There are two names to remember at J.A. Heneghan's Tavern. One is the late New York firefighter and battalion chief, U.S. Army veteran and patriarch for whom the spirited Irish-themed spot is named. And another is Nicole Roarke, the executive chef who makes it a dining destination.
The tavern is a busy, friendly spot, with very good beers on tap, TVs tuned to sports and an exposed-brick and stone look that warms up the bar. The brighter dining room on the other side of the fireplace is a comfortable space whether you're here in a snowstorm or on a summer night.
You should go anytime because of chef Roarke's refined take on pub cuisine, which expands to include some Italian and New American dishes. She comes to Point Lookout via the Loews Coronado Bay resort in San Diego and Spice Market restaurant in Manhattan.
Neither necessarily readies you for her first-class, New England-style clam chowder, with littlenecks, corn, red bliss potatoes and enough bacon to give it a slightly smoky personality. Roarke's bracing "French five onion" soup has a harvest of caramelized onions, toasted focaccia and a bipartisan lid of both Swiss cheese and mozzarella. The updated Caesar salad has bite plus sun-dried tomato. Unless there are specials, the openers are limited to soups and salads.
Roarke's stand-out main course is the thick, juicy Dijon mustard-crusted pork chop, set on a mound of colcannon, the traditional Irish union of mashed potatoes and cabbage. It's rivaled by the braised short ribs, set on saffron risotto, with charred tomato, carrot and pearl onion "ragout." The ribs are "Jameson braised." Keeping with the establishment's Gaelic quality, the crisp, satisfying fish-and-chips main course is "Guinness battered."
But Roarke's big catch is a colorful special of pan-roasted red snapper, crowned with a "caponata" of red beets, accented with Kalamata olives, capers, orange zest and basil orzo. Also notable: crab-crusted salmon, paired with a lemon risotto, asparagus and roasted red pepper coulis. Saffron-limoncello cream is a foil for the pan-seared tiger shrimp.
On the side, sample the sweet potato-and-pancetta hash, red cabbage slaw and the buttery mashed potatoes.
Just in case, the kitchen also offers a bacon-wrapped filet mignon, linguine with clam sauce, eggplant rollatine, and, for children, a hamburger, grilled cheese, "pasta & sauce" and macaroni-and-cheese.
The desserts are respectable but no more, from carrot cake and Amaretto cheesecake with sliced almonds to fruit tarts.
But J.A. Heneghan's already has made a name for itself.