Monday, August 27, 2012

Going Downtown to Get My Irish Up

Fionn MacCool’s
2 Independent Drive
Jacksonville, FL

I like going “downtown”.

Every city should have one. A center of gravity. A sense of identity. A place to point to.

Downtown is where the business is done, where the pace is quicker, where the fun is at.

Maybe I read too many Batman comics as a kid. But the idea of exploring the vast side streets and alleyways of Gotham has a romantic appeal to me.

Of course, not every city has a downtown.

The largest city in Virginia, for example, has no downtown.

That’s because Virginia Beach isn’t really a city. It’s just a sprawling suburb of Norfolk, which has a population half the size of Virginia Beach.

Of course that wasn’t good enough for the Virginia Beach city fathers. They didn’t want to preside over a city with no “there” there.

So they spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to build a fake “downtown”.

I’m sorry. A couple taxpayer financed high rises next to some busy intersection does not a downtown make.

Some cities, like Norfolk, have figured this out. In 60 years Norfolk’s downtown has gone from thriving, to dead, to down right scary, back to happening – if not quite thriving again, thanks in part to simply kicking the bums off the park benches.

Other cities like Knoxville, Greenville and Indianapolis have nice resurrected downtowns too.

Then you have cities like Jacksonville.

Hardly anybody comes to downtown Jacksonville after 6pm unless they want to get mugged or score something illicit.

It’s a barren wasteland of parking lots and empty bank buildings, evacuated by weekday workers at the stroke of quitin’ time.

That means there are very few options for dinner and drinks.

I guess that’s how I ended up at Fionn MacCool's at “The Jacksonville Landing” – the city’s modest taxpayer financed attempt at urban renewal.

“The Landing” is one of those touristy places on the river stocked with places like the obligatory Hooters.

Hey, Suit757 likes Hooters (and hooters) as much as any other red blooded heterosexual male, but I was looking for something different.

The turnover at these types of taxpayer funded “festival marketplaces” tends to be pretty high. And sure enough, Fionn MacCool’s is a fairly recent addition to the Jacksonville skyline.

And they did a nice job with it.

The place has a huge rectangular bar set in the middle of the restaurant with lots of taps. And plenty of obligatory Irish paraphernalia and dark wood accents.

Fionn MacCool’s also sports two outdoor dining areas – one with a small stage for live music (non-Irish, of course) and another lined up along the Jacksonville Riverwalk with a spectacular view.

That view is what baffles me about why Jacksonville’s downtown isn’t more happening.

Sitting outside with the breezes coming off the St. John’s River with boats gliding by, cars rumbling over the lit-up Main Street Bridge and surrounded by Jaguar teal accented bank towers makes you realize the potential of this spot.

Jacksonville certainly LOOKS good.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long sitting out by the river before you realize the problem with this town.

Before I enjoyed my first sip of beer, some homeless dude reached over the railing toward my table and asked me for money.

I can’t even patronize a decent establishment downtown without being accosted by some bum?

Forget all the taxpayer subsidies. The city politicians need to solve THAT problem first.

It kind of takes away from the festive atmosphere and the view when you have to fend off hoards of drugged out bums hitting you up for money.

Especially after reading in the local paper that over half the downtown Jacksonville homeless population has contracted tuberculosis – a highly contagious and deadly disease. And that the city had tried to cover it up for a year to avoid panic in the streets.

As it turns out, there’s nothing to panic over. Nobody comes downtown anyway.

I moved back inside to a table by the bar to enjoy my beer in peace.

As a Suit of Irish decent, I always feel obligated while patronizing an Irish bar to at least start the evening off with an Irish beer.

Somehow, I feel like I’m turning my back on my homeland if I don’t.

The problem is that the “Irish Corporate Triumvirate”, as I call it, of Guinness, Harp and Smithwicks can become a bit monotonous.

One thing Suit757 doesn’t tolerate in his beer drinking is monotony.

