Hong Kong's Luck O' The Irish

Pining for an Irish meal? They do lean towards meat and potatoes, with two veg. And Delaney’s, the venerable Irish pub in the middle of Wan Chai’s beer-and-beaver district, can prove it. Delaney’s has reopened after a HK$2 million renovation that has lightened it up considerably, with newly polished wooden floors, more comfortable furniture, a painted ceiling, new air conditioning – and the same menu.

The establishment, which opened originally in 1994, is claimed by its Irish general manager, Noel Smith, to be the biggest outlet in Hong Kong for Guinness stout, along with Delaney’s.

Even walking by Delaney’s on a Friday night – especially if the US Navy is in town, or it’s St. Patrick’s Day, or Rugby 7s week – can be a daunting experience. Smith says it’s the number one bar in Hong Kong for sports, at least European ones, and he’s probably right. On an average Friday night, it is possible to cram 500 people into the place, two-fisted beer drinkers to the man, or, occasionally, to the woman.

It isn’t the bar, however, that draws attention. It is the restaurant upstairs, newly polished and fitted with comfortable chairs, and which can now seat 60 diners – or 500 drinkers. The ceilings have been raised, the battered old bar cleaned and polished. “We are making it more comfortable,” Smith says. “We don’t want to lose the charm. It’s the same atmosphere.”

It is also the only place we have discovered on Hong Kong Island where it is possible to get real corned beef. (There may be more, and people will probably inundate us with them. Don’t.) It is a comfortable atmosphere, with service that is practiced, informal and efficient. Prices, for Hong Kong, are reasonable, running from the hamburger at HK$76 up to the prime sirloin at HK$148. We like it because while it’s Irish, it isn’t stage Irish.

Corned beef isn’t Delaney’s most popular dish. That is usually fish and chips, or shepherd’s pie, or the roast beef carvery wagon. There are the classic pies – the beef and Guinness pie, made, Smith says, with a recipe that goes back to the 19th century. It is an extensive menu that also features such un-Irish dishes as a goat cheese and walnut salad, a plowman-sized hamburger that can include a fried egg, Reuben sandwiches and lots more.

None of those holds a candle to beer, of course, which, as Smith puts it, “pays our rent.”

For most Asians, corned beef comes in a can, which bears about as much resemblance to a real chunk of corned beef as vinegar does to wine. Delaney’s cures its own, which is a complicated and time-consuming process. And, while corned beef and cabbage are considered to be as Irish as clay pipes, it’s actually more popular in the United States than in Ireland.

That’s because until fairly recently, according to the US Department of Agriculture (how would THEY know?) Ireland was so poor that most rural people ate salted pork, boiled with potatoes and cabbage, rather than beef. Beef was reserved for the aristocracy.

And corn has nothing to do with corned beef. It’s called corned beef because it was once dry-cured and preserved with grains of salt big enough to be called corns. Today it’s brined, but they don’t call it brined beef. And Delaney’s has to be given high marks for curing their own. It requires garlic, paprika, pickling spices, ¾ of a cup of salt, saltpeter (actually potassium nitrate, and don’t believe all those Army tales that they put it in the stew to inhibit sexual appetites) and other ingredients. Mix them up, pour them over about 2 kilograms of beef brisket and immerse the brisket in two quarts of water in a crock and refrigerate it for at least three weeks – a long time to hold inventory to say the least. Stir it a couple of times.

Then, after it’s cured, a good corned beef is boiled until it’s close to being done, when the chef – more properly referred to as the cook, this not being a hoity-toity meal – throws in the potatoes and the cabbage long enough to get them cooked. It is truly a great, hearty meal, served as Delaney’s does with colcannon and Savoy cabbage, mustard and horseradish.

(Actually, at the risk of committing sacrilege, the Californian way of doing cabbage for your corned beef and cabbage, effete as it might seem to the average hearty cobber, makes it a lot tastier. Take a couple of onions, cut them into wedges and throw them into a pot. Take fresh cabbage, cut it into wedges as well, and prop it atop the onions. Plop in a knob of butter. Pour enough white wine into the pot to just about cover the onions and turn on high heat to get the wine boiling – not more than seven or eight minutes, so that the cabbage is still somewhere between tender and crispy.)

So there you go. You can go for the fish and chips or the roast beef, or even the smoked chicken and avocado salad (speaking of California), or the “O’Caesar salad,” served with streaky bacon. But we do recommend the corned beef without reserve if you want to stumble out of the scrum downstairs, which is considerable.

(If you’re in the mood for other Irish establishments, Delaney’s has another branch in Kowloon in the basement of the Mary Building, 71-77 Peking Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui., and the company also owns Dublin Jack in Lan Kwai Fong, which serves up as many as 50 brands of Irish and 100 kinds of Scottish whiskies).