What’s a gal to expect of an Irish saloon that, on its Facebook page, describes itself as a Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant and a Steakhouse? Sophisticated cuisine and high-quality cocktails at the Irish Rose Saloon in downtown Rockford digress strikingly from the dishes of potatoes, greasy meats and hearty stews one would commonly anticipate from such an establishment. Nonetheless, while traditional Celts may be rolling in their graves, new-age foodies are jigging up and down State Street.
To be fair, the Irish Rose Saloon’s interior immediately betrays the eatery of its true more-hip-than-kip nature. Twinkling string lights illuminate a haven of cozy booths and square four-seater tables, and a long wooden bar stretches down the dining room’s right-hand side. At the restaurant’s heart, an exposed brick wall supports the restaurant’s decorative and gastronomic centerpiece: an enormous chalk “Fresh Board.” Functioning dually as artwork and menu, the board lists a number of limited-time-only appetizer and entree specials that the chef promises have been sourced straight from the markets in downtown Chicago. Along the hand-lettered menu’s perimeter, a blonde Irish Faerie flies through a sprinkling of chalk dust stars.
On an evening in late December, I was glad to find parking at the Irish Rose Saloon incredibly easy and convenient; the public lot on State Street borders the Saloon’s exterior. The waiter seated my partner-in-chow boyfriend and me quickly upon us walking in the door, yet he was unhurried and patient with us as we mulled over the multiple drink menus. Choosing drinks at the Irish Rose Saloon is no easy task. Beer drinkers are faced with a full page of bottled beers to consider, plus the 8 that are available on draft. In the end, a Boddington (a traditional British Ale that, though colored like honey, tastes not nearly as sweet) satisfied any obligation we felt to “drink like Irishman” without necessitating that we power through heavy droughts of Guinness (which, for those more robust souls, was in fact available on draft).
The Irish Rose Saloon also offers a modest wine list and an entirely separate menu of signature craft cocktails and house-specialty shots. Some specialty drinks, like the Irish Coffee cocktail (made with Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, coffee, sugar and topped with whipped cream) and the Irish Car Bomb shot (a dizzying mix of Jameson, St. Brendan’s Irish Cream and Guinness) appear almost out of obvious onus. Others, like the Pina Colada, do not seem to fit the Irish bill so well. Walking the line between the traditional and the imaginative, the Nothing Too Fancy cocktail combines Bourbon, Bitters, Barritt’s Gingerbeer and lemon into a drink that tastes like iced tea’s boozier, spicier, life-of-the-party cousin.
Beyond a doubt, the copious beer and smooth whiskey help to bestow a wee bit ‘o rustic Irish flair unto an establishment that otherwise appears more within the aesthetic of the floral-print generation.
Whatever style the Irish Rose Saloon is going for, it certainly has nailed down a food menu that far exceeds country mutton.
Any vegetarian living in the midwest knows that Chicagoland loves its beef, and any person even slightly familiar with traditional Irish cuisine knows that the only thing Irishmen love more than their potatoes (other than, perhaps, their beer) is their meat. All of this would be fine excepting for the fact that today’s emerging population of foodies tend to choose lifestyles that hold health and sustainability in equal regards epicure alone.
Many of the so-termed “Pub Menu” items at the Irish Rose Saloon embrace flavors decidedly more Mediterranean than Irish in inspiration. Where there may have been potato skins and onion rings, the appetizer list is instead rife with healthier, vegetable-based selections such as the saporous Pesto Platter ($8.95) and the mouthwatering Wood Grilled Zucchini ($8.95).
In the way of bigger bites, most entrees run diners anywhere from $9-$15 and include a choice of a soup or a salad. Even in this most standard practice, the Irish Rose Saloon shines. Where they could attempt to slide by with serving a cheap and tasteless pre-chopped salad mix, like so many other restaurants do, the Irish Rose Saloon treats diners to a fresh bed of mixed greens finished with a modest portion of one of their artisanal dressings. In particular, the Creamy Basil dressing adds a sweet, herbaceous tang tasty enough to leave one actually craving more salad. By all means, eat up, but do not make the mistake of discounting what is to come next.
One of the restaurant’s three signature pastas, the Pesto Asparagus linguine ($12.95) is tossed in a light parmesan sauce that, before even hitting one’s tongue, egresses bold aromas of garlic and lemon. This dish is not for the feint of (flavorful) heart.
The Falafel Platter ($11.95) arrives to the table in artful deconstruction: a thick, golden patty of what could only be hand-pressed falafel sits slightly atop two square portions of sweet-salty saganaki (a Greek delicacy that essentially amounts to pan-fried bricks of cheese), and a refreshing cucumber-yogurt salad balances out the meal. The one regret? Since this dish is listed on the restaurant’s Fresh Board, it is, sadly, only available for a limited time.
All notions of luck aside, it seems as if the end of the proverbial gourmand rainbow may coincidentally be located at the corner of State and 3rd Streets.
Out of 10 pots o’ gold(en-fried chickpeas), even the most bladdered of floral print-wearing leprechauns would agree that the Irish Rose Saloon, for its exquisite eats, spirited drinks and comfortable climate, deserves every last nugget. 10/10.