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The menu, created by the rugby-player-sized chef Jason Hill, may be the most significant change. Out are Romanelli standbys such as sliced pumpernickel bread, skimpy iceberg-lettuce salads and fried chicken livers served with melted butter. The previous restaurant's signature fried catfish, however, got a reprieve. I was stunned to see how many of the older clientele ordered it, obviously throwing fears of heart-clogging cholesterol to the wind. Emboldened by their courage, I wound up getting it, too.
Hill's menu seems more bistro in style than traditional pub fare. The appetizer list boasts the usual suspects, including calamari, buffalo wings and onion rings. There's also something called Irish Farmhouse fondue and a tempting flash-fried Brie, which I did long to sample (but it wasn't available fried on the night I wanted it, for some reason).
The nine entrée choices are more sophisticated than you might expect. Bob raved that the filet was beyond perfect: tender, juicy and covered with a decadent blue-cheese sauce. "And served with the most delicious potato au gratin," he said. Patrick was equally enthusiastic about that night's dinner special, a pan-roasted, center-cut pork chop with apple-and-fig stuffing. "It's very figgy and sweet," he said, "but really flavorful. And the broccoli that came with it is organic." Organic! There's a word that probably wasn't used much in the old Romanelli kitchen. But catfish was. I vaguely remember that the Romanelli servers offered to de-bone the fish for you, but our server just plopped my plate in front of me and vanished. She wasn't terribly attentive to any of us, but she had a vivacious personality, so we cut her some slack. My catfish dinner was neither the biggest nor the flakiest I've had in town (the Stroud's version is the best), but it's as good as the fish served at Romanelli and just as crunchy and greasy. Meanwhile, Yvette was somewhat disappointed by the beefy and stingy-portioned shepherd's pie she ordered, but she ate every bite.
The Gaf serves up solid, hearty comfort food, we agreed, but there are uncomfortable little kinks that the place still needs to work out, such as a caramelized sugar crust on a crème brûlée that wasn't just burnt but blackened. And speaking of kinks, why is there a giant clock on the northern wall that doesn't work?
Oh, well, the fireplace doesn't either. And I'm still reserving judgment on the service after enduring an incredibly snippy waiter the night I dined with my friend Julie. The food was really excellent that night; Julie loved the pan-roasted salmon perched on a bed of hot mashed potatoes and dripping with a fragrant garlic-rosemary butter sauce. I thought my meal a bowl of tortellini in a creamy Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce with bits of bacon and peas was luscious. The only disappointment was that the server made a couple of annoying mistakes, including charging me for the un-fried brie that we didn't order. What the hell a gaffe is a gaffe, and The Gaf is still getting its act together.
The positive news is that this new neighborhood pub has plenty of potential. The food is tasty and generally very comforting, the interior looks great and the prices won't have you going out mooching for an extra bob or two. That's Irish slang for hustling a little extra dough. But in any language, The Gaf is a place worth chatting about.