Two of the better restaurants on the cluttered business district of Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon are small, regional chains. I’ve already mentioned Aladdin’s in my Neighborhood Quick Picks: Mt. Lebanon, but I left out Molly Brannigans, mostly due to length issues (each of those Neighborhood Quick Picks could list twice as many restaurants, but you have to draw the line somewhere), but also because I never really considered the restaurant worth making a special trip. I had been there a few times, mostly for dinner and drinks, once for lunch, and I had enjoyed my visit each time, but I still somehow wrote the place off.
But after our trip to Piper’s Pub, I was in the mood to reconsider.
First of all, in comparison to the tiny confines of Piper’s, Molly Brannigans is huge. To the left of the entrance is a mid-size seating area with windows looking out into the street. In the center, facing the bar area, is a seat area on a raised platform, about the same size as the window area. Walk past the bar and there’s even more seating in a large back room, complete with TV sets for your sports-viewing enjoyment.
The decor is pointedly more “Old World”-ish than Piper’s, stone and wood floors and deep green walls, notched wooden tables and chairs. Even wooden windows with brass latches. It’s a little cheesy, but pleasant all the same. Is that the kind of decor that I want in a frequently visited pub? Not really (I like it to be a bit darker, less sporty, and smaller), but it’s a nice place to sit for a while with a beer and a good dinner.
Right away, we liked our server, who called our attention to the daily special that was indeed, pretty special: imported drafts for $4 (which included my favorite half-Guinness/half hard cider) and featured appetizers for $5. We asked him some questions regarding the imported beers, some of the craft beers on tap, and the appetizers featured on the special, and he gave us enthused, informed responses to each question.
For the beers, I was in need of something light and crisp, and since the imports were on special, I got myself a draft of Stella. I think Stella is a perfect beer for when you don’t know how much you want to drink, you’re not sure what you’re going to eat, and you’re not sure what type of beer you want. It’s just generally pleasing, not too light, not too dark, and has a refreshing quality that other ales lack. Wes, on the other hand, got a draft recommendation from our server and proceeded to drink a 9.6% Victory Storm King, which was one of the best beers I’ve tasted in a long time. It’s got a kick, but it’s also subtly layered with flavor, none of it too bitter. I fell in love with this beer in one sip and spent the rest of the evening silently wishing that I had chosen differently. Wes seemed to enjoy it, and because of its high alcohol content, did not seem to need another beverage.
The menu at Molly Brannigans shares similarities with Piper’s Pub, but I think that they could learn a few lessons from each other. Piper’s has more traditional dishes that are hard to find in local pubs. MB’s, however, has fewer options, rendering what they do have more consistent. You’re going to get a quality dish at either place, but a tighter menu insures that you’re more likely to get that quality dish. Piper’s has a great array of options, but they could cut some of the less than stellar choices without losing a whole lot variation.
Weirdly, however, Wes and I went for food closely related to what we had at Piper’s, or at least, what was had by our group. Believing (rightly) that a Beef Shepherd’s Pie was worth another shot, Wes ordered the Molly Brannigans version, which came in a little ceramic casserole dish accompanied by four thick slices of soda bread and a neat pile of roasted vegetables (carrots, squash, etc). The Shepherd’s Pie was the traditional arrangement: beef and gravy mixture on the bottom, topped with mashed redskin potatoes and topped with cheese. It was sprinkled with paprika well-seasoned throughout, much of the flavor provided by, Wes surmised, by Bisto seasoning.
Look at that beautiful cross-section. Whereas the Piper’s version was a sloppy stew, this was well-crafted individual pie. I would have probably wanted a bit less cheese, but it didn’t interfere with the flavor. The beef layer was more present in this version than in the Piper’s version, whose only genuine negative factor, in Wes’s opinion, was a significant lack of beef. Here, the ingredients did equal duty, and were well helped by the vegetables and the soda bread, which was warm, slightly soft, and kind of sweet like sourdough.
I went a bit more conservative in both size of appetite and cost, choosing one of the five $5 appetizer options. I was torn between the loaded pub fries, which sounded like the perfect anti-yoga menu item for someone fresh out of yoga class, but opted instead for the unusual sounding Blarney Stones: bite-sized nuggets of deep-fried Reuben (remember that overloaded Reuben our dining companion had Piper’s? – Like I said, weirdly in sync. Maybe we are just getting too predictable.) accompanied by a Thousand Islands dipping sauce.
I normally stay away from red meat, but I make an occasional exception for novel menu ideas, and in this case, this item isn’t even a regular menu feature, just something they offer for their weekly special. I was worried that these would essentially be fried nuggets of corned beef, but I was pleasantly surprised by how flavorful these bites were. The braised cabbage and little flecks of corned beef were creamy, but the breading never got soggy, keeping its crunch until the last bite was swiftly devoured. Not something I would recommend eating every day, mind you, but as far as pub food, it was a definite success.
I had underestimated my appetite and was trying to stealthily steal pieces of Wes’s bread when I realized that this was a perfect time to order coffee and desert. The choices were limited: a chocolate chip chocolate cake (eh, I usually stay away from chocolate cake at restaurants – it’s never quite right), cheesecake (eh…), and an Apple Blossom, a warm apple dumpling with a little bit of cream on top. It was decent – warm, as promised, and the dumpling was soft and easy to cut into, but I just didn’t get much from the apple slices. They were tender, but didn’t have a whole lot of sweetness, not to mention how small the slices were. Aside from the dumpling crust, there wasn’t much to really bite into. You want the dumpling to have at least a little resistance, otherwise it’s like eating warm, sweet mush.
So it’s not a desert place – big surprise. Molly Brannigans merits a visit, especially if you’re looking for a taste of the British Isles in the South Hills. The standard pub food proved to be above-standard and the traditional fare was right on target. Combined with the terrific service we received (and a surprisingly lively atmosphere provided by a PUMP – sponsored Broomball team in for drinks before a game), we got just what we came for and more. An unexpected return on an unassuming visit.