Pizza is not usually the way to go in an Irish pub, but the bistro leanings pay off here with thin, crisp crust, and perfectly rendered toppings on a tricky shrimp pizza special ($10). Divide it up for an excellent appetizer.
Back on the Irish theme, bangers and mash ($11) was a classic mix of the stodgy sausages and okay (but not transcendent) mashed potatoes. The same potatoes weren't enough to absorb an excess of salt in the shepherd's pie ($14). It could be fixed the day the chef reads this review, as the mixture of chopped beef and lamb (I think) was otherwise in proper order.
Not feeling Irish? The classic burger ($9.50) is almost that, only bigger — maybe a pound before cooking, with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and those wonderful fries. A pastrami sandwich special ($9) was boiled pastrami, alas, but somewhat redeemed by the fact that the sandwich was grilled, like a Reuben.
There's a wisp of a wine list, not big enough to panic the regulars, but the real treats are on draft, such as a clean Guinness ($4.25) served in a Magners cider glass, which is about the same shape as the canonical Guinness pint.
Desserts include a chocolate cake ($7), an apple crisp ($7) that isn't crisp and is mostly ice cream, and chocolate-banana bread pudding ($7) that must be made from cake crumbs to get its homogenized, steamed pudding-like texture. It tastes like British Isles pudding.
Service on two early weeknight visits was everything one could ask for, but the place was nearly empty both nights. So we ate at a quiet bar, something nearly extinct in the hub of the universe. The loudest sound was the narration on a television tuned to sports. Fortunately, the owners hadn't read deeply enough into the bistro-ization manual to find out that the cool cats keep the sports on without sound.
The dûcor keeps the best of the old (tin ceiling) and adds modern bare brick, quarry tile, and dark-wood booths and chairs — always in good taste. Right now J.J. Foley's is an undiscovered bargain in the South End. If the recession keeps receding, there'll be lines out the door and the owners of real bistros will be sneaking in to steal the format. Ironically, the big portions and moderate prices are obvious, while the smidgeon of bistro DNA in the sauced corned beef and cabbage is apt to evade detection.
Robert Nadeau can be reached atRobtNadeau@aol.com.