Dublin Down at Dublin 4
A tip for aspiring restaurateurs: When you open your restaurant, do it as though you mean it. Follow the example of Darren and Jean Coyle and what they did for Wineworks for Everyone and its recent addendum, Dublin 4, the Irish gastropub next door. Appoint your space with chic furniture from Pottery Barn. Add interesting lamps and tasteful wallpaper. Have private little vestibules and actual dining-room tables to make your restaurant feel like a sacred corner of your home. Finally, hire a capable chef. Give him some guiding parameters, but let him have free rein of the menu and the kitchen.
Yes, the location matters, but not as much as you'd think. Just look at where Wineworks for Everyone and Dublin 4 are located. Their building is next to a freeway offramp, from which cars whoosh by at 65 mph on a banked turn. Most motorists barely notice there's anything other than a Starbucks and a Subway there. But because the Coyles have everything in place and the restaurants resemble nothing else in town, customers still come in droves.
Prior to opening Wineworks for Everyone, the Coyles, immigrants from Ireland, raised a family in Mission Viejo, with Darren gaining some success as an executive in the corporate world. The two built Wineworks for Everyone to share a passion for wine with what's essentially their neighbors. But Dublin 4 is even more personal; it's named after the postal code for the neighborhood Darren grew up in, which, as with Beverly Hills 90210 and the 909, has a nuanced meaning behind it.
Unlike Tilted Kilt or Auld Dubliner, Dublin 4 isn't an exaggerated or forced caricature of an Irish pub, but rather a conscious attempt to create a cozy neighborhood bar that just happens to be owned by an actual Irishman. Indeed, it pours pints of Guinness and serves fish and chips, but the Coyles' chef, David Shofner, is ex-Montage and Laguna Beach's French 75, so there's also pan-roasted salmon with micro arugula and seared day-boat scallops with fresh pea ragout.
But as you look around, you realize most people don't go to Irish pubs to order things that don't sound Irish. They gravitate toward the cottage pie—a pea-studded, aged-ground-beef stew that's initially soupy, but grows steadily thicker as the baked mashed-potato mountain topping it sinks into the beefy liquid. They order bangers two ways: beer-braised alongside potato purée, or cut up and battered as though mini-corn dogs, with pickled onions and whole-grain mustard aioli. And, of course, they get the fish and chips, in which porous, deep-fried cocoons shed golden-brown crispness, revealing an interior core of Norwegian cod so moist it could be spooned up as pudding.
The fries deserve a paragraph of their own. They seem to melt once you breach the tenuously crunchy outer crust. They're also the perfect excuse to request a complimentary serving of Sir Kensington's Gourmet Scooping Ketchup, an off-the-shelf brand that comes in a custom-made top-hat thimble and has a complex flavor to rival Umami Burger's house tomato sauce.
You would expect there to be corned beef and cabbage somewhere, and there is—in the small plates section, where it exists as Chinese-style deep-fried egg rolls stuffed with little bits of both. Since the cabbage is actually sauerkraut, it's called a Reuben. But the best small plate is the pork belly, for which four domino-sized slices are served atop soft-stewed cannellini beans with a deseeded, roasted tomato included as a pork-fat antidote. If it ventures into well-charted gastropub territory, so does the flawless mac and cheese, which performs everything that's required of it—the cheese stretching out in fine spider webs, a crispy breadcrumb top, and a red-hot skillet that keeps it all fuming. Eat it with the excellent sautéed bitter greens to hit your palate's reset button. Or just have another sip of Guinness. The bar pours a total of 10 draft beers and offers more than 20 bottled ones, but Ireland's national brew is the only drink you need to counter all that's cheesy, fried and buttery. It also eases you into the house-churned Guinness ice cream served with a wiggly, chocolate-oozing lava cake.
But let's get back to Shofner. This is the man you'd have to hire away from the Coyles should you want to attempt to copy their success. Shofner is a kitchen dynamo, with the ability not only to execute these composed and steaming-fresh dishes scarcely minutes after they're ordered, but also to do so for both Dublin 4 and Wineworks for Everyone, two conjoined restaurants operating with two entirely distinct menus. For that feat, and for the Coyles' Dublin 4, another toast of Guinness!
This review appeared in print as "Dublin Down: Toast Ireland with a Guinness or two at Darren and Jean Coyle's Mission Viejo gastropub."
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