What do Irish food and Southern food have in common? “Comfort,” says Britt Shyrene.
While chatting with a manager at O’Faolain’s Irish Restaurant and Pub about the two distinct cuisines (she grew up, in part, in South Carolina; the manager is from Ireland) she says she “took something Irish and something Southern and mashed them together.” It’s the great American food tradition, really. Find inspiration from everywhere, throw it in the fryer and fancy it up.
That’s the formula for the chicken and boxty at O’Faolain’s. Boxty, a traditional Irish potato pancake, is updated with the makings of a savory batter (shredded potato, plus scallions, garlic, buttermilk, flour) and poured into a waffle maker. The waffle, thick and creamy, is especially good around the crispy edges where it escapes the whiskey-parsley sauce. The buttermilk fried chicken is crunchy and juicy. A more traditional boxty, laced with cabbage, is just as good and can be topped with the traditional corned beef.
But it’s the cheffy, cross-culture mashups in a suburban strip mall bar that bring intrigue to O’Faolain’s.
It’s lucky how things line up, like how a woman with Irish roots, who has worked in and out of the restaurant industry, returns to Virginia for a boy and ends up as the head chef at an Irish restaurant.
Shyrene has two Irish grandmothers, and the fiery red hair to match her ancestry.
She grew up in a restaurant family: when she was 3 years old her dad was a general manager at Sizzler (the brand since converted to Texas Roadhouse; he’s now a regional vice present of operations); her grandfather (father’s side) was the CEO of the grocery company Richfood; and her grandparents (mother’s side) owned a restaurant in downtown Charleston where she watched chefs try out for kitchen jobs in their home.
Shyrene was 14, it was the late ’90s, so naturally she saw a chef sear sesame-crusted tuna. She was awestruck. She taught herself how to decorate cakes. She was a host at her dad’s Texas Roadhouse, she waited tables, bartended, managed a Perkins at age 19.
Life happened. She moved to Florida. She was a volunteer firefighter in Ashburn. Became a mom of two. Left eight classes short of a dual culinary-and-pastry degree back in Indiana, where she also grew up. She moved back to Florida.
She started talking to someone she knew from her firefighting days. It felt good. It felt right. She moved back to Virginia. He was a regular at O’Faolain’s, and he knew the kitchen needed new talent. They’re now engaged. Shyrene is now the executive chef at the Sterling restaurant.
“We’re always going to keep the Irish food,” says Shyrene, 33, but she wants to bring in a more modern American sensibility. “I would love to elevate it more; more my style.”
The menu generally reads like any Irish pub in America, a mix of meaty and fried snacks crisscrossing the Atlantic: wings, Buffalo chicken dip, fries (they can come truffled), but also sausage rolls with imported Irish sausage, wrapped in a light, buttery pastry and sliced into two-bite fat disks, and Scotch eggs, rather one egg for $10, surrounded with multiple types of ground sausage, panko-breaded, fried and split into quarters. It lacks a little of the heft when splayed out like that, and the breading doesn’t really stick, but the mix of meat is still a treat.
Shyrene posts gorgeous, artfully decorated plates on her Facebook page. Lots of colors, delicate slices and swooshes, microgreens. She practices dishes at her home, experimenting earlier this year with red snapper in a matcha coconut cream, scented with lemongrass and chilies and finished with a dusting of beet powder.
Her most adventurous dish on the regular menu is a smoked brown sugar-crusted rib-eye that one night was cooked until the coating was a bitter and sticky-like tar. The steak was tough and chewy and a mound of braised red cabbage hosted an unseasonal mix of carrot coins, snap peas and broccoli. Better was the homey shepherd’s pie, seasoned ground beef (before Shyrene led the kitchen, she said they weren’t even adding salt and pepper to the meat), and topped with a crown of singed mashed potatoes.
The weekends are when Shyrene, who’s now been for there almost two years, takes some of her experiments to the restaurant’s tables. But it’s been slow for a sea change.
“It’s gonna be a James Beard business,” says Shyrene, hoping she can earn a nomination for the nation’s top restaurant prize. Still, she says, “there’s someone who’s gonna come here and only order tater tots.” // O’Faolain’s: 20921 Davenport Drive, Sterling; Open for lunch and dinner daily, and weekend brunch; Appetizers: $6-$12; Entrees: $11-$26
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