Well, recently, the London-based (how’s that to get your Irish up?) alcohol conglomerate Diageo has added a fourth beer to its Irish Corporate Triumvirate. (I guess that makes it a quadumvirate?)

Kilkenny is an Irish cream ale that is nitrogenated like Guinness. That means it goes down silky smooth.

Five minutes later my pint glass was empty (how’d that happen?) and I was ready to move on from my Irish obligations and try one of Fionn MacCool’s good selection of local brews.

I’m happy to report that despite its blue collar/Southern Rock birthplace reputation, Jacksonville has not been left behind by the craft beer revolution. Several local breweries have popped up in the last few years here in the land of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Anheuser Busch.

The best of them is Intuition Ale Works, whose flagship People’s Pale Ale is a full-flavored repudiation of all those masses of Florida Bud Light and Yuengling drinkers.

But thanks to Fionn MacCool’s extensive beer selection, I had the option to sample some of Intuition’s more obscure offerings.

Like the light colored, but generously hopped I-10 India Pale Ale. Similar to the People’s Pale Ale, but with just a notch more hoppy flavor.

As a dead pig connoisseur, I couldn’t pass up Fionn MacCool’s sausage rolls as an appetizer. Bite sized chunks of savory sausage wrapped in mini croissants, the sausage rolls were tasty, especially dipped in the accompanying clear-your-sinuses horseradish sauce.

Dining at an Irish pub is always a risky proposition.

Let’s face it, we Irish might be known for our witty way with words and alcohol tolerance. But culinary creativity?

Uh, not so much.

But I rolled the dice on Fionn MacCool’s Irish boxty, a traditional Irish potato pancake stuffed with various meats and vegetables.

Think a potato-based Irish burrito.

As if to authenticate the Irishness of the dish, Fionn MacCool’s includes this little Irish folk rhyme on the menu:

“Boxty on the griddle, Boxty in the pan,
If you can't make a boxty, you’ll never get your man.”

I opted for the Ha’penny Bridge Boxty stuffed with corned beef and buttered cabbage, which sounds like the most traditionally Irish option, until you realize that nobody actually eats corned beef and cabbage in Ireland. That’s strictly an Irish-American creation.

But I don’t care who gets credit for its origins, this was one delicious dish.

It was bursting at the seams with delightfully fork tender corned beef. The cabbage was soft and buttery, perfectly complimented by the accompanying mustard-based cream sauce.

If anyone in Ireland could actually make food taste this good, none of us would have left in the first place.

A salad was supposed to come on the side.

Fortunately, I was able to talk my waitress into substituting a side of Fionn MacCool’s homemade macaroni and cheese.

(Suit757 has never voluntarily eaten a salad. Ever.)

Good call. The mac and cheese came out of the oven piping hot with lots of gooey cheese and even few pieces of Irish bacon thrown in for good measure.

Fionn MacCool’s brags that it is “An Irish Pub that doesn’t skimp on the Irish.”

That might be a bit of an exaggeration.

A true Irish pub would feature real Irish music.

But that’s probably asking too much for the home town of Ronnie Van Zant.

As I paid my tab and headed back out into the streets of downtown Jacksonville, I felt satisfied that I had finally found a decent place to eat and drink down along the St. John’s River.

As I walked under the Main Street Bridge and admired the truly spectacular view of the downtown skyline reflecting on the water, I thought to myself that more people should come down here.

I love downtown – it’s the heart of finance and industry, the center of activity, the hub of the city.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to my car three blocks away, I was accosted two more times by homeless beggars.

That’s how a few hundred people who refuse to join the productive segment of society can destroy the heart and soul of a city.

The political leaders of Jacksonville can pour as much taxpayer money down the drain as they want to on subsidized Hooters, but until they solve THAT problem, nobody else is going to share my enthusiasm for downtown.

Oh well. I guess that just means more Kilkenny and Irish boxties for me.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt.

Fionn MacCool's (Jacksonville Landing) on Urbanspoon

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