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J.J. Foley's Café

An old standby starts low and aims high
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 17, 2008

HEAVEN FORBID! The corned beef and cabbage at J.J. Foley’s has (gasp!) a sauce!

J.J. Foley’s Café | 617.728.9101 | 117 East Berkeley Street, Boston | Open Mon–Sat, 11 am–11 pm; and Sun, 10 am–10 pm | AE, DI, DC, MC, VI | Full Bar | No Valet Parking | Sidewalk-Level Access
J.J. Foley's Cafû, founded in 1909, has survived two world wars, Prohibition, and urban renewal. It's also survived the contraction of the Boston Herald, whose printers and writers were its more loyal patrons when it was a real drinking-man's bar — the kind of place that could live up to Oscar Wilde's joke that "Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

But can it survive bistro-ization?

The other J.J. Foley's, on Kingston Street, has made the transition nicely, but it didn't start so low nor aim so high. This fourth-generation Foley's on East Berkeley, however, has a new kitchen, a chef, and even a cuisine: Irish, although compromised with thin-crust pizza and standard pub grub.

Nevertheless, the most upscale item, and the most unusual, is corned beef and cabbage ($13). How on Earth could they fancy up that? Irish-American readers will cross themselves or reach for lucky shamrocks when I tell you that at J.J. Foley's Cafû the corned beef and cabbage has a sauce. It's a light white sauce with cumin and hot pepper in it. It works very well with lean, sliced corned beef, remarkably well with boiled cabbage (which can be watery and horrid when overdone), decently with carrot strips, and only begins to feel like overkill on heavily spiced potato slices.

Chowder ($6) is creamy, but not as strongly flavored with bacon as the menu suggests. My usual trick with chowder is to close my eyes and taste just the broth. There ought to be fish or clam flavor there; there often isn't. Instead, I tend to encounter a meat base; bacon gets into the broth too. Here we had pretty much just cream, however any spoonful with chopped clams or potatoes in it was fine.

The house salad ($7) and the grilled salmon salad ($12) both showcase another aspect of J.J. Foley's move to bistro cuisine: too much dressing. It's not a bad dressing, though, and the nice slice of salmon, perhaps a little overdone but crusty, makes the latter salad a light lunch or dinner. It was also dressed up with morsels of artichoke, red and white onion, and cherry tomato. For bar-food fans, a combination appetizer ($13) turned up typical versions of chicken wings, cheese-stuffed potato skins, mozzarella sticks, and such.

The real test of frying was fish and chips ($14), ordinarily not two things that can be fried at the same oil temperature. The British Isles versions — employed here — work because the heavy breading can survive the high oil temperature needed for good fried potatoes. At Foley's the fried potatoes are exemplary, full-flavored, steak-cut, skin-on, and semi-crisp. The fish our night was two filets of pollock, one of which tasted like it was getting on in fridge age. The large portion solved this problem: I simply ate the other, fresher filet. Cole slaw ($3 as a side dish) was unusually excellent. Perhaps it's made with a touch of curry powder?

Pizza is not usually the way to go in an Irish pub, but the bistro leanings pay off here with thin, crisp crust, and perfectly rendered toppings on a tricky shrimp pizza special ($10). Divide it up for an excellent appetizer.

Back on the Irish theme, bangers and mash ($11) was a classic mix of the stodgy sausages and okay (but not transcendent) mashed potatoes. The same potatoes weren't enough to absorb an excess of salt in the shepherd's pie ($14). It could be fixed the day the chef reads this review, as the mixture of chopped beef and lamb (I think) was otherwise in proper order.

Not feeling Irish? The classic burger ($9.50) is almost that, only bigger — maybe a pound before cooking, with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and those wonderful fries. A pastrami sandwich special ($9) was boiled pastrami, alas, but somewhat redeemed by the fact that the sandwich was grilled, like a Reuben.

There's a wisp of a wine list, not big enough to panic the regulars, but the real treats are on draft, such as a clean Guinness ($4.25) served in a Magners cider glass, which is about the same shape as the canonical Guinness pint.

Desserts include a chocolate cake ($7), an apple crisp ($7) that isn't crisp and is mostly ice cream, and chocolate-banana bread pudding ($7) that must be made from cake crumbs to get its homogenized, steamed pudding-like texture. It tastes like British Isles pudding.

Service on two early weeknight visits was everything one could ask for, but the place was nearly empty both nights. So we ate at a quiet bar, something nearly extinct in the hub of the universe. The loudest sound was the narration on a television tuned to sports. Fortunately, the owners hadn't read deeply enough into the bistro-ization manual to find out that the cool cats keep the sports on without sound.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , cabbage, corned beef, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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