Brazen Head Irish Pub
165 East Liberty Street
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and beer: $80
In the still-barren wasteland of culinary choices that is Liberty Village, a beacon has been lit. Yes, yes, there’s Thuet and Liberty Café, but there really isn’t a cozy place with a decent beer selection and a reasonable price tag that locals can call their local. Until now.
For months we’ve all been peering across the vast expanse of parking lot at the nearby Dominion, straining to see if there was any activity in the historic industrial building that is now home to the Brazen Head pub. Progress in the retail sector of Liberty Village is slow and plodding, and while the renovations started this past summer, the doors of Liberty’s first pub didn’t open until just a few weeks ago.
The space is quite breathtaking, with the poet’s pub and bar being a cozy low-ceilinged space that is best viewed from the upper level. Rumour has it that this upper level leads to a roof patio that will be put into use come spring. Follow a hostess along the recently-finished floor (the place is so new it still smells of paint and varnish) into the grand dining room, where huge windows are embellished with brown velvet curtains and a roaring fireplace warms the chilly air.
Also historical is the name itself; the Brazen Head being the first Irish public house, established in 1198. The Toronto pub’s website indicates that James Joyce wrote Ulysses at the original Brazen Head, but the Toronto pub has an even more interesting bit of history :
But in 2006, during the restoration of the building, a member of the construction team discovered what is thought to be an underground passage running from The Women’s Reformatory (now Lamport Stadium), under Brazen Head through to the waterfront near St. Lawrence Market.
You can’t beat a secret underground passageway for giving a place a built-in, cool and creepy sense of history.
Now, to be honest, we weren’t really expecting much from the food. FAB Concepts, the company that owns the Brazen Head and a number of other Irish-themed pubs around the city, certainly does have their concept in place (such as the policy of having female servers in all locations wearing short plaid kilts as part of their uniform – a tack that might earn the girls better tips, but is also very sexist). But the food at other locations in the chain, such as Mill Street Brew Pub, can be hit or miss. Surprisingly, though, the food at the Brazen Head mostly won us over.
The vegetable flatbread ($7) was a large loaf of hot and garlicky bread topped with spinach, sautéed onions, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese. Perfect for sharing, this was the beginning of a meal full of generous portions. The Dublin seafood duo ($10) was a couple of satisfying mouthfuls of bacon-wrapped scallops and prosciutto-wrapped shrimp on a bed of root vegetable straws. The shrimp were slightly overcooked with a touch more bounce than necessary, but the scallops were gorgeously soft and melted in the mouth. I was really impressed with the garnish on this dish, and such a fine cut of beets, sweet potatoes and parsnips is easy to both over- and under-cook. But these were neither soggy or burnt, and were delightfully crisp and salty.
For mains, the duo of beef pot pies ($13) remains indelible on our palates. Even writing and laying out this article had both Greg and I craving the things. While the beef in both was vaguely sinewy (as is the case with most cuts for braising), the golden fluffy pastry and the flavour pairings of traditional Stilton cheese and a more daring red currant – not to mention the sides of crisp snow peas and rosemary-studded mashed potatoes – made this dish a true winner.
This was less the case with the lobster pad thai ($15). As with all the dishes here, the portion was more than generous, and we calculated there must have been about half of a typical canner lobster in the dish. The problem was that the very sweet and delicate flavour of the lobster was overpowered by the peanut-based sauce. It just got lost. I’d prefer to have seen this dish made with the more traditional shrimp, and have the lobster put to better use in something where it can be the star.
Desserts are very reasonably priced at $6 each, and again, portion and presentation are obvious priorities in the kitchen. The chocolate pecan pie is pecans and chocolate chunks over a chocolate shortbread, with a chocolate ganache on top. We paired that with one of the many Irish whiskeys the Brazen Head offers, and I must say, while their single malt list isn’t the largest in the city, it’s quite comprehensive and extremely reasonable.
A week later we returned for brunch, and like many restaurants, this is where the Brazen Head’s weaknesses lie. The “famous” banana stuffed French toast ($9) was full of mushy, overcooked fruit that appeared to have seen better days. Brazen Benedict ($8) was two crisp potato pancakes, topped with smoked salmon, chipotle hollandaise, and poached eggs – and while the eggs were poached to that perfect state of oozing golden yolk, the whole thing seemed rather small and miserly. This dish came accompanied by a very pretty tossed salad of mixed greens and radicchio that was unfortunately doused in the distinctive flavour of cigarette-company-owned salad dressing in what we determined to be “Zesty Italian”. A side of baked beans ($1) also gave the impression of being canned.
Despite the less than stellar brunch, we were pleased with the food at the Brazen Head overall, particularly the dinner menu. With very reasonable prices, and hearty, generous portions of well-executed gastropub fare, this local is sure to become a quick favourite with everyone in the neighbourhood.