There are more vegetarian restaurants in New Orleans now, while paleo or gluten free dishes are a natural fit at some restaurants (think steakhouses) and can be found or assembled at plenty of others. But what makes the Irish House stand out is how thoroughly Murphy has worked modern diet trends into his menu and the traditional Irish backdrop in which it’s set.
A restaurant built around a food culture known almost reflexively for meat and potatoes, thick gravy, beer and butter is now diligently catering to different diets that, through one combination or another, eschew all of those touchstones. Murphy, however, frames it in terms of Irish hospitality.
“Irish cooking started out with a pot slung over the fire, but everything evolves,” he said. “This is about being aware of different ways of eating and making people feel comfortable and welcome when they come through your door.”
Cooking for the new normal
The new approach called for some across-the-board changes in the kitchen, which replaced the corn oil for frying and the butter for sautéing with paleo-friendly olive oil. And there are switches available on a dish-by-dish basis — a hanger steak ordered paleo gets a dose of broth instead of gravy and the pureed parsnips can replace potatoes in many dishes.
Murphy said his gradual changes have led to a rise in business already, though the inspiration for the new menu started closer to home.
The chef and his wife, Alicia Murphy, have five young daughters — including quadruplets.
When one of them developed health problems that medication didn’t seem to help, Alicia eventually looked at her diet and developed an anti-inflammatory meal plan with no soy, gluten or dairy. The girl’s condition improved, and the Murphys determined that they could cater to others with similar dietary concerns and interests. Last year, Alicia opened Fare Food for Health on Magazine Street as a bakery and deli-style food store for paleo and anti-inflammatory diets.
Customers at Fare often expressed excitement for the new option, Murphy said, but also frequently vented their frustration with the choices they found at local restaurants.
“We got to thinking, ‘How many people are we not serving at our restaurant?’ ” he said. “Businesswise, it’s a smart decision. If you have 100 people in the place — and these days maybe 10 or 20 of them do these kinds of diets — if you can keep them coming back just by making some changes, that’s a huge increase in this business.”
Earlier, the restaurant developed a separate series of abbreviated menus for customers who requested gluten free or vegetarian alternatives. But this could lead to confusion in a busy kitchen — Which menu was that burger order coming from? — and Murphy felt the approach sent the wrong message.
“We weren’t making them feel welcome and comfortable,” he said. “We were making them order off the small menu. Why not just make it a normal part of what we do?”
Murphy said codifying these modern diet trends right into his regular menu makes life easier on his kitchen staff, taking the guesswork out of fielding special requests.
Still, regulars looking for the classics can get their bangers and mash or traditional Irish breakfast just as they did before.
And some dishes are immune to modification, like the fish and chips or the Reuben bridie, a sort of Scottish meat pie modeled on the popular deli sandwich.
“You can’t make something what it isn’t,” Murphy advised.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